Memories New and Old

October 28, 2011 at 09:24 | Posted in Fragile Family Friday, Gardening, Italian Cooking, memories | Leave a comment
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I have begun to read a favorite book The Lost Ravioli Recipes Of Hoboken. Once again it stirs emotions and memories. I’m not Italian but my husband is. Yet in spite of not being Italian something deep inside me calls me to the kitchen in search of special flavors to treat my family to. Like the authoress I did not learn to make ravioli as a child but I did learn to cook many other meals at my mother’s side. Years later it was my sister in law who undertook the task of teaching me to make pasta and the family’s favorite ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach smothered in rich thick tomato sauce.

   

While others thought me foolish because it is so simple to buy prepackaged pasta in neat cellophane-wrapped containers, she understood me.

But somewhere deeper inside me has been a yearning to explore further, not willing to settle. Time has been spent making our yard over into a large garden.

And when the first harvests this spring and summer brought us a huge bounty of lush vegetables, I found myself not yet satisfied.

The garden was redesigned; huge raised garden beds were added and the area enlarged. More detail went into our planting layout to maximize the yields.

It’s not that I want a farm by any means. Nor am I giving into wild fantasies of no food available to eat. But something compels me to continue this quest. Next came the challenges of preserving my own fruit jams and marmalades. Then it was homemade pickles and those followed by huge beautiful jars of lush roma tomatoes.

Our sons laugh and tease – they want to know how I am going to hide the herd of beef cattle here in our suburb yard. Yet they enjoy the jokes as they sit together over a meal of big plates brimming to overflowing with pasta and homemade sauce and fresh baked bread warm from the oven!

So it is now that my granddaughters want to linger in the kitchen with me as I cook. One of them has taken to watching cooking shows on TV but she admonishes her mom that none of those cooks are as good as her nona and nono! Juliana is fascinated with the jars of marmalade and had to help with the pickles and tomatoes. She watched as I started to prepare to can them. Soon she was wrapped in one of my aprons and standing on the stepstool at the sink helping.

Together we filed the jars with the tomatoes and fresh basil she helped pick from the garden. Nono lit the fire and set the big pots of water to boil. When the jars were finished boiling in the hot water bath, we listened intently for the magic “ping” of the jar lids to tell us they were set. Juliana was so content, so happy – and then she turned to me and said, “We’re cooking great memories together, aren’t we?” How is this six year old so wise beyond her years? She got it when I wasn’t sure what it was I have been seeking. Memories. Those fleeting wisps, fragile ties to family now gone from our lives. When I was young, my father every year would bring home bushels of pickling cucumbers. I would watch as he pickled them, boiling them with wonderful smelling spices in hot brine. How I loved the crunch of those pickles! How much more I loved watching him, being with him in the kitchen. Memories. I would watch my mother enjoy her gardens, digging in the rich Connecticut soil. She could make anything grow from gentle lady slippers to the sturdy patch of rhubarb tucked behind the garage. The aroma of her fresh baked rhubarb pie would fill the house! My mother in law, too, could make a garden grow to incredible harvests. She grew everything from artichokes to eggplants. At her elbow I learned to pickle eggplants and crack green olives! We picked dandelions for salads and mushrooms for sauce. And we made fresh ricotta cheese and solid cheese for grating from fresh goats milk.

Memories. I realize it is family I have been seeking. I yearn for the family of my past …. And I want to share it with my family that they can also pass it on, my sons and their children. Through the richness of the earth to the pleasures of the food as we sit together at the table eating. Amore e’ Sapore di famiglia. May it always be so……

Beginnings of the Harvest to Come

April 12, 2011 at 22:18 | Posted in Bits and Pieces, Gardening | 5 Comments
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It has been a challenge to get our garden going this year. Florida presents a different gardening experience for someone from New England and rich brown dirt. Valentino is from Italy where he too grew with a different soil and climate. We have always had small containers or tomatoes and herbs but this year we have gone full fledged backyard gardener. I won’t use the now hotly contested term but I will admit I am “one of those” homesteaders! Nothing is more special than a day in our yard enjoying what it is becoming for us!

We splurged on some baby chicks and are looking forward to fresh eggs in a few months. And we have planted one of the largest gardens ever for us as a married couple. Even our sons are enjoying the prospects of a garden harvest. They too spend most of their free time in the backyard with us planning and working and planning some more!

We have had koi ponds for about twenty years or so. We started with a basic one back at our previous home that was simply a square pond with wooden seating benches framing it. From there we have come to a simple pond near our back door, It is framed by my rubber tree plant that is more tree than plant . It is a peaceful place when I need somewhere to sit and meditate and pray. The sound of trickling waterfalls is like music!

The plants are beginning to blossom now, promises of harvests to come. It appears that we will have plenty of pumpkins by fall too.

My son’s iguana will be enjoying plenty of fresh collard greens in his diet too!

Comfrey is growing! So is the rest of the garden!

This then is what we are looking forward to…. A harvest of our garden, feeding our family, being nourished by all we have accomplished together. Today we sat out back and sipped Liquori di Zecca – mint liquor made from our fresh mint! Sipped over ice, it was refreshingly sweet knowing it was only the harbinger of our harvest yet to come!

Channeling Family, the Master Gardeners

February 6, 2011 at 07:06 | Posted in Bits and Pieces, Italian Cooking, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Both my husband and I were blessed with family who could grow anything! My mom was a past president of her local garden club and won awards for her flower arrangements. Taken for a walk, she could identify every flower, tree, and weed. Eventually she also gave public slide presentations of plants of the bible. She guest-lectured in so many churches and schools, we lost count. Ask her how to grow something and her answer was to tap it in the packet of Root Tone ™ and then in dirt! My husband had an equally talented mother. Although she never did guest-lectures, there wasn’t a plant she could not grow. Along with the ability to grow plants came an amazing ability to understand and know how to use herbs to heal. She also was one of those clever folks who knew where and how to find mushrooms safe to eat as well as all other sorts of edible wild foods. She inherited that gift from her father. His skills as a farmer were the stuff legends are made of. Family and friends still tell stories of his farm. The farm was on a mountainside in Italy and many thought he got the worst end of a deal. The acreage was full of stones, large stones. Working the land by hand, he tilled and composted and tilled some more in-between the stones. In time those small patches, worked much like our one yard garden plots would yield the best results of anyone. His children were warned to be careful of his plants when he set them in – after all they were what the family would have to eat.

Now we have decided as a family project to start gardening more aggressively than in the past. Although we have had great gardens we have not done so in many years. We had planters of flowers and container gardens of tomatoes and some herbs but now we have decided to really garden. Rising food costs and a need to pay closer attention to our diet means a vegetable garden is a positive for us!

Our container gardens (some of them – a great way to use old tires – I know some folks are worried about using tires but we have done this for years with great yields and no seeming problems.

Our rosemary bushes here are a year old now. We also have eggplant, green bell peppers and pineapple growing around this small loquat tree. They all seem to be happy together – and this little loquat tree is loaded with fruit already! Behind this established garden plot is our new one – much larger to accommodate lettuce, fava beans, zucchini, Italian greens, and garlic!

This was one of my husband’s more clever ideas executed by our sons. He bought forty foot of 5 inch aluminum rain gutter (approximately $5.60 something at Lowes) and the gutter end caps and brackets – also support brackets for the middle portions. We hung it along our fence line and filled with dirt – plenty of room for strawberries, chamomile, and radishes! Below we have prickly fig cactus and small blueberry bushes! The radishes have already started to sprout in a week’s time.

I will post updates as we go along all season!

Frugal Friday – Soup to Warm the Soul!

January 7, 2011 at 02:20 | Posted in Amore di Italia, Carnival of Genealogy, Italian Cooking, memories | 2 Comments
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Cold winter nights often bring along flu and other respiratory symptoms. Nothing feels more like “Mama’s love” than a pot of warm soup. Val’s mother knew how to stretch her meager coins to feed her large family. Her tricks included never letting anything go to waste, growing her own vegetables as much as possible, and baking lots of bread. Even the stale bread was used in a meal of soup – a few pieces of stale bread could be broken into the bottom of a bowl and hot soup would be poured over it and then topped with homemade goats cheese. Needless to say, Mama always made her own broth from scratch but we now use one such as Swanson’s Roasted Garlic as a time saver without sacrificing flavor! No one ever felt they were not being fed!

Here’s one of the family favorites for a cold night:

Escarole and Bean Soup

6 cloves garlic minced 1 sweet onion chopped

2 – 15 oz. cans cannellini beans         1 qrt. Veg. or chicken broth

2 large bunches chopped escarole

Cook and stir onion and garlic in very large pot with a bit of olive oil. Do not brown. Add stock, salt and pepper to taste (remember broth is usually salty already).Add chopped escarole and beans – cook until escarole is tender – best when still slightly crispy. Serve with lots of grated cheese and Italian hot bread!

Tombstone Tuesday – the Burial of Winter Blues!

May 11, 2010 at 11:39 | Posted in Bits and Pieces, Carnival of Genealogy, family history, Italian Cooking | Leave a comment
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Last night we were treated to a wonderful dinner at the neighbors – our dear friends Anne & Paul. They also adopted a rescue pet recently – the most delightful German Shepherd – what a lover she is! Paul grilled a gorgeous pork loin that wafted through the house with its delicious aroma! We sat outside and shared good food and better friendship! A true pleasure! One of the best parts of this neighborly friendship is enjoying our children – now all young adults. To see each as they have grown up and headed off to their futures has brought us joy and pride. Yet each has maintained their friendships through the years, a wonderful thing to behold!

Anne and I share many common passions in our busy lives. First and foremost – she was the true friend to encourage me on a new career trend when I was worried about Valentino. She sent her husband and me both to class to obtain our certifications in Cardiac Dysrhythmia! That was over ten years ago already. We both love our yards and gardens – and we have both at points in our lives suffered major physical disabilities that we have learned to control and live with or in spite of.




Anne has now also taken herbal classes and like myself is enjoying growing the herbs. Our gardens are not just for looking at but also for good health. We are enjoying the sharing and exchanging of seeds and cuttings. Every spare planter inch is being filled with one exciting new addition or an old time favorite – Sweet Ann, Garlic Dill, German Thyme, Italian Basil, Provence Lavender, Sage, Oregano, and more. The tomatoes and Green Bell Peppers are already showing first blossoms. Soon these will be followed by Fennel, Chives, and Comfrey. Next will be chamomile. Already fresh Rosemary hangs in the kitchen – how I love the aroma! And of course, I can’t imagine cooking potatoes or chicken without it!

My mother in law was one of those fabulous cooks who cooked without the aid of a cookbook. Instinctively she knew what would enhance the flavor of a meal without over-powering the natural flavors of a main ingredient. Concetta was also the village midwife and an unschooled herbalist. Whatever ailed someone, she had the perfect remedy. Chamomile teas or comfrey compresses were common items as well as egg whites and mustard poultices. While on our honeymoon, I watched as Concetta first went out to find wild rosemary. She brought home a huge quantity that she then prepared for us to bring home. She worried about a perfect kitchen not having enough rosemary and she was right! She taught me well! Even now I feel her presence with me in the kitchen as I prepare a favorite meal for our family.

 I have been so enjoying my days off – these 3 or 4 day off weekends have done amazing things to restore my soul – it was a long ugly winter season between work, family stressors, and Valentino’s health issues. But sunlight and greenery with the gentle sounds of water fountains trickling and bubbling have gone a long way to rejuvenating me once again. Nothing is sweeter than sitting pool or pond-side listening to birds come awake at first light! That first cup of cafe latte in early AM is heavenly to be sure!

Treasure Chest Thursday Francesco’s Wooden Spoons

February 11, 2010 at 01:52 | Posted in Carnival of Genealogy, family history, Italian Cooking, Treasure Chest Thursday | 3 Comments
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When Concetta needed spoons for cooking she couldn’t just run to a store to buy one. Money was tight and stores weren’t always close by. So Francesco would sit after dinner with a smoke and he would whittle her one from a piece of scrap wood. With just a simple knife he managed to carve beautiful spoons. They were a perfect size for stirring the big pots of sauce for the family dinners.

Along the way Valentino ended up with two of these spoons. They were still in wonderful condition but I did not have the heart to use them. Looking at them I thought often of the wondrous meals Concetta cooked for us using anything at hand. How I loved standing at her elbow watching her and making notes on recipe cards so I would remember every step after she returned to Italy.

On one of our trips to Italy a nephew expressed deep sorrow and disappointment that he had nothing to remember his grandfather by. He had lived with Francesco for several years and loved him dearly. “Not even a stone or brick from the family farm” he exclaimed. Valentino said nothing at that time but when we planned our next trip, Valentino packed one of our two spoons. When we surprised our nephew, he was overcome with emotion. He held that spoon ever so lovingly and then made a special place in the kitchen for it to be displayed. Like us, he did not have the heart to risk using it but rather wanted it always on display as a reminder of this special couple.

But our story does not end here. Back home we went on a visit to cousins in Rhode Island. As we told the story about the spoons, one of the cousins was touched by how we shared with our nephew. So she in turn had a surprise for us. Wrapped in tissue for many years was a spoon carved by Francesco. But this one was a double affair: a large spoon on one end and a fork on the other with a foot rest in the middle of the handle! It’s perfect for spaghetti or noodles as well as the sauce. Francesco had whittled one of these for several in the family as gifts. Our cousin had tucked hers away in tissue unused for over 20 years so it was still the new white pine.

I know this spoon was meant to be used in the kitchen and maybe tossed as it became old. I am sure Francesco thought it would be replaced soon enough. Yet it holds such sweet memories and so much love, that we can’t bear to use it. It is a piece of Francesco with us still, a tangible reminder of how he loved his family. And it evokes many reminders of how much love an Italian family shares through simple every day tasks like whittling a spoon or cooking a pot of sauce!

Sumptuous Sundays – En la Cucina

February 7, 2010 at 05:30 | Posted in Carnival of Genealogy, Italian Cooking, memories | 2 Comments
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If you’re from an Italian family, you know at least 70 times 7 recipes for SAUCE – or as some refer to it, GRAVY! You probably know it by several names! For instance if there is meat or fish it is sugo. Succa and salsa were other names too.

Somewhere right now someone’s mama is making a huge pot of sauce, standing at the stove, gently stirring with a wooden spoon. If it’s Sunday, the famiglia is getting ready to gather together for their mama’s cooking! Someone else is probably trying to sneak around mama trying to dip a piece of bread in the pot already! Nothing says home and love like opening the door and smelling the wonderful aroma of that pot bubbling away on the stove. After all the sauce needs to simmer and bubble for hours to bring out all the robust flavor.

I had always been a great cook. From the time I was a child, I loved to cook. My own mother was a collector of great cookbooks and she was a gourmet chef who could whip up fantastic meals for two to two hundred on practically no money and certainly no effort! So I learned at her elbow and won awards in both high school and college for my skills as well as the accolades of friends! There was never a recipe that I was intimidated by. I enjoyed the challenges.

Then I met Valentino. Oh! How I wanted to impress him – and I was sure that a home cooked meal was the way to do so. After all we all learned the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. So I decided to plan a nice little dinner affair of spaghetti, Italian bread, salad, a little wine! Maybe even a homemade cake for desert. Or maybe homemade minestrone? Then somewhere around there I lost my mind and my nerve. I decided to ask a girlfriend for an “authentic” sauce recipe – after all, she was Italian American so I assumed she would have a wonderful recipe perfect for the occasion. What I didn’t assume was what I spiteful hateful jealous so and so she was and no part of a friend. I was cooking for the man she had a secret hankering for! According to her “Italian grandmother’s old family recipe”, one was supposed to make big round meatballs and drop them into the tomato sauce already simmering without cooking the meatballs first. I asked her if she was sure about that. I certainly had never heard of meatballs done that way. Let me admonish anyone who is questioning this method – it is NOT good! It produced the most horrible tasting concoction I have ever tried. Valentino spit his out and then just sat looking at me for a moment with his huge dark eyes. He finally quietly (amazing for an Italian, huh? Sure sign of SERIOUS) “What were you trying to do? Poison me?” Fighting tears of embarrassment I explained who gave me what recipe. His eyes grew wider and then he exploded in laughter. Seems I was the only person in Rhode Island who did not know how this gal had stalked him at one time! I was played the fool for sure.

He finally stopped laughing and decided to give me an impromptu cooking lesson. A can of black olives, lots of minced fresh garlic, some olive oil and a fry pan – we had Spaghetti Aglio e Olio! That following week he introduced me to his cousin Liz. This dear cugina has spent hours since then teaching me to make many family favorites and the tricks known only to Italian cooks to make sumptuous meals from next to nothing. Later it would be Mama Concetta who visit us for two or three months at a time and take over the kitchen. Then I was able to stand at the elbow of a master chef and learn! We would put up hundreds of jars of tomatoes, pickled eggplants, green beans, jams and more. She taught me to milk goats and how to make our own fresh and hard cheese. And bread! Her daily bread baking would fill the house with a wonderful aroma each morning! Of course I also learned the finer points of pizzas as she spoiled our sons with their favorites. But my lessons did not stop there. Soon my dear sisters in law would share more lessons with me. I learned to travel with a notebook to write down all the recipes and hints and tips. Stuffed breads with spinach or broccoli, leek soup, roasted herbed potatoes, pane di spagna, lasagna, granite, brandied fruits, fried squash blossoms. Even now there is nothing more special than being “en la cucina” with one or more of them as we all laugh, gossip, and cook. Famiglia! Mangia! Buon Appetito tutti!

Advent Calendar Christmas Memories Italian Holiday Foods

December 5, 2009 at 06:02 | Posted in Carnival of Genealogy | Leave a comment
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Growing up in Italy, Valentino remembers the wonderful Christmases with his family. They kept the tradition of the 7 Fishes for Christmas dinner. They would all go to Midnight Mass together on Christmas Eve at the small church near his home. Only a few doors from their house, the family would all walk together. Christmas Day all the extended family would gather for a huge feast. Mama Concetta had spent hours cooking for everyone. Although the family was quite poor in Post WWII Italy in the early 1950s, he remembers the food at Christmas always seeming to fill the table to overflowing!

There would be the traditional fried smelts, small fish dipped in flour and fried. Then vinegar and garlic would be sautéed for a moment and poured warm over the smelts. Bacala (dried cod) was served along with big platters of steamed mussels. There would be fresh anchovies with basil and lemon, calamari in oil and fried, perhaps a white clam sauce over pasta. Naturally there would be huge bowls of Seafood Fra Diavolo.

We still try to keep this tradition for our family. Many times over the years we were not always able to afford all the fish varieties but we would spend time in the kitchen making the seven dishes with what we had. We live in Florida so our sons would go fishing and shrimping with their dad. They would also catch crabs so we would manage to save a nice assortment for the feast! When our finances began to improve we added stuffed lobster tails to our menu too!

Lessons from the Brick Ovens of Italy

June 10, 2009 at 18:13 | Posted in Amore di Italia, Bits and Pieces, Italian Cooking, Spiritual Walk | 2 Comments
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Brick Ovens of Tollo
Brick Ovens of Tollo

Many homes in Italy boast brick ovens out back. Or they may have been community ovens shared by several homes within the town. For instance my mother in law always baked her bread midweek on her day for the neighborhood oven. The oven is no longer standing, long ago fallen and then demolished. Valentino remembers well with his siblings how there was one person who guarded the locks and the wood, and another who held the yeast for everyone to use!

The flavor and shape of the bread varies from region to region. My sister in law describes the bread from Tollo as being dry and lifeless. She and I offer that perhaps it is lacking the addition of love when baked! The bread in Abruzzi is made without salt. Talk about hard to get used to! Most of my other sister in law’s life, she baked her own bread because she could not get used to bread without salt. Now that she is older, she buys her bread but often apologizes for the lack of flavor. Most Italians baked the bread in wood ovens for a couple of basic reasons we Americans have never given much thought to. Europeans in general are much more cautious with the earth’s limited resources and therefore take greater care not to abuse them. The brick ovens are heated with wood, the fires banked and stoked to conserve the heat in the bricks while the bread bakes slowly. The bread bakes slower and longer resulting in a thicker harder crust with a softer and moister inside. Yet this softer inside is not the mushy consistency of most American white bread. None of the bread is wasted even as it goes stale. Stale bread is another excuse for bread soup – if anyone is so fortunate to have bread left over long enough to go stale! Most folks will sop up the sauce after eating their pastas and also dip in the oil and balsamic vinegar dressings from the salads. Occasionally though some bread will remain and be made into bread soup on the last day. Bread soup is made by simmering a vegetable broth with onions and pouring it over the stale bread pieces, and then topped with lots of parmesan cheese. Talk about leftovers tasting like an extravagant meal! Nothing fancy but nothing wasted! It is the waste not, want not philosophy that Italians live by. Bread is now also sold in bakeries but never in the plastic one use bags we Americans seem to favor too much. Shoppers use large canvas bags, cotton breathable bags, or even large baskets carries on their arms.

San Croce Old Oven

San Croce Brick Oven

San Croce Brick Oven

 

Cavesso New Oven

Cavesso New Oven

All of this brings to mind our walk as Christians and as citizens of this world. We Christians should be taking our time to be slow baked in the fires of the Holy Spirit, slowly developing that thick skin to avoid the slings and the temptations of the world. But we also need the softer inside – not mushy – but soft enough to maintain the heart of the Lord for others without phony sentimental mushiness. We should also be concerned about the earth’s resources. Isn’t that also part of caring for widows and orphans and others less fortunate than ourselves? If we spend less on wastefulness and more on charity, maybe we would also be witnessing more to others? I guess those differing bread recipes are so much like us. It takes many denominations and many ways of looking at the needs of others to really share the Word. We all love Him but we often go about worshipping in different ways. Not wrong. Just different. Going back to the idea of community ovens: aren’t they remindful of churches? What better way to reach people than to be there at the community hearth to mingle, to share, to be instead of hiding at home alone? There are the keepers of the flame and the leavening to help each of us! Hmmm. Sounds familiar too? Gee. I thought we Americans were supposed to be the leaders? Maybe we still have some learning by example too?

Olives Olives Olives

May 19, 2009 at 20:51 | Posted in Italian Cooking, Itri, Italy | 2 Comments
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Itri Views of Olive Groves  The olives of Itri are some of the finest grown in the world. Most know them as the olives of Gaeta due to an arrangement made years ago as the port of Gaeta was more recognized than the smaller town of Itri. But the olives themselves are grown up and down all the beautifully terraced mountain groves of Itri. There they benefit from both the mountain air and the sea breezes that blow inland across the mountains. Standing at the top of the Castello di Itri one can look out in all directions and see row upon row of neatly terraced olive groves spreading up and down all of the mountains and hills.

Family Grove

Family Grove

Fires

Fires

              During the month of April one can see and smell the fires as the olive growers trim back the trees and ground scrubs to encourage more fruit growth. This also helps protect the trees during the dangerous fire seasons when lightning strikes can start the wild fires so difficult to fight in the mountains.

       Most experienced farmers will trim the trees back to the two or three main branches and then smaller ones off of those. Keeping those branches trimmed means more of the energy of the tree goes to establish roots and then olive growth instead of small branches and many leaves. The trees are kept small enough that they can use a small ladder to access all of the olives to be harvested.

100_1375100_1376

 

 

 

        By April most of the olives have been harvested except for those being left to fully blacken on the trees. These are considered the sweetest ones because they so ripen. The farmers take great care at this stage to not bruise the olives by rough handling but because the olives are ripening quickly now, they hang nets beneath the trees overlapping each other so as to not lose any to the ground to spoil or be walked on. 

Save Those Oilives!

Save Those Oilives!

Olives - Saved!

Olives - Saved!

 

 

Nets

Nets

 

    

 

 

     Slow growing by nature, these trees have been tended by the same family for generation upon generation. With care, they live well over one hundred years. They carefully store the olives for the family to eat as well as take some to refineries to be made into deep pungent oil. It is important for un-bruised fruit to be refined in order to monitor the acid content in order to have the sweetest oils. The cold pressed or first pressed is the deepest green known as extra virgin. Then the olives are pressed again and even again a third time to extract the most oils possible. Each pressing results in a lighter colored oil. Nothing is left to waste – after oil is pressed, the waste of the pits is often mashed to become heating fuel as well as mulch for back around the trees. Now that refineries use so much water in the pressing process, they are dealing with the issues of the waste water being toxic. This was not a problem before the larger refineries came into being as the farmers seldom used quantities of water in their smaller local refineries. Now waste water is collected to be disposed of safely and many of the commercial refineries are developing methods of cleaning this water to not foul the water supplies or ground.
       Each stage of the harvest yields a different olive. Nothing beats the flavors of these olives. The strong green new olives, the cracked olives with their more pungent flavor, the tender black olives, and the sweetness of the sundried black olives!

Olives Olives Olives

Olives Olives Olives

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