Life, food and garden-making in Italy: Anne Hanley
Born in Australia, but raised in the UK, Anne Hanley has found home near Città della Pieve in Umbria where she runs a landscape gardening practice. A former journalist, she has lived in Italy since 1984 and has written extensively about travels in the country, editing amongst other things the Time Out Guide to Venice.
Her blog about her life in Umbria, La Verzura is a joy to read, and she also rents charming apartments in Città della Pieve www.pievesuites.com. While her garden and landscape design work can be found here
Why did you move to Italy all those years ago? What brought you here in the first instance?
I didn’t move so much as drift. The idea, straight out of university, was to teach English somewhere for a bit before returning to the UK to find a ‘real’ job – a kind of gap year which, 34 years later, I’m still on. The Australian part of me had never really felt at home in England: in central Italy, I found a climate I could relate to.
What inspirations do you find in your garden design from Australia where you were born and the UK where you grew up? How do these combine with the central Italian nature?
I’m sure that the ‘English Garden’ must exert a certain influence on me, and like my mother, I adore roses – which, incidentally, grow as exuberantly as weeds on the clay soils of Umbria and Tuscany. But in general in my designs I like to work with what each individual location suggests and demands. There are other considerations, of course, like clients’ wishes and local regs; but I like to take time to ‘read’ the landscape and react as fittingly as I can to the surroundings. In this way I try to come up with designs that sit comfortably in what lies around.
Have you seen change in the climate affecting your garden in Umbria in these years here?
There’s no doubt that my plants are demanding more water. I turned on my Heath Robinson-esque home-made irrigation systems in mid-May this year and they were still essential well into October. I should say, we are lucky with our (touch wood) seemingly inexhaustible well. But as I don’t irrigate my grass, I am now resigned to burnt, brown expanses around the house all summer (they spring back in autumn). People joke that we’ll be able to plant tropicals here soon but that’s so much wishful thinking: we’re still getting just enough cold – with accompanying frozen earth – in winter to mean that non-hardy plants are a no-no.
The last 12 months or so have been particularly difficult for Umbria, with last year’s massive earthquakes and the extremely hot temperatures this year. How do you find people keep up their resilience in face of this adversity?
Umbrians are stoic by nature. It’s flourishing and comfortable now, but even in living memory, this was a desperately poor area. Locals tend to resign themselves to whatever fate throws at them, moaning but carrying on anyway.
One thing that really rankles at the moment in this part of the region – which is right on the Tuscan border – is the poor grasp of geography among potential visitors: bookings in local hotels and agriturismi were way down this year as a result of the earthquake, despite the fact that that earthquake was very far away and barely felt here. There’s a feeling that ‘Umbria’ and ‘earthquake’ have become synonymous when they clearly shouldn’t be.
What are your favourite ingredients to use in Autumn?
For me autumn is the time of pumpkins from my vegetable garden, mushrooms from the woods around here, chestnuts, and pasta and fagioli made with wonderful borlotti beans that I buy from the men who set up their market stall in Città della Pieve on Saturday morning. (I squirrel lots of these away in the freezer at this time of year, so I can use them all through the winter.) Then there are the winter jams and jellies – I’m a big jam maker – that perfume the house in autumn: quince, crabapple, medlar, and of course chutneys made with things like tomatoes that hang on in the vegetable garden but never quite ripen at this late stage.
You design gardens, therefore you must love visiting them. Is there one you would recommend our readers, given the particular interest in Olive Oil & food they have?
The garden I recommend to everyone is La Foce. It’s quite simply superb; as is its location, overhanging the magnificent Val d’Orcia. Attached to La Foce is the Dopolavoro, a restaurant run by the owner’s daughter. And it’s no distance at all from Pienza and its cheese makers. I send people to Pianporcino (www.fattoriapianporcino.it) which is about as genuine an old-fashioned farm as you could wish and their cheese is great.
What is your greatest extravagance in your garden or kitchen?
An old friend who came to stay with us last summer described me as ‘frugal’. I think she meant it as a compliment…
Extravagances are my husband’s department. He’s a big wine buff, so we rarely drink anything except very good wine – which doesn’t necessarily mean expensive wine, but cheap plonk is not our thing.
A non-Umbrian observer might also consider my olive oil habit an extravagance. We have no oil in the house except fantastic, organic extra virgin oil in a great big stainless steel vat. It’s made partly with the fruit of our very few trees, and mostly with olives from our neighbours’ plants. For us, it’s not anything out of the ordinary: it’s just ‘oil’. We use it for cooking and eating and drizzling and… well, just about everything.
It’s pretty paltry, but in the garden my big splash-out is on vegetable seeds. I love ordering big batches of seeds – some of which I eventually use – from the Organic Seed Catalogue.
As a writer, how would you describe olive oil?