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Spuma, eager to hunt

Once again November saw the end of the season here at Casal dei Fichi with our gourmet weekend breaks. Loosely themed around the olive harvest we always try to vary them slightly from year to year, to introduce new places and experiences that we have discovered and provide a bit of variety to our regular visitors. As Perugia airport is now so easily accessible we began the first weekend by meeting our guests there. With an hour to fill before lunch we stopped on the Marche / Umbria border for a walk in the beautiful countryside through the Sibillini mountains where, in a glade of oaks, Cristine and Danielle from La Cerqua explained the basics of truffle hunting, ably assisted by their delightful Lagotto Romangnolo pedigree “truffle hound” Spuma. Soon she started scratching around the trees and found some tiny tubers – the training and instinct clearly paying off. Later from the denser undergrowth she proudly emerged with one, and then another, black truffle.
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assisi

The historic city of Assisi

Although across the border from Marche you have to admit that Umbria has its fair share of lovely towns: Spoletto, Gubbio, Orvietto and Todi, to name but a few. And whilst there is certainly no denying its beauty, Umbria is the only region on the Italian peninsular which is totally landlocked.
Now however eastern Umbria finds itself an hour closer to the coast. It is true that the Adriatic is slowly edging inland, in the time that we have been here we have seen houses succumb to its advances. That might have shortened the journey time by a few seconds.
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macerata norma

The chorus against the medieval walls in Norma.

macerata sferisterio boxes

A box gives a good view of the stage, handy for people watching too.

One of the highlights of our summer is the Macerata Opera Festival. Every July and August three productions, generally of Grand Opera are staged in the magnificent Sferisterio Opera House. Built originally for the game bracciale, where a ball was played against a long stretch of the ancient city walls using menacing spiked gauntlets, the building is now used for more urbane purposes.

We like to book a box with 4 friends and enjoy the spectacle with a civilising drop of prosecco which you are welcome to bring into the building. This year we attended Norma, above, and Il Trovatore whose gloomy plot is made cheerful by Verdi’s lively music.

 

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obi 1

Aren’t I cute?

Hello, or as Bob and Ian say to me Hell-Obi, or Hell-Obi dobey doo. I think they are being friendly. Though life is so confusing for a little dog. Although Bob and Ian had hoped to revisit the dog rescue centre to help out, it is quite a way from Casal dei Fichi and they have been very busy. So their return visit was driven by the sad loss of my predecessor, Hattie.  When first we met I was just 6 weeks old and caged up with my abandoned siblings and Mum, they seemed a good bet so I nuzzled my way to the front and impressed myself on the puppy selection entourage. I was marked down as reserved and 3 weeks ago, when I was 12 weeks old, I moved to my new home at Casal dei Fichi.

 

 

 

dogs jamie

Me and Jakes with our new best mate.

WOW. Life at the kennel was kind, we were well fed, cleaned, exercised and loved. But nobody ever told us about the great big world outside. Within hours of arriving I found myself at my first pizza party, so many people wanting to cuddle me and give me just a few scraps. Since then I have been on walks, swam in the sea, travelled in an open top sports car and met more people than I ever imagined existed, all of whom have been kind and gentle to me, as well as a few more pizza parties, I don’t tell anyone about the scraps.

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We were delighted to see that the famous British chef Rick Stein chose Bologna for one of his weekend breaks as it is one of our favourite Italian cities. Of course Marche has its share of beautiful small cities like Ascoli Piceno, Fermo, Macerata and Urbino, each with historic architecture, magnificent squares, fascinating galleries, world class opera etc., but none of them have that big city cosmopolitan buzz.

bologna maggiore

Boasting Europe’s oldest university Bologna is a beautiful historic city and the still thriving student population ensures that it has a vibrant feel. At weekends the city centre is closed to traffic accommodating  street food, street entertainment  and street art. The shops and markets prove that this is a city that loves its food, the freshest and finest ingredients are all beautifully displayed in the maze of narrow streets which make up the historic centre. Its nickname (one of many) may be Bologna the Fat but you cannot say that about the majority of the population, clearly in moderation top quality and fresh food make for stylish healthy living.

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spider hattie

Always ready to jump in for an adventure

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Hattie was the dog you expected to live for ever. As long as she was breathing her trademark curved plume of a tail would wag and her face seemed fixed in a happy smile. So we couldn’t believe it when just a week ago on her regular daily walk she fell victim to barbaric poison put down to kill foxes.

 

 

We know nothing of Hattie’s pedigree, the black and white markings and those soft pert ears which flopped over so endearingly, as well as her gentle disposition, suggested Border Collie. Though her size, feisty temperament and determination – particularly for digging in the wrong places – made us think she had some terrier in her, maybe Jack Russell.

tiny hattie

Showing off her trademark tail

As a 5 month cat and dogsold pup she soon got the measure of young Balzo making him pursue her in loops up and down walls until he lay exhausted. A huge fan of nuts she would take the fallen walnuts up to our apartment and cracking open the shell, leaving all of the detritus on Balzo’s bed. Though in later years when the big farm dogs would turn on blind Balzo she wouldn’t hesitate to defend him, chasing off the attackers and snapping at their legs. Now she lies alongside her old friend.

Less instinctively gregarious than Balzo, Hattie was a more loyal dog, and whilst happy to chat to the guests would return to us. After lunch it was almost impossible to sit on the sofa before she had jumped onto one of our laps for her afternoon cuddle. Though she did soon learn that guests mean scraps and she was often sat near the garden tables not actually scrounging but making it plain that if anything came her way it wouldn’t be wasted. Barbeques became a favourite of hers and if more than one was grilling she would run back and forth checking when the coals would be ready and a surplus sausage might go her way.

Wary at first of Jakes they soon bonded and Hattie enjoyed company on those longer walks which had been too much for Balzo in later years. Right up to the end she ran around with the agility of a goat and the speed of a greyhound, exhausting the young dog.

 

It wasn’t possible to look at Hattie and not smile, her cheeky face always looked so happy, now we have to rely on memories to make us smile. Luckily, like so many of our guests, we have plenty of those.

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mymarca blog comp



It’s the end of the season at Casal dei Fichi and, as usual, we have finished it off by running our gourmet breaks. This time of year we run our long weekends where we meet people from the airport and escort them to a selection of our favourite venues in Marche. This year we were delighted to run 3 weekends all for people who have been before or their friends who they brought with them. To demonstrate that they didn’t just get lucky on their previous visit we have been busy researching new restaurants, vineyards, cultural venues and cookery classes.


A popular evening is when Emanuelle from MyMarca comes to Casal dei Fichi to talk about some of the typical Marche produce which he brings with local wines to accompany it. And there’s good news for those who haven’t been able to visit Marche to try these delicacies for themselves, as well as those who have been and would like to taste a bit of Italian sunshine over the winter months. Just visit MyMarca’s online “emporium” where you will find a great range of local Marche food and wines as well as designer items which will they will ship for surprisingly reasonable prices.



As well as some of the delicious Peccorino cheeses and regional salamis like Ciauoscolo or a Porchetta of rolled pork they stock some great wines including our old favourite Umani-Ronchi and newer discoveries like Fattoria le Terrazze or Sant Isodoro.



So if you want some genuine Marche products at Christmas,  a slightly different gift or wines at a fraction of high street prices check them out.



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CRASH!! jake 2



As I sit down to write this a bowl comes tumbling off the coffee table. A small price to pay for having a new puppy at Casal dei Fichi.



Although we went to the pound with the intention of re-homing a sad abandoned dog that would struggle to find a new owner we realised that the restrictions imposed by our business make taking on a dog with an unknown, and potentially troubled history meant that it wasn’t really possible.



Not that there wasn’t plenty of competition, like Mao the lame young retriever who had a paw caught in a hunter’s trap. In a country where dogs are often badly treated it was heartening to see that the nearby pound in Tolentino is clean and the dogs are well cared for with decent runs and caring staff and volunteers.



Since we couldn’t take all 200 home we settled on one. A 4 month old, predominantly border collie, with maybe a bit of spaniel. It is amazing how quickly he has settled in, sleeping all night in the spare bathroom, adapting almost immediately to the outdoor toilet routine, friendly with guests and curious, but gentle with the cats. Hattie is coming to terms with him but she makes it clear who is in charge. It looks as if he is going to fit in very well at Casal dei Fichi, another dog who has landed on his paws.



And as for the other 199 that we left behind, inspired by our friends Di and Ron, we hope to get involved with the pound and help out there so we can check on their progress. There was another black and white pup who we very nearly took as well, hopefully when we return she will have found a good home, if not she may be coming to rejoin her old mate Jake.



Now – where are my shoes???

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la torre



2015 is shaping up to be a record breaking hot and dry summer here in Marche and now that we are well and truly into August everyone is heading to the coast. One of our favourite ways to get away from it all is to head to sea in a boat. There are various options but, for us, by far the best is the elegant launch operated by La Torre Restaurant.



It has become a highlight of our summers and last week we took it out for the second time this year. Just sit back and sip Prosecco as the skipper navigates the beautiful Conero coastline, one of the most scenic stretches of the Adriatic, past secluded beaches, historic fishermen’s caves and  a Napoleonic fort. Then, while you swim in the crystal clear waters he lays the table for a 4 course lunch or dinner, prepared by the restaurant and always a delicious treat whether it is the default seafood, veggie or meat option.



The beaches may be busy but, for a day, you can live like the other half!



 

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lorraine-1-1024x545

If you saw Lorraine Bowen on Britain’s Got Talent recently you are unlikely to have forgotten her.

 

There was no mistaking Lorraine’s quirky individual style on the small screen but to us she is most at home in more intimate venues where she readily interacts with the audience. We are lucky enough to have seen Lorraine perform several times over the last 20 years, including some very cosy spaces, like our dining room and a tent in our front garden.

 

Lorraine arrived as a surprise for Ian’s 40th birthday party, but the plan of performing in our small garden was thwarted by a summer storm so she set up her ironing board in our tiny London terraced house and gave her all in the humid heat.

 

The tent was actually a marquee here in Italy. We flew Lorraine out to entertain at our civil partnership, everybody loved her and it’s true to say that Francavilla d’Ete has never seen anything like it. Years ago we started collaborating on a song, we’ll let you know if it ever materialises.

 

It’s a shame that Lorraine didn’t go on to win but she was awarded the Golden Buzzer by David Walliams and catapulted into the semi-final. We really hope that the publicity has boosted her career. We always look out in case she’s performing when we are in London, you can never get enough crumble (or spinach!)

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