A gentle breeze rustled through the trees today here at Bellaugello Gay guesthouse in Umbria.  The past few days the breeze has turned quite cool and wintry , suitable weather for a sauna in our wood fired Finnish sauna, which is currently lit and hovering at 80º with the guys enjoying the sweat.  There is a dusting of snow on the Apennines, and a chill in the air.

However spring is clearly on the way, the embankments are covered in delicate wild violets and the first spring primroses are in peeking out, just as the fruit trees are beginning to burst into bloom, a delicate pink of the apricot and almond trees, cream of the sloe, and just he first hint of plum and peach tree buds, it is a real joy to see, I just hope that we do not get a sharp frost to rob me of the fruit blossom.

Last night in front of a roaring fire at dinner we feasted on a Ribollita, thick satisfying Tuscan style soup made with with cannellini beans, cavolo nero, celery and chard, liberally doused with our own Bellaugello olive oil and home baked bread.  This we followed with a gratin of baccalà, the salt dried cod so popular here in Umbria.  It always amazes me just how popular this dish of north atlantic salt-dried cod is here and just how many local recipies there are.  It is an oft seen dish back in Scotland, where the fish is landed and salted, the recipies may be different but the basic raw ingredient very much the same.  Having done a limited amount of research it seems that the salt cod here is mostly from Norway, and has been eaten in Umbria and central Italy for several hundred years.  Why Norwegian and not Scottish I have yet t o find out. I know variations of the recipies travel south along the atlantic seaboard, through western France and Portugal, but it does amaze me to find it at every market here in Umbria  a land-locked region.

Dinner was finished off with two puddings, one of my favourites, a sharp lemon tart, and utterly indulgent fruitti di bosco flan, rich with red berries, and of course a glass or two of grappa….

The dogs woke early this morning, in good time for me to snap this photograph from my bedroom window of the sun rising over the Appeninnes.  Recent nights have been cool with frosty mornings. It did try and snow yesterday, those lovely wonderously large flakes that float gently earthwards and do not settle, gave way to blue skies and glorious sunshine throughout the day here in Umbria at Bellaugello Gay Guesthouse.

This means life for me is not a holiday as there is no possible excuse for not continuing outdoor work.  I have been tidying in the garden, preparing ground for yet more fragrant lavender plants, preparing ground for seeding new lawns to the west of the house, and acting macho as a lumberjack, felling trees for next winter’s firewood.

Last Saturday saw me down on the big field with Etain and Monica and Valentina picking cicoria.  I have often wondered why here in Umbria you so often you see figures stooped in fields obviously gathering something, well now I know what and why.  They are cutting cicoria – wild chicory.  It is a local delicacy here, the leaves are similar to a dandelion.  We had a delightful afternoon in the sunshine, catching up with news, exchanging recipes and learning from Etain about some more of the local traditions.  

The cicoria requires a series of washings and changes of water, it is then boiled, drained and tossed in olive oil infused with garlic and served as a contorno.  The taste is slightly bitter and not unlike spinach. Valentina who hails originally from Modena told us that in her home region they also add pancetta to the cicoria, recipies vary so much from region to region here in Italy.   I brought a flask of licorice tisane and we tucked into carnevale cakes that I had bought that morning in the nearby village of Piccione. In Piccione (commune di Perugia) they are know as ‘Strufoli’, indeed that is what I bought, but on seeing them Monica exclaimed ‘ah castagnole!’ Monica is born and bred Eugubino (from Gubbio) and here in the bakers in the commune of Gubbio they are know as ‘Castagnole’ the same beignet/doughnut type of pastry, for the same festival but in two different communes that border each other two totally different names, that is yet another example of Italy’s traditional delights that we fight hard to preserve.

The time taken in picking, preparing, cleaning and cooking is all worthwhile when you get to savour the final product.  Glad to keep some of the local traditions alive and to have unravelled a mystery of the figures in the fields, I shall be serving wild cicoria as a contorno this summer.

Sunday was a day of rest, a trip with friends to my favourite southern Tuscan town of San Casciano dei Bagni where we had a delicious lunch of home-made hand-cut tagliatelle with a fragrant delicate sauce of cinta senese, made from the local wild pig. The sauce bursting flavours in the roof of my mouth.  We then walked through the ancient hill top town and down to the Roman Terme.

San Casciano has 86 hot springs and as well as a very smart resort hotel, there are delightful ancient Roman baths, very simple, basic, and utterly divine, it is to these we headed.  The water is toasty warm and not too sulphorous.  We spent a couple of hours just soaking and relaxing.  San Casciano dei Bagni is a one and a half hour drive through beautiful countryside from Bellaugello Gay Guesthouse.

Tonight at the Teatro Comunale in Gubbio there was a performance by a young ballet troupe from Roma; Balleto di Roma.  Six girls and six guys danced amazingly to a contemporary programme, with superb lighting and choreography ending in a very sensual, nigh erotic charged dance to Ravel’s Bolero.

The Small theatre in Gubbio was packed to capacity, indeed deciding to go just this afternoon I only managed to get a seat in the ‘gods’, – free seating so was one of the first to arrive in the hope of a central seat.  All the boxes below soon filled.  It was certainly worth the climb to the near stratosphere, the dancing was superb!

The Theatre in Gubbbio has a full programme running throughout the spring,autumn and winter with tickets at a remarkably cheap rate, tonight’s dearest were only €20.00, Nip just up the road to my favourite restaurant “Bargello’ for a pizza buffalina and you have a really satisfying evening’s entertainment.

Yesterday morning here at Bellaugello Gay Guesthouse I went down to open the dining room and ready things for breakfast to discover an unexpected visitor within.

Sitting on the windowsill to the left of the fireplace was the most magnificent tawny owl.  Just what was an owl doing in the dining room and more to the point how had he/she got here?  All the windows were firmly closed, had he flown in as we all departed the room the previous night or what?

Having been rudely awakened the owl then made a graceful exit, swooping just over the  and off silently into the distant trees, and went to examine just where he got in and what damage he had wreaked.

Despite evidence in several different places in the room of an organic matter there was apart from a few tilted lampshades and the hammer from the dinner gong lying on the floor, nothing disturbed or broken, it seems my unexpected guest was real courteous and delicate.  At some point he had clearly been perching on the wall candle sconce in the entry, surprisingly not dislodging the large wooden key that sits precariously on the sconce.  So just how did he get in, well I was soon to discover it was down the chimney flue of the old brick bread oven in the entrance hallway.

Those ardent followers of my blog might remember my post about ‘Wol-let’ the owl born in one of the nesting holes in the house here at Bellaugello, and how the chick spent its first day out of the nest perched by my front door, and then returned with his sibling and mum for several evenings sitting high in the branches of one of the cherry trees.  Well I kind of think my visitor was Wol-let back looking for a nesting hole, Tawny Owls are very territorial.  The hole he was born in is now partially obscured by the wisteria that grows on that part of the house, and the chimney for the bread oven is adjacent and could possibly offer a spacious panoramic penthouse in which to raise a family, were it not for the flue that runs down to the oven.

Today my work is set out, I’m going to tidy the wisteria and clear the nesting boxes in the hope Wol-let returns there and continues to keep the Bellaugello Owl population strong.  I read sadly they are on the decline here in Italy, and I want to make sure that is not the case at Bellaugello gay b&b, I love their magical night-time calling from the trees, and feel safe with my otherwise silent flying nocturnal guardians.

Happy valentines to all, finally I get an internet connection today.  Oh! it is SO VERY FRUSTRATING that TechnoAdsl my so called internet supplier cannot supply a constant internet service.  I have been without the internet here at Bellaugello Gay Guesthouse in Umbria almost all today, and I find it really irritating.

Sorry guys for not having replied sooner to e-mails or Skype calls, as they say ‘it is out of my control’

If only there was an alternate internet supplier, these TECHNO-NO ADSL people do not even answer their customer service telephone line.  I like to think they are all out trying to repair the service, but somewhat doubt it!!  Oh the joys of technology 🙂

With Valentine’s falling on a monday this year I decided here at Bellaugello Gay Guest House near Gubbio in Umbria, to start the celebrations tonight as guys have managed to take the weekend off and most will have to leave tomorrow to be back at work, so I am cooking a romantic Red St Valentines’s Dinner, but in keeping with the tradition here at Bellaugello we will all be sitting at dinner together around my big antique family dining-table.  You may reason it is not very romantic, but how are you to know if all the guests are couples or singles!!!………

Today the weather changed, we have been experiencing balmy spring days with uninterrupted sunshine and temperatures reaching the low twenties ºc, but last night the clouds came over and this morning I woke to a mist covered world.

It is not cold, it is just misty, you can’t see far and all is silence, and what an excuse for a lazy day in bed watching dvds or using the wireless internet connections in all the suites and surfing the web, or quite simply relaxing in a cozy armchair with a good book or game of scrabble infront of a roaring log fire, either in a suite or the dining room, or sweating in the finnish sauna, it is certainly a day for doing little and not straying far from the comfort of Bellaugello Gay B&B

Anyway back to dinner.  I have always loved cooking and entertaining, and have in The past thought up whacky themed dinners.  (the murder-mystery dinner at Christmas was a roaring success!), these included colour themes and I have been known to host blue dinners, orange dinners and red dinners.  Now some colours are decidedly difficult – green dinners are fine for vegans but not of much appeal to others, and my attempt at a black dinner was not overly-successful as I resorted to squid ink pasta with some very dark sauce, charcoal grilled sausages and slow cooked venison in a thick black juniper sauce, caremelised root vegetables and for pud, crème caramel with the caramel through the crème (not a success).  I must admit there was a vague but distinctly present underlying taste of charcoal and blackjack throughout the meal, made somewhat worse if I admit publicly to serving ‘Black Tower Liebfraumilch’ (a particularly nasty screw-top wine thankfully probably only found in the ‘deli’s’ in the back streets of Dumfries!) – do they make black wine? I thought full bodied reds not to be black enough and I wasn’t going to ruin them with the addition of blackjack, I just adore Amarone and Brunellos and rich clarets.  I did find black candles, and napkins and black glasses, and all the guests wore black and now I think about it the Guinness cocktails were excellent… hmm perhaps I could refine that a bit and try again someday…….

However tonight is different it is a romatic red dinner.  This time I have not insisted that all guests wear red, but the dining room is adorned with red candles, out have come my special red wine glasses and tumblers, red napkins, red tablecloth and of course red roses. We start with a hot tomato soufflé, followed by beetroot linguine with crayfish, then poached fillet of salmon (ok – stretching the red there a little bit) with timbales of wild red rice and radicchio salad, then finishing off with cranberry  pancakes with  raspberry sauce.  My choice of wines are all red, and from either Umbria or Toscana including a particularly heavenly sweet red from near Lucca,  Red roses adorn the table centres, we are in for a magical romantic evening here…. and yes, there will be chocolates on the pillows tonight!

A tutti i mei carissimi amici vi auguro “Felice San Valentino”

To all of you throughout the world I wish you a very Happy romantic St Valentine’s day, (especially romantic for two special friends M & R in London who recently made public very exciting happy news xx) Currently  I have many friends holidaying in Malaysia, China and Thailand and other points east, they will wake up to Valentines before me, so I feel less guilty serving my valentine’s dinner NOW!!!! – must dash…….