If anyone recognises the problems (and knows a remedy) please let me know. Otherwise I think I'm going to have to throw them all out.
Monday, March 31, 2008
If anyone recognises the problems (and knows a remedy) please let me know. Otherwise I think I'm going to have to throw them all out.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
One of my clients is the Environment Sector of a local government authority here in Milan. Needless to say they're very interesting to work with, and I occasionally come home with the "freebies" they're distributing to promote the work they're doing to protect the environment in the area.
Last autumn, one of these was a "flower in a can". Or rather, seeds to grow in a can of growing medium. As it wasn't planting time, I didn't really think any more about it. But when I pulled it out of my seed box a couple of days ago, I started to get curious. Nice idea to try and get people to grow flowers, but was it really an environmentally friendly give-away?
My first doubt was the packaging. It comes in an aluminium can with a plastic top (plastic?). There's a ring pull both ends of the can - the top comes right off, while at the bottom there's just a drainage hole. You add water at the top and then use the plastic top as a drip tray.
There is a "recyclable" symbol on the can, and I presume that refers also to the plastic. However, I would have preferred packaging which was biodegradable. I'm not sure what the growing medium is - it looks like wood chippings, but one website I found seemed to describe it as vermiculite, sand and peat. I say "seemed to" because unfortunately (for me, that is) the site was in Dutch - not my best language. It doesn't seem to be anything noxious, but the use of peat is worrying, even if there has recently been equal criticism of the use of certain commercial alternatives - see this post by Patrick of Bifurcated Carrots.
And what about transport miles? How much energy is consumed and pollution created in transporting it? When I opened it, I rooted around and found exactly two sunflower seeds. The packaging, with dry contents, is not heavy but it is relatively bulky.
There, however, the local authority gained brownie points. It's produced in the Milan area, so the transport impact would be minimal and they're also supporting the local economy - another of their responsibilities.
The transport effect would not, however, be as unimportant for other customers. This range of products (you can get various flower and vegetable seeds other than my sunflowers) is distributed not only all over Europe, but also as far as Japan and China.
How much does it cost to send two sunflower seeds that far, I wondered? I couldn't find out. The only distributor whose website gave prices was the UK distributor Regent House. Their website announced that the product was on special bargain offer because they're discontinuing the line, so I clicked eagerly to check it out. £1 each but only available in packs of 12, and some lines in the range only available in packs of 36. Obviously not aimed at individuals. If you just want one, you can get it over the net on EBay or at Amazon for anything from £3-£5, plus postage. In other words, for your two sunflower seeds you're going to end up paying at least £5-£7. (For those of you not in the UK, that's roughly €7 or $3 - though the current weakness of the dollar masks how expensive that really is). They're the same seeds as are often sold for bird food - I checked out the price on the RSPB site and it's just over £1 per kilo of seeds (about €1,20 or 50 US cents for 2.2 pounds of seed ). And as for the transport miles if you bought over EBay ...
All in all not a product I would recommend. I hope that this year the Environment Sector will go back to their idea of a couple of years back. That year, they just gave out packets of seeds.
But I've got mine now, so we'll see what happens. It's supposed to germinate in about a fortnight. I'll keep you posted.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Thirty years ago, when I first came to live in Italy, the food you could get here - whether in shops or in restaurants - was 100% Italian. There were no ethnic supermarkets, the main supermarkets stocked only Italian products and though an Indian restaurant did open shortly after I arrived, it closed again about six months later because of lack of custom. Coming from an already cosmopolitan country like Britain, it was rather a shock. (Though nowadays as I pass the McDonalds which dot the city at about a hundred yards from each other, I do sometimes feel somewhat nostalgic).
Needless to say, things have changed and Milan is now as cosmopolitan as anywhere else, with a large migrant population. Plus the fact that increased opportunities for travel have meant that the Milanese too are more open to foreign food. Ethnic restaurants and supermarkets abound, and in the last couple of years even mainstream chains have started to cater for non-Italian tastes. You want yams or fresh coriander? Basmati rice or baked beans? Just pop into your local supermarket.
Recently though I've found a couple of things which are not particularly "ethnic" but which I'd still never come across before. The first were banana shallots. The one in the photo was nearly 7 inches long.
Checking on the Internet it didn't seem to be particularly unusual, so you may be wondering what the fuss is about. But I'd certainly never seen them before. I cooked them in a pasta sauce instead of onions, and roasted. Both ways worked well - they have a nice, mild flavour, but don't really seem much different to ordinary shallots.
The other vegetable though has really got me stumped. The Italian name on the label on the market stall was spigoli - roughly translated as "jutting out corners", which is presumably a reference to the bits in the middle. But an Internet search produced nothing.
I cooked it in a very small quantity of water and oil, not even sure which bit or bits I was supposed to eat. The green bits were nice, but nothing special. Just greens. The white spikes in the middle were a bit bitter, but OK. I'm not sure I'd bother to get it again - there are other greens which I like better. But it was curious. Has anyone ever come across it? Or even grown it?
Sunday, March 23, 2008
This morning the Easter Bunny came to visit, and left lots of chocolate on the balcony. There was chocolate in the primulas ...
Chocolate in the spider plant, in the lychnis and in the philadelphus ...
Chocolate amongst the cyclamen ...
Chocolate just about everywhere.
It's turned cold in the last couple of days - only 5°C this morning - and her poor little paws were frozen by the time she'd finished (I know - I was there and I felt them. I had to make her a cup of tea afterwards to warm her up again).
Then, when the rest of the family got up or arrived, the annual Balcony Chocolate Hunt began. A free for all with only one rule - anyone who damages my plants gets their paws chopped off.
And then we all sat down to breakfast (eggs - obviously). But wasn't she a generous little bunny?
Thursday, March 20, 2008
We had minestrone for dinner yesterday - it's one of my specialities and I make it regularly all winter. But apart from referring to vegetable soup, minestrone also has another meaning - in Italian it's used to mean a hotch-potch. Which is what this post is going to be - a minestrone hotch-potch of unconnected themes.
A couple of posts back I was bemoaning the fact that we should be able to see the Alps from Milan, but they're almost always obscured by the pollution haze. Well, yesterday there was a cold wind coming down from the mountains, and it blew all the smog away. So here they are - from the roof of our appartment block this morning. They look better if you click on them to get a bigger picture.
There's a website which I collaborate with called Rat Race Rebellion. They're dedicated to encouraging a slower, more human pace of life - and in particular, work from home. Every day they run ads for work from home jobs, and I noticed that today one of them was an advert for tomato blogger. Tracing the link back it came from a site called Tomato Casual . Check it out if you're interested in growing tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, cooking with tomatoes - or just about everything else tomato related. would you believe that in Japan, for instance, they even make beer out of tomatoes? (Having spent quite a lot of time there, I would, I would.)
And so it all starts again ...
Saturday, March 15, 2008
The only new blooms this month though, are my tulips.
I don't like tulips. I've never grown them before and only got them this year because when we were are the December Crafts Fair, my son conned me into it. I'm a daffodil person myself, and this bunch of bulbs hasn't changed my opinion much. They're quite jolly, and I've made them look as good as I can with sneaky camera angles. But they've been frustrating. They're dwarf tulips - just about the right size for the balcony. But some are far more dwarf than others, making the container look odd. And they've all come out at different moments and lasted a relatively short time. They look great at the bud and "just open" stage, but half an hour of sun sends them blowsy. So that I now have two containers with some tall, some short plants; some buds, some flowers, some that need deadheading. And all in a matter of days.
I'm sure they work in a garden where you can plant large quantities. And one of the trips on my wish list is a biking tour round the Dutch bulb fields at tulip time. But on the balcony, I think I'll save the space for other things.
Not everyone has always thought like me though. In the 17th century speculation in tulip bulbs brought down the Dutch stock market.
The first modern stock exchange was opened in Amsterdam at the beginning of the 17th century, not long after the tulip had been introduced into western Europe from the Ottoman Empire (the word tulip apparently has its roots in the Turkish word for turban). The colours of the flowers were qualitatively different from any other flowers then available, and they were soon very much in fashion. First the wealthy and then the middle classes started to buy the bulbs, and prices soared. And then in the 1630s people began to speculate in tulip bulbs, buying them for immediate resale. Prices reached ridiculous levels - the all time record was the sale of a rare Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen bulb for 5,200 florins, but 2,000 was relatively common. And this when the average annual wage was 150 florins. Tales are told of unwary travellers who, failing to recognise the bulbs and believing them to be some kind of onion, picked them up to eat and found themselves thrown into jail for theft by the irate ex-owners.
Investment in the bulbs reached crazy proportions, many people selling their property or using their life's savings to finance their investment, and by 1636 the bulbs were traded on stock exchanges around Holland. Overseas investors also cashed in on the trend.
The period was given the name of tulipomania. Much as I love flowers, I don't think there are any I would bankrupt myself for, even though my husband's comments each time I head for the garden centre might suggest the opposite. But apparently it's happening again, this time in Britain with the snowdrop. According to an article in The Independent, bulbs have been selling on E-bay for around £128 each. Crazy...
But in 1637, the market collapsed. At an auction the buyers just stopped buying. The market panicked, investors started to sell, and prices plummeted. Huge amounts of money were lost and many people went bankrupt, leading to an economic recession.
Explore some more ...
Tulipomania - Wikipedia
The Tulipomania - An Investing Bubble
When the tulip bubble burst - Businessweek
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
And lo and behold when I went out on the balcony today to check if anything needed watering ....
Or is it? Did I buy polyanthus thinking they were primroses? In which case, why were the original flowers single stemmed?
Browsing the web I came across this explanation on www.aboutflowers.org :
It happens, however, that primroses are produced in clusters, as polyanthuses are, but they appear to be produced singly, because the stem that carries the cluster is very short, and the secondary stem, or peduncle that carries the flower, is very long. Now and then a common primrose determines to explain the case to the young botanist, and then we see a stout stem bearing on its summit a cluster of primroses.
Leaving aside the fact that no way do I come under the heading of a "young botanist", the rest seems accurate. The offending stem is definitely stout, and peering down into the stems at the bottom of the plant, well yes - they do seem to come from a cluster. It's difficult to see though without harming the plant.
It's not clear who wrote the article, nor how authoritative it is, and I can't find the same explanation anywhere else. But then I can't find any explanation anywhere else. Does anyone know?
Sunday, March 09, 2008
Milan is currently awash with yellow.
Forsythia is everywhere you turn. In the streets ...
in the gardens of apartment blocks ...
and along the canal.
The mimosa, symbol of International Women's Day, came into bloom just in time for March 8th.
The local council have filled the flower beds in the streets and squares with yellow pansies.
And the allotment holders have planted daffodils on the canal banks.
On the balcony, I have my primroses.
March is a very yellow month.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
It's an industrial area, with fashion and design (especially furniture design and production) playing an important role in the economy. There was tradionally a lot of heavy industry, but like in much of the rest of the Europe, this is no longer an option. In its place, the local government is trying to promote the area as a centre for bio-technology and the service sector.
The climate is appalling - cold and foggy all winter and hot and humid all summer. Spring and autumn are definitely the best periods.
Built between 1865 and 1877, the Gallery is built in the form of a cross. The centre is covered by a 164 ft high glass dome, from which the architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, fell to his death only two days before the gallery was officially opened by the King, Vittorio Emanuele II.
Just to one side of the centre, you’ll notice a mosaic of a bull in the marble floor. Look closely and you’ll see that a certain part of his anatomy has been worn away – and you’ll probably see a little crowd of people queuing up to stand there on one leg and twizzle around three times. Try it - it’s supposed to bring you luck. (Perhaps someone should have told that to Mengoni).
We're lucky - we do at least have a strip of garden between us and the next block ....
... other people have to be more creative. This garden is eight storeys up.
So what's good about Milan? Not a lot.. The health service is excellent, and the transport system works extremely well, but that's about all I can think of. Not, of course, that the average Milanese would dream of leaving their car at home and taking the bus. But with four metro lines and an overground system of buses and trams, it's very easy, and very cheap, to get around. The trams come in various shapes and sizes from the old ones - which are slow, rattly boneshakers, freezing cold in winter and stifling in summer but with loads of character - to the new ones - supposedly high-speed, but actually not as they're always stuck behind the old ones. Not much character at all, though they have sweet little noses, but they do have heating and air-conditioning.
In case you haven't worked it out yet, I don't like the place. But then I don't like cities. Full stop. Unfortunately, my husband does ...
OK, that's enough. My homework was late Jodi, but I wrote more to make up. Can I have an "A" please ? :)