L’orto and the Fairies

9.30 on Sunday morning I opened our front door to be greeted by a basket of grapes sitting on our patio table. To be honest I was not surprised, happy and grateful yes, but not surprised.  In the year that we have lived in this house various vegetables have magically appeared on the table. During the summer it was tomatoes and zucchini, now it is the time for baskets of grapes and pretty soon large squash will start to appear.

During the week we share our good fortune with our friends because try as we might it is not possible to eat the number of eggs or vegetables that are left on the table. It is not the fairies or a leprechaun that leaves the food on the table but our neighbour Luigina.


Luigina is eighty-seven years old and when she is not digging in her l’orto she is cleaning out or feeding her twelve hens. One day I asked Luigina how many eggs the hens lay, around six a day she told me, and how many eggs do you eat, around two a week. We receive between six and twelve eggs a week the other thirtyish eggs are given to her friends and relatives. A few eggs a month are stolen by her dog. I have occasionally seen him jump the fence, pinch one egg and carefully carry it unbroken back to his kennel. So why keep twelve hens when you only eat two a week? To pass the time she tells me.


Lila, the dog that jumps fences and steals eggs

At eighty seven Luigina is surprisingly fit, I have watched Luigina digging with beads of sweet running down her face, so one morning as I contemplated my own mortality and the fact that I could do with losing a few pounds I decided to start my own l’orta.


Luigina with Nebbiolo grapes, her grandson produces the fine  Barolo wine.

One Saturday in May under the supervision of Luigina I staked out a plot of land four meters by 12 meters for my l’orto, she advised me to use the land near a tree so there would be some shade during the summer. Looking at my plot of land Luigina was working out which plants should go where. I was working out how many calories it would take to dig the hard clay over and how much weight I would lose. She told me I would need some letame because the ground was new. As I nodded in agreement I thought I must remember to ask my wife what letame was.

Sunday was beautiful and armed with my trusty spade (that had last seen action when I was working part-time for two Italian girls who had tried to create an English garden in the middle of an Italian field) I strode purposely down the garden to my l’orto. The fairies had arrived again. This time it was not a basket of grapes but my l’orto had been completely dug over.

As I stood there with my working boots on and my spade in my hand Luigina arrived. I need to quickly add that my Italian is not very good and understanding Luigina is sometimes difficult because she drifts between Italian and her local dialect Piemontese, and I only understand a little Italian but the gist of the conversation was her cousin had arrived with his tractor and late on Saturday he had dug the l’orto over for me. Probably he was paid in eggs.

Five months on we have had fresh vegetables ranging from crisp peas to strawberries, and one of the best parts of owning a l’orto is not eating the fresh vegetables, or watching something miraculously grow from a seed or trying to lose a bit of weight, but playing at fairies and leaving strawberries or potatoes outside Luiginas door.

9 thoughts on “L’orto and the Fairies

  1. She is an amazing woman, I was using a pick axe to dig some tree roots out of the soil and she said “no not like that, like this” she took the pick of me and started to swing it at the ground. I pleaded with her to give me it back. All I could think was if she drops dead Mrs Sensible (my wife) will kill me!!!!!

    I think her secret to not only a long life but an active one, is the continued exercise she gains from working in her l’orta. Plus she seems to live on minestrone soup and a couple of eggs a week. Very very little meat, if we give her meat she feeds it to the dogs.


      • I’m OK for zucchini thanks, but the eggs would be very handy!
        Here’s a lovely Sicilian pasta sauce recipe to use them up: (Quantities for 2 people but you could feed one guestaway as well provided they’re not too greedy):
        1. Grate 2 zucchini on largest grater holes
        2. Fry some garlic (and a few chilli peppers if you like it spicy)
        3. When the flavour has oozed out, add the zucchini and stir gently for a minute or two to soften them (but don’t let them get mushy)
        4. Add half a pack of philadelphia light (the real recipe says mascarpone but all the Sicilians say philadelphia is nicer, and it’s certainly more dietly) – mix it in.
        I haven’t tried storing it, it’s best to serve on pasta immediately.
        If you stop before adding the cream cheese, you can use it as a vegetable side dish, and then it does store well and is very nice cold as a kind of salad the next day.
        Buon appetito!


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  3. fantastic neighbour to have, go Luigina go!!! and what a beautiful granite table you have there, did you make it? or did Luigina? I’d love to know how it was made as we need something like that in Croatia… I think eating good healthy vegetables from her orto has helped Luigina’s health, and those grapes and wine too. You are on your way to a good life there! scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, poached eggs, frittata, eggs benedict, hard-boiled eggs stuffed with tonno, egg and cress sandwich etc etc


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