19 Oct – 02 Dec 2020 – Back to Matera

So, back at Masseria Mimosa near Matera with our friends Esther and Richard (and, of course, their dog, Bimba!). The idea was to stay for an extended period while Esther and Richard headed back to the UK. COVID restrictions put paid to the UK trip and the plan changed to a 2-3 week holiday in Sicily for Esther and Richard while we crack on with jobs around the Masseria. First up – olive harvesting. Eighty or so small trees but it took all of us 2 days to collect almost 100kg of olives.

Our harvest

Esther and Richard bought a few more olives from the local olive press and we moved into oil production. The owner of the press (the press is called Frantoio Contangelo) was very friendly and was happy for us to look around. He explained the process – tip ’em in, wash ’em off, grind ’em up, churn the pulp, spin the liquid to separate the oil and water, filter the oil and pour it into containers. It took a few hours but we left with 54 litres of oil from 400kg of olives. Not bad!

Tip, wash, grind, churn, spin …

Next it was a trip to a garden centre in Puglia from which we returned loaded with shrubs – so we got planting (thankfully with the help of Richard’s Kanga to dig the holes). Esther and Richard also bought another 20 or so olive trees and 5 Cypress trees so we went crazy planting everything in a few days before they headed to Sicily. Meanwhile, the weather was wonderful so we made use of the pool a few times.

Easier than digging!

We had the place to ourselves while Esther and Richard visited Sicily (stayed in Taormina) but COVID restrictions were closing in throughout Italy and their holiday was cut short – alarming scenes of the army controlling Sicilian ports with very few ferries running.

Did I mention how remote we were?

So, with a full compliment of people once more back at the Masseria we set about getting some work done which included (deep breath …) pruning (olive & pomegranate trees, shrubs, grape vines, roses), re-routing and fixing irrigation pipes, moving plants to new homes, creating new garden areas (flowers and veggie), resurrecting garden areas, collecting boulders and building retaining walls, propagating (strawberries, olive trees, veg seeds, green manure), rainwater collection, repointing walls/patio cracks/gateposts, creating wells around the fruit trees, fixing shed doors and, arguably the biggest and dirtiest job, installing some concrete bases for a new Cantina to stand on (a self-contained storage-container dwelling).

A few of the completed jobs (clockwise from top left: wall repointing/pruning, garden resurrection, garden creation and concrete bases)

Talking of ‘concrete bases’, Andy became obsessed with a nearby Cold War NATO missile site that contained ‘locked and loaded’ nuclear missiles aimed at Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis (more info at http://jupiters.hlswilliwaw.com). Had The West gone to nuclear war you’d have seen the missile launch that started it all at VERY close range from the hill we were staying on. Very scrary thought! We visited the site and today it’s a car scrap yard. The missile launch pads are full of rusting Fiats and a couple of ironically placed hearses. The whole place is surrounded by massive concrete blocks and lookout towers. Amazing really – and in true Basilicata style they make nothing of it. Not a sign, not a plaque, nothing. Thank god JFK and Khrushchev called it off.

Better a dead hearse than all out nuclear war!

Our ‘time off’ was spent visiting Matera’s Sassi a few times, re-aquainting ourselves with Montescaglioso and venturing to Miglionico for the first time (lovely hill top town). A trip to a local reservoir was very pleasant, lunch at Trattoria Lucana (where Mel Gibson ate during the filming of The Passion of Christ) was also great.

Miglionico on market day

We also had a fine dining experience at Matera’s Michelin-star restaurant Vitantonio Lombardo Restorante. Not our usual thing but this was Esther and Richard’s favourite restaurant. We had 5 courses and, honestly, every single thing that was presented was absolutely amazing. Everything. Favourites included Pizza In Black, Pork Cheek, Mela Gras (chicken liver mousse … but you’d think it was a toffee apple!) and a smoking ‘cigar’ dessert. Very memorable experience.

Vitantonio himself and (L-R: Mela Gras, Pizza In Black, Pork Cheeks and Cigar dessert)

And then there was the homemade food … Richard is a great chef and we shared cooking responsibilies. Highlights were Wild Boar stew (enhanced by Pomegranate Molasses), Fran’s Pomegranate cake (again, with molasses) and Tiramisu/Kiwi Muffins/Brownies, Richard’s BBQ, Chicken Cacciatore and Melanzane Parmigiana (Aubergene dish). Esther kept the fig crumbles coming and on our final evening Fran made a delicious Fig/Orange/Mascarpone/Brioche thing (thanks Jamie Oliver!).

The BBQ’s ready!!
Esther fly-swatting, Richard wondering who to stab, Fran being lazy, me capturing the evidence. Great BBQ!

So, all in all, we had an amazing time – escaped the UK’s 2nd wave lockdown in a remote part of the unspoilt Basilicata countryside. Every day the views were amazing, the sun was shining and warm (OK, so it threw it down with rain a couple of days and it grew a bit chillier as December approached), Esther and Richard were extremely kind and friendly and we felt very privileged to be welcomed into their amazing home again. On a sad note poor old Smudge (16 year old cat) reached the end of her road with thyroid and kidney problems but her sister Fluffy continues to soldier on. On a brighter note we aim to return next March in our van while, once more, Esther and Richard try to get back to the UK. Even brighter news (breaking as we were departing) was that a vaccine has been approved by the UK so hopefully we can return to our travels with a degree of normailty next year.

It’s a beautiful place!

Of course, the final say (as always) goes to Bimba … she took us for some fantastic walks, spoke to us every meal time, demanded fussing every evening and guarded the place against crickets, lizards and Red Kites. We miss you Bimba – as Richard says, you really are ‘the best dog’!

The best dog – BIMBA!