THE HILLS OF MONFERRATO
It has just been nominated a Unesco World Heritage site for its outstanding beauty and historic integration of nature and agriculture. After living here a few years I can honestly say it is the garden and the larder of Italy everything grows with abundance, especially the weeds!!
The Hills are gentle and rolling with little villages perched precariously along the ridges. From these ancient villages you can see amazing views over the countryside and to the high mountains beyond.
Piemonte is shaped like a bowl it’s sides are surrounded by the peaks of the Alps which create protection from extreme weather conditions.
It has cold winters and hot summers thus perfect for my type of gardening.
It was difficult to choose one particular area but if we had not selected we would still be looking because each valley is beautiful and distinctive with its own charm.
The main agricultural produce of Monferrato is wine. There are hundreds of vineyards carpeting the steep hillsides. The grape vines flourish on these sites sending their stems upwards and outward towards the warm sunshine. It amazes me how they manage to anchor themselves on such steep gradients.
The vines are all carefully planted in neat straight rows with a single red shrub rose marking the row end. They say the rose shows the health of the vine if it is ailing then so must the vine.
The most famous wines of the area are Barbera, Moschato and of course Asti spumante.
The wine flows here in more abundance than the water,
At the local cantinas 1 euro 50 easily purchases a litre of good quality wine.
The other main crop is hazelnuts because Piemonte is also the home of world famous Ferrero Rocher and Nutella. Nocciola gelato is a must.
As you look along the hillsides you can see small rectangular parcels of land planted with little round lollipop trees. They create a checker board effect, their pale green mounds giving a formal contrast with the long rows of the grapevines
During late summer the farmers can be heard hoovering up the little nuts with large vacuum machines (giant hoovers) which they carry away on red trailers pulled behind little rickety tractors.
Poor us we had to harvest ours by hand but we do only have four trees.
There are also groves of poplar trees planted orderly in rows, standing tall and proud like soldiers on parade. They give winter protection from the storms and also provide foraging areas for the treasured white truffles. On cool Autumn and winter days you can see the locals out with their dogs scrambling in the undergrowth in hope to find one of these dark gnarled treasures.
The seasons are very distinctive spring usually begins on March 1st the sun is now stronger giving lovely warm days but the night temperatures can still be cold with many nights of frost. Everything springs into life after the deep slumber of winter, the light is bright, the air is fresh and clear, the hills are lined with fluffy white cherry blossom glistening in the spring sun these are later followed by the deeper pinks and reds of the peach, almond and walnut trees.
We wake each morning to the joyful call of a distant cuckoo or the continuous tapping of a nearby woodpecker.
The plants in my garden grow with such vigour pushing their shoots through the rich brown soil, their leaves hurriedly opening to bathe in the warm sunshine. They grow upwards and upwards as the temperatures rise higher each day.
The flowers are now in plentiful display we start with the bulbs followed closely by, the blowzy paeonies, the stately bearded irises and then the splendour of the roses by June there is a profusion of colour everywhere.
The scent is intoxicating with the false acacias, lime trees and roses. The perfumes hang in the air and it can be quite overpowering.
The meadows are a vibrant tapestry of flowers which peeping between the grass blades the blues of the cornfowers, the purple spikes of salvia, the yellows of the achillea and the dots of red poppies. The fragrance of the wild mint and the lavenders abound.
Summer is hot on occasions 40 degrees upwards. It brings the festivals to the villages when we dance till dawn to famous old Italian songs and eat pasta and peaches washed down by huge glasses of velvety red Barbera. It is now that the vineyards are in full leaf they carpet the hills with their various shades of green. The fields in the valley are full of golden corn and of tall sunflowers their smiling round faces looking down cheekily at passers by.
The markets are brimming over with fresh fruit and vegetables brought from nearby fields and from large market gardens down by the coast.
Late summer into Autumn brings the anticipation of the Vendemia ( grape harvest) you can feel the excitement in the air. The grapes are turning the deepest purple and hang low on the vines heavy and juicy waiting to be picked.
Finally towards the middle of December winter arrives and the temperatures plummet minus 10 and more. The days are still sunny and the temperature can rise as high as 15 c by midday but dropping quickly as the sky darkens. Quite frequently we can be seen lunching outside at the front of our house to the amusement of our neighbours.
Christmas brings much celebrating and all the houses are adorned with colourful lights twinkling against the dark sky. The Christmas markets line the little village squares and everybody focuses with great expectation on the feast soon to be had. On Christmas eve we dawdle up a candle lit cobbled street in a nearby village following a live nativity on its procession to the ancient church above. we are accompanied by the voices of the village children dressed as little angels singing sweetly and excitedly for thought of the pending arrival of Babo natale.
The trees stand stark against the vivid blue sky and the vineyards look bare and lifeless. It is now that the hunters are out looking for the prized cinghiale.(wild boar) Deer can be seen grazing at the woodland edge and night time silence is broken by the occasional shriek of the owl searching for its prey ..
January and February bring the snowfalls creating a romantic hush across the land. The days are short and exceptionally cold, the crisp dry air burns the skin and scorches everything that stands in its wake. There is a silence in the valley and nothing stirs as if nature is holding it’s breath waiting patiently for March to arrive and the delights of spring to return once again..