As I write this, the far edges of the winter storms that have flagellated northern Europe and the western side of Italy are bringing persistent rain to Friuli. It seems warm with the daytime temperature being around 11°C. In the morning the dogs romped and played in the sodden fields in front of the house. Then they decided that it would be just great to come inside to sleep. Somehow, being the less dirty, Annie and Hector inveigled themselves inside and are snoring at my feet. Poor Rett and Fritz, tiny with their wet slicked down fur, are curled up miserably in the barn. So coming back to 2013 at La Faula …..
This year we had four volunteers. Todd and Matthew started off the season from May until July. In July the other volunteers, Jonas and Ida, arrived. Jonas has been coming to La Faula as a guest with his family since he was five years old. Last year, when he was 15 and on holiday here he said that in 2013 he would like to volunteer at La Faula following his 16th birthday in June. We said yes as it was the only correct thing to do but I was deeply concerned that it had real potential for disaster and creating ill feeling where before there had only been friendship. The way that we integrate volunteers into La Faula now is wholly the result of our experience with Matthew when he was first volunteering here. Prior to Matthew coming to La Faula that first time, volunteers helped out with the breakfast, prepared the salads, set the tables, served and helped with the washing up. Of our own volition we would never have asked or permitted a volunteer to actually do some cooking or take responsibility for a dinner course. But Matthew, who is very able, and very clear in his mind, had grown up watching Chefs like Gordon Ramsay on Saturday morning TV and he felt, very strongly, that he should be involved in the cooking while he was volunteering. In managing the volunteers there is a real skill involved between knowing when to say “no” and knowing when to let something proceed to see if something good or new can come of it. Often I feel placed between the devil and the deep blue sea! In that case I decided that given Matthew’s desire to be involved in the cooking we should try to proceed with it and see if we could formalise it so that we could manage the risk of something going wrong. Matthew decided that he wanted to make the focaccia that he made at home. His mum e-mailed the recipe over and I, who had never made a focaccia in my life, looked up our Italian recipe books to see how they were made here. From this beginning came the prototype of the standard format for Faula recipes that we use now. Using Matthew’s mum’s recipe and those from the Italian recipe books, I created a draft standard with the ingredients portioned per the number of adults dining, referring to the utensils in the Faula kitchen and with the cooking temperature and time adapted to the Faula oven which is very old and large and slow. My idea was to leave little to chance so that the whole process would be guided from start to finish and we could be sure of actually serving the focaccia in the evening at dinner.
Well Matthew went ahead and made the focaccia. Luckily he was a good home cook so he avoided obvious pitfalls and made the necessary adjustments to suite the recipe for larger numbers of people. That evening Matthew’s focaccia was the starter. With much fanfare it was removed from the oven and taken to the small serving table under the pergola. Steaming hot, the focaccia was cut by Matthew and served by Ruth the other volunteer at that time. I had no idea how the focaccia would be. It certainly looked good but as it was being served directly to the guests there wasn’t really the chance to taste it first. I watched with some trepidation as the guests tucked into the loaf. Then, Andrea, an English lady sitting with her husband and two kids turned around and said to Matthew: “finally some Italian cooking at La Faula”. We all laughed and realised that the experiment had been a success. And from that point on the volunteers were involved in the cooking of the dinner courses using standard recipes which are more like food preparation algorithms. But the process of integrating the volunteers in the dinner preparation has been a long one and has involved hours and hours of work honing and improving the”recipes” and the constant incorporation of feedback from the volunteers who have to use those “recipes”.
So I was really quite afraid as to whether Jonas would be able to integrate himself into the Faula system regarding the dinner preparation. For one thing the “recipes” are in English. They are not complicated but they are a fully comprehensive - thus dense - step-by-step manual of food preparation: you start at the first word and by the time that you get to the last you are serving 26 people under the Faula pergola! It is a challenge for those not used to working in English. And it requires a mature and responsible mind. Childish fooling around must have already given way to a serious capacity to dedicate oneself to the task at hand with the objective of completing it to a high level of perfection. Of course, not all adults are capable of this, but one assumes that maturity is a factor of age and that teenagers, lighter in years, are less likely to have attained the necessary maturity.
Jonas arrived on a Monday and the first week for him saw him swimming in a nightmare. The English of the Faula kitchen was fast and accented: Matthew from Glasgow, Todd and myself from New Zealand. Working out what was going on at dinnertime was a gigantic jigsaw puzzle but without time to work out how the pieces came together; one set of operations were completed and immediately another set started. Everyone was working fast and Jonas was trapped in a thicket of linguistic incomprehension. And then there were the “recipes”. To fully understand the “recipes” Jonas had to “get” the system that was operating. After the gentle pleasure of being welcomed to La Faula, a tidal wave of information, of ways of doing things, procedures and responsibilities broke upon him. Of course, I knew that if Jonas gained mastery of the situation and met the challenge it would be of inestimable value to him both in confidence and in English but it wasn’t a certain outcome.
By the time Jonas reached the first Saturday night he was still suffering deeply but he had just begun to make sense of the challenge facing him. He could see the outlines of how things worked and he began to be able to anticipate what he had to do and be proactive even if the whole experience was a heavy burden upon him. On Sunday dinner is not served at La Faula and Luca and myself and the volunteers go out for a pizza. After breakfast Jonas disappeared into his room. We all knew that the week had been really tough for him and wondered if he would stay or would choose to go home. At around 3.00 p.m. Jonas emerged and asked me what time he should be ready to go with us to eat the pizza. I was really thrilled!
Jonas had hit the wall and gone through it! And from then on there was no stopping him. He had got the hang of how things work at La Faula and he powered forward. During the first week his ear had attuned to the different types of English he was dealing with and his comprehension shot up. He could now place the recipes in context and see commonalities and similarities between them. His confidence and enthusiasm carried over in his dealings with the guests and he was liked and appreciated. His sense of humour emerged. He was a real character and he made the best desserts ever made at La Faula!
In July Ida the fourth volunteer arrived. Ida was a 22 year old Polish student who had had extensive work experience. Ida was what every business dreams of having. She was intelligent, focussed, grasped quickly what she had to do, did it and then asked you if you needed help. Ida was a real professional. There was nothing complicated about Ida. She was good company, easy to be with and just made life easy in the kitchen.
I intend to write again about each of the volunteers later in a bit more depth. The reason is that the volunteers have become really important to La Faula. But not all volunteers align themselves with La Faula. For some it is just a job and way to stay in Italy in the summer time. This year all the volunteers went that extra mile for us. They took what we are doing at La Faula and made it better. When they left La Faula, they left it a better place than it was when they arrived. Each one of Todd, Matthew, Jonas and Ida was different but each had a generosity of spirit and they gave of themselves to La Faula, and the guests and to myself and Luca.
TO BE CONTINUED
The photo of the day is of the last courier delivery of Christmas Eve when Franca of Wiesbaden’s Christmas package for Hector, Annie, Fritz and Rett arrived. Tomorrow they will open it under their Christmas tree (but it may take a day or two for the video to appear on the Home Page!).
2013 was probably the best year we have had at La Faula since arriving here in 1995. Financially, it was not the best because the very cold and wet spring impacted on the beginning of the Agriturismo season. But this year saw at La Faula a wonderful confluence of people and events that we were, with a security and confidence gained through experience and learning, able to savour and appreciate in the moment. It was so good that every day was a special gift; we didn’t live for the tomorrow but lived in the day. It is hard to believe that something so good is likely to be repeated.
The elements that make up La Faula during the Agriturismo season are the place, the volunteers, the guests, the dogs and Luca and myself. At the beginning of the season it seemed like the year was progressing much as any other. The chill dark of winter gave way to warmer and longer days. After a period of preparation, the Agriturismo opened and received its first guests. Warm weather arrived and spring seemed to have begun. This was our 16th year with the Agriturismo so we slipped into an easy routine. But then it began to rain. And it became and stayed cold. It seemed that it rained every day until the beginning of June. It rained so persistently that it seemed, eventually, that it must rain for all the year. We lost the ability to imagine sunny, bright spring days. Now, of course, we know that we are not responsible for the weather. But we also know that people come on holiday to Italy looking for a warm mediterranean climate. It became a burden to come in to prepare breakfast, hearing the sound of raindrops on the vines of the pergola, the breakfast room seemingly lit against the darkness of the night when, in fact, it was only the darkness of the pergola under unremittingly gray clouds. I felt for the guests and I suffered.
But there was a point of light in all this. And this was Todd. Todd was our first volunteer of the season. And he arrived in May when summer seemed as if were going to be but a chimera. Todd came from New Zealand. He was in his late 20’s and so had work experience. He had decided to have his bit of time overseas before he got too old and through a mutual friend arrived at La Faula. Todd was an all-in-all enthusiastic, friendly, open, decent and jolly character. He was, of course, somewhat surprised to find that the Italy of his imagination, an idyllic summer paradise, was actually rain sodden, very lush and very green, rather like the tropical forests in the North of New Zealand but considerably chillier! But nothing held Todd back. His enthusiasm and enjoyment in being with the guests warmed the atmosphere and melted our defensive diffidence that had grown along with the appalling weather. And the guests too pitched-in and made something fun out of something that could have been a disappointment. Kids played games together in the dining room, they ran and played outside with the dogs until numerous bedroom windows overlooking the field in front of the house were thrown open and children, washed by the rain, were sternly ordered inside. And when they didn’t come in, barefoot half-dressed mums and dads raced out under driving sheets of rain to get them inside. And dinner times were fun, with everyone together in the not so large dining room, and drinking and talking together. There was warmth even though outside it was cold.
Working in the kitchen was very cosy. Todd quickly understood the mechanism of the La Faula dinners and derived real pleasure from serving great dishes to the guests. It seemed as if an angel had come to help us and so the beginning of the season, instead of being unremittingly dark became something cosy and enjoyable. We knew that it was good and counted our lucky stars!
Then, in June, the rain stopped. And it became sunny and warm and wonderful. And it stayed that way until October. And when the local farmers complained about the drought we didn’t give a fig. We had paid with our psyche for the wet spring. And now we accepted every sun drenched day under blue skies as our right! We derived pleasure from the Canadair water bomber that passed regularly over La Faula on its way to the sea to skim up water to fight the extensive forest fires that had broken out in the Alps and which were fanned by the strong hot Fohn winds of this summer. But those winds, gently persistent breezes when they licked La Faula, raised in the spirit some ancient but undefined memory of the pull that always brings mankind to the warmth. It was Italy as Italy should be in the summer. And in June Matthew arrived.
Matthew was our second volunteer of the year. Matthew was coming to volunteer at La Faula for the third time and he had been twice previously as a guest. Matthew added to the richness at La Faula. Open and friendly, Matthew was the very volunteer who those years ago had insisted that he would not be limited to washing dishes and preparing salads but would also cook. From Matthew’s first focaccia came the systems that we use in the La Faula kitchen today and the recipes that form the basis of the meals that we prepare. We owe a lot to Matthew. Matthew jealously guards his culinary expertise and he fine tunes his recipes until he gets them perfect. A course over, when the plates are brought back to the kitchen he watches like a hawk and if a plate comes back with food on it demands of the server to know who it was that didn’t finish the course and why! From my point of view to have someone in the kitchen that is so focussed on getting the dishes exactly right is of inestimable worth. Of course, the actual fine tuning remains Matthew’s secret but the basis is there and watching Matthew I try to pick up what I can to import that into the recipe’s structure!
With Todd and Matthew, and the summer, and the guests, friendly and accommodating, and the dogs and the kids and the space, the time rolled on, effortlessly and with its own momentum. I knew it was good, and I savoured it, day by day.
And the atmosphere flowed into Luca and Maritza, our cleaning lady, and this year, although they both worked hard, very hard, they enjoyed it and it was satisfying and fulfilling and not debilitating. It was the generosity of spirit of Todd and Matthew, the dogs and the guests and La Faula itself, for welcoming spirit it has, that came together to create at that place and in that point of time a small world in which all was more or less perfect.
TO BE CONTINUED!
Last Friday, we finally received the price quotation from the window maker. Now, I wrote previously that we particularly want this window maker to make the two new windows for the mezzanine floor of Room 2 as he had previously made all the new windows when we previously renovated La Faula in 1999 and we have been very impressed by the quality and endurance of the windows in the subsequent thirteen years. However, there were for sure going to be some delays in having the windows made as he was running fast to have all existing orders for windows completed, the windows mounted, invoiced and paid for by the end of the year otherwise they wouldn’t qualify for a 55% tax deduction under one set of Italian anti-austerity laws. So we anticipated delay, but what we didn’t anticipate was the price quoted to make and mount the windows. I can tell you that the price took our breath away! It seemed that the only thing to do was to ask Paola our Architect to contact the window maker and seek a discount. I anticipated some success with this approach as our architects, since the renovation of La Faula in 1999, had often used this particular window maker to provide windows for their projects. Normally, in Italy, approaches based on shared experiences and interests bring good results but the window maker’s response to Paola’s request for more reasonable prices was instructive in illustrating the key role that the Italian State has in wrecking the Italian economy.
Paola called me up and said that she had spoken to the windowmaker who was prepared only to offer “un scontocino” (a mini-discount). She explained further that on the one hand the windowmaker was full of work not only because he was making windows made that qualified for the 55% tax deduction for private citizens improving their houses but also because he was making windows for projects such as new Agriturismi and diffused-hotels funded by the European Community. Paola explained to me that the reality was that these factors had the effect of sustaining prices. But Paola also said that when she spoke to the windowmaker he had explained to her that his costs were very high, which they are. In Italy raw materials, labour and energy are incredibly expensive. So if the order was for a complete set of windows and doors for a new house, he had economies of scale which allowed him to offer better prices. But in our case, the two windows would be bespoke, they couldn’t be made in series, the machinery would have to be reset and their production would be more labour intensive. Finally, for the mounting of them, he would have to send his installers down to Ravosa from the Carnic Alps and this would cost him more. The windowmaker told Paola that as a sign of good faith he would offer a “sconticino” or mini-discount but that he couldn’t do more than that.
I told Paola to go ahead and accept the new offer when it arrived. The reality was that this is a reality that you have to face if you do business in Italy. I fully understood the position of the windowmaker because we, at La Faula, do the same. We don’t under any circumstances take guests for one or two night stays. The costs of short stays are just too high to justify them. The costs of cleaning and remaking rooms and of washing and drying the towels and linen not to mention the very real wear and tear inflicted by people who don’t anticipate having to stay long in a room make it economically unjustifiable at Agriturismo prices. Of course, we also prefer longer stays because La Faula is our home and we like to have guests who stay longer and get to know the place and enjoy it, something which is all but impossible for one just passing through. But Maritza, our cleaning lady, costs us a fortune in social security contributions, our electricity is at business prices and we pay the highest prices in Europe for it after Cyprus (40% more than the average). Water is expensive as we now have to pay for years of under-investment which left the public water supply in a bad state and the water companies are standard Italian public bodies, bereft of competition, inefficient and featherbedded. And finally we are hit by the myriad taxes: those that we pay directly and those that we pay indirectly because they are paid by our suppliers and increase the cost of our inputs.
When it all boiled down to it, we have begun the works on Rooms 1 & 2 and what matters most is that they are done well using good quality materials that will pass the test of time. But we know that the relationship between what we must spend and what that expenditure will earn is completely unbalanced. We are paying Rolls Royce prices for an Audi product, which is not bad in the sense that you have something of quality that is pleasurable but it is not in any way sustainable. Currently, in Italy we are being subjected to an intense propaganda campaign on the part of the Government that the economy has turned the corner and that growth has returned and we will all see its effects any time now. The Prime Minister and Economics Minister exhort us just to be patient and we can be sure that economic growth is diffusing among us currently as we carry on our daily activity. This might be true. At some point the contraction of the economy had to stop or within a short time we, in Italy, would all be running around wearing animal skins and carrying clubs. But it beggars belief that an economy in which new business investment is so expensive (unless funded by the European Community!) and in which prices are stuck by the fact of producers paying excessive taxes, can result in an economy capable of delivering sustained growth and improved living standards. In fact, what we are experiencing is the death grip of a drowning system which grabs at any value produced by the private sector to feed its desperate need for economic oxygen. Italy, not operating a communist system but one of generational exploitation, has always prioritised consumption over production. The generation born just before, during or shortly after the Second World War always consumed more than it produced, even when its members were active in the economy. Avid and ravenous also in retirement and represented by the political system that they maintained, they now demand that not only do we support them but that we also pay down the debts that they wracked up. They’ll be lucky!
When we decided to remake Rooms 1 & 2, Luca wondered if it was worth getting in our architects for what seemed to be a very simple remodelling. He wondered if it would not be enough just to call in a draftsman to do the designs and manage the plans and planning permission. I remembered that when we had moved into La Faula we had made a number of internal changes oblivious to the bureaucratic formalities. My reasoning at the time was that if we used local tradesmen, in particular those who had done jobs at La Faula from time to time, we could be sure of having the works done in the style and manner appropriate for a house such as ours. In fact, it did turn out to be the case that the changes that we made at the beginning and before we embarked upon the major restoration, were wholly in sympathy with the style of La Faula and so we avoided any obvious eyesores!
But since my naive arrival in Italy, I have learnt that there are many sharks in the sea and tigers in the woods so the assistance of a proven guide was to be preferred. I reasoned that even if the job seemed very simple there were probably enough unknown unknowns and known unknowns to stick with a proven professional such as Paola the Architect.
When we saw the designs that Paola prepared, we saw that she had, for the two new windows, departed from the existing style of the house. Into the external wall of the Room 2 mezzanine floor would be opened two large and long arched windows. Now, arched windows are no novelty in Italy, but in our part of Friuli arched windows are rare with the traditional layout being that the top floor of the house, being the granary, would have small windows under the eaves sufficient to allow the passage of air to keep the grain dry but not any larger than necessary. When I saw the windows on the design, long and arched, I knew that they were out of the predominant style of the house, and I knew that no draftsman would ever have put them in. But I also knew that we had hired Paola for her “eye” and ability through intelligence and creativity to bring forth a beauty that would not only be pleasing to the guests who would be using the room but which would enhance the pleasure of the house on the eye. Personally, I couldn’t imagine how the windows could aesthetically fit with the house but my lack of architectural imagination meant that I had to take Paola’s insight on trust.
Here in Ravosa-magredis, they say that if you have Gregorio as your stonemason you don’t need an architect. Gregorio’s father was a stonemason, as were his uncles. Gregorio has only ever worked as a stonemason and in his head he carries all the knowhow of centuries of building in the Friulano way. But he also went to school and studied building science so he knows the science and theory behind what his forebears and years of experience have taught him. To have Gregorio work for you is a lucky stroke. He is intelligent, precise and knows the Friulano farmhouse inside out. And Gregorio was completely against the arched windows, not to mention architects. As Gregorio told me, if you go to the Doctor’s and don’t behave yourself, the doctor will make you pay with horrible injections. If you don’t show respect to an Architect they’ll make you pay by making you redo all sorts of difficult things. But he just wasn’t having any of these arched windows. Now, as I wrote previously, I was also Gregorio’s labourer so I wasn’t in a great position to assert myself while I was being sent up and down the stairs taking rubble down and bringing concrete and mortar up! For me it was important that Gregorio not only make the window holes as Paola the Architect wanted, but that he do it with positivity and not in a begrudging way.
So Gregorio and I looked at the designs, walked outside and looked at the house up close then further away.
“No, arched windows just won’t look right” Gregorio said.
“They’ll look like eyebrows”
“And look, all the other top floor windows are small and tucked under the eaves. How can we have these long windows reaching all the way to the floor. And in any case you can’t have windows that reach all the way to the floor”
I persevered. I recounted all the buildings within a couple of kilometers of us that had arched structures. Luckily, since I had seen the designs I had been particularly alert for arched structures in the old farm buildings in the villages near us. It was true that over time, individual stonemasons had incorporated arched windows into farm buildings, mainly barns, but it was enough to prove that the arch was not an un-Friulano invention of our architect, Paola. Having established this fact, the main question was the height of the windows.
“The top windows have to be smaller than the windows on the floors below” said Gregorio.
“You can’t have two great long windows at the top of the house”
Now, Paola had left us designs showing the windows should be 180cm high. I knew that getting the window holes of this height was going to be a struggle. When it came time to make the window holes, Gregorio was on the scaffolding on the outside with the jackhammer. Much to Gregorio’s pleasure, we had discovered that the external wall at the height we were working was made of brick and not stone so making the holes was to be relatively easy. I was inside and as Gregorio vibrated the bricks out of the wall with the jackhammer, I would immediately grab them as they came free and put them in a pile next to me.
“Is this enough” Gregorio would ask me after every layer of bricks had been removed.
“No, no. The hole is too small” I would reply and Gregorio would remove another layer of brick. From the inside I could see where the apex of the arch should be and could see that getting there was going to be a struggle.
I decided to encourage him.
“Look Gregorio” I said
“I read a review on Trip Adviser where some guests had reviewed an Agriturismo badly because they were on the top floor and the windows were too small to let in light and air. They had even put photos of the tiny windows on the review”.
Gregorio has never seen a computer up close so there followed some time to bring him up to speed with travel sites in general and the concept of reviews which I explained to him in other countries also applied to builder, bricklayers and stonemasons!
“When people come on holiday to La Faula they have to find what they want” I explained.
“And people want to see the blue sky and the beauty around them. They don’t want to feel closed in”
This line of argument seemed to make the difference. No longer was the height and style of the windows solely an artifice of the architect’s caprice that we had somehow fallen for, but it was a real response to a pressing problem of our business. So Gregorio let me keep suggesting that he remove more layers of bricks until we reached a height that we both begrudgingly thought could be a good compromise. The windows are 140cm high so they have lost 40cm that Paola had planned for them. But they have made the back wall of the house. Looking at the back wall, the new window holes, arched and long, give a harmony and gentle charm that the previous workaday aspect of the wall lacked. Even Gregorio was taken by them.
And it turned out that Gregorio had made arches in the past because getting the arch right and keeping the concrete up until it hardens requires knowhow and technique and he knew how to do it!
to be continued