Podere Fontedi di Pera- a house in Tuscany

Podere Fontedi di Pera


It is hot here in Lucknow. I just returned from Mumbai after visiting my son and although Mumbaikars like to think it is hot there-I did not really mind that sticky heat. It was not  bad under a ceiling fan out in the open, as I discovered while having a fabulously decadent chocolate mud pie and bad ice cream in the open-air cafe at the iconic Prithvi theatre. Sitting under a fan out in an open verandah in Lucknow means you are suffering moving air at 43 degrees !

Some days back I logged into facebook and found a picture of my friend, Patricia’s house in Tuscany posted by someone who had visited them. It brought back a flood of memories of our visit to this beautiful place two years back- I had written the post but it was incomplete and languished in my computer. I dug it out and relived those memories:

‘Get off at Grosetto,’ my friend Patricia had instructed my daughter, Geetika and I on our trip to Tuscany. We had earlier got on to a train from Rome, found our seats next to a couple of generously proportioned women who spoke mainly Italian but communicated with us in sign language, and headed north-east to our destination. At the tiny station of Grosetto it was with both joy and relief that we greeted the waiting Patricia, looking as lovely as ever.

Flowing seamlessly into the Tuscan countryside , part of the garden of the Zannini house


35 kilometres and almost 45 minutes later we were driving in through the iron gates of an old stone house  called ‘Podere Fontedi di Pera’ in the middle of the countryside of Val d’Orchia, home of Patricia, her husband Maurizio Zanini and Paddy, their friendly Golden Retriever.


The gravel covered path, lined with tall cypress, a signature of the region of Tuscany, ended in the double- storeyed, stone house. It was only when we walked through the house and onto the rear terrace that the Tuscan countryside, in all its glory, unfolded before our eyes: undulating tree covered hills in the distance, a scattering of the iconic cypress,  a rolling valley and, meandering through its centre, the river Orchia glistening in parts where it caught the rays of the sun, hiding now and then behind ominous dark clouds.

The old stone house stands at the end of a gravelled driveway and yard.

‘Often, during leave when we came back to Italy, we would come to this region to visit the San Antimo abbey,’ the Zaninis tell us later. This beautiful abbey to which we are driven to later by Patricia, is located quite near the Zanini home  and lies about 9 km from the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route to Rome. A former Benedictine abbey, it has been occupied, on and off, by small groups of monks of different orders, the latest being friends of the Zaninis.

A magnificent view of the house and countryside from the side of the river Orchia

‘ When we saw this property up for sale on the internet we were posted in Bolivia.’ Maurizio, now happily retired, was with the Italian Foreign Office and posted as Ambassador of Italy to that country. ‘We made a trip to Italy, and when shown the property, loved it and bought this house with its surrounding land. This was in 2004.’


‘Archives show this house was built in 1745 by a farmer on the lands of the landlord of

At the wedding of the Zaninis’ second daughter, Perla. The bride stands with the groom, Demetrio, dwarfed by the ancient San Antimo abbey

Sienna,’ the Zaninis tell me.What was originally the barn is now the living room with an interesting stone ceiling with large concave sections. No changes have been made to it.  ‘This ceiling is called ‘soffitto a vela’ meaning sail ceiling-built like sails of a moving ship. The  farmer must have been a very good mason !’ Maurizio says.’We simply had the ceiling sandblasted to clean it.’ At some point this building also served as an extension of the Montalcino hospital.

THe dining area of the living room that was originally a barn. The original, curved ceiling made of local stone

‘The house was simply built with blocks of stone without a foundation. So we had to insert an iron wall and build a terrace to hold the house in place,’ says Patricia. The renovations took about two years and were completed in 2010. This kind of barn was typical of this area- the open barn which housed cattle and an oven were downstairs. A stone staircase led to the living areas of the family. It consisted of 4 bedrooms with a kitchen in the middle and no bathroom at all. ‘We converted the 4 bedrooms into 2 large bedrooms with a bathroom, one master bedroom with a big bathroom and an ensuite dressing room,’Patricia says. The groundfloor has a large,open plan kitchen, a utility room and the living and dining areas.

A sitting area with a large fireplace added when the Zaninis bought this property. It is a copy of a typical Tuscan country fireplace with stone banks on either side

They have renovated a small cottage next to the house to include a cozy bedroom with a picture window that frames the Tuscan countryside and a bathroom.

The interior of the renovated guest cottage. My daughter, Geetika in the picture

Patricia has been a fabulous tour guide for us, driving us to picturesque vineyards that make Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s finest red wines and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, another highly regarded red wine. She drives us to the quaint hilltop village, Montalcino and to another pretty town, Pienza that also makes the Pecorino cheese. Knowing my interest in old homes she has taken us to visit two old houses of friends of hers in Tuscany. She had also booked all our train tickets for our onward journey to the Amalfi coast.

A swimming pool added to the rear of the house

After a long drive back, over a fabulous dinner of pressed octopus and a sea food pasta cooked by Maurizio, he tells us that Eastern Italy, where he comes from, they never really ate pasta. Their food consisted mainly of rissotto, soups, beans, vegetables. Very rarely did they eat meat.  Pasta, a more modern addition to their food, is, of course, cooked often now.

Beautifully preserved , old stone buildings in an old vineyard near the house


However, when their family of four children, two sons-in-law and two grand children get

From left to right top row our son Paolo Emilio, son in law Tommaso, Agata, Perla's daughter, Clelia, Maurizio, capo famiglia and Demetrio, Isabella's husband Lower row from left to right: Noe' , Perla's son our eldest grand child, Isabella, Perla, Patricia

From left to right, top row: The Zanini’s son, Paolo Emilio, son- in- law, Tommaso, little Agata,their daughter, Perla’s daughter, ypoungest daughter,Clelia, Maurizio(capo famiglia)and daughter, Isabella’s husband,Demetrio
Lower row from left to right:Perla’s son and the Zaninis’ eldest grand child,Noe’, daughters, Isabella and Perla and Patricia

together during Christmas, a whole pig is roasted by Maurizzio and the men. This is their very special occasion, after all.

What a fabulous job the Zaninis have done-restoring the old house-allowing it to blend with the beautiful landscape !  Thank you,Patricia, Maurizio for sharing this treasure !

Coming back to India and Lucknow and food, yesterday was Eid and we enjoyed excellent food including the sewain in a string of homes we visited. Lucknow is nothing if you cannot enjoy its food !

See you next time !

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Easter Table with painted Romanian Eggs

My husband was posted in Romania as India’s ambassador from 2007-2011.  Romanians tend to preserve some of their  traditions. They follow the Orthodox church so their Easter falls a little later than the other churches.  Good Friday, the day that marks the crucifixion of Jesus and his death, is not a holiday in Romania. However, the Monday after Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, is.

I had the fabulous chance of participating in the Romanian tradition of Easter on Easter Sunday when some friends invited us to be part of the celebration. At midnight, we gathered at the local church, where the priest appeared with a lit candle saying,’ Hristos a inviat'(Christ has risen), and everyone chorused in reply, ‘Adevarat a inviat’ (He has truely risen). Then we lit our own candles from that of the priest’s and headed back home where we simply dived into a feast of roast lamb and excellent local wine. Diving is right, because having become vegan and giving up wine and spirits and generally observing self-denial for the 40 days of lent, it is time to eat and drink ! People also dye boiled eggs in different colours and the tradition is to crack your own egg with that of another’s while saying,’ Hristos a inviat’ and its reply. Enjoying the act, I think I must have cracked at least four eggs !

It seemed, and, as our friends reiterated, as so many festivals across many religions are, that Easter is basically about introspection and then the renewal of the spirit of faith and hope.

In monasteries dotted across Romania, nuns and other craftspeople paint emptied, intact egg shells in intricate patterns which are then sold.

I discovered pictures of a tablescape I had created  later, in Ireland, remembering the Romanian Easter.

Intricately painted eggs from Romania and burlap fleft over from some packaging

I love the texture of burlap and had put some away from a package. I felt it would work.

In  a storm, a few months back, one of the gigantic pine trees that line the boundary wall of the Indian ambassador’s residence,  had fallen, taking down electrical wiring and damaging some of the road. The embassy, in compliance with orders from Dublin municipality, had to cut down those trees–sometimes safety issues are more important than the environment . I got the gardeners to saw slices of the trunk and used some as stepping ‘stones’ in the garden while a few I happily reserved to be used as serving platters or, in this case, as place mats.

Transverse sections of our pine trees used as mats

To go with the feel of rough burlap and wood I tied cutlery in string.

Wood from an old, dismantled dhow(boat)fashioned as a tea-light holder used as a centre piece .Holder is fromTanzania.

Of course, some Khurja pottery kulhads seemed to blend in with the general, textured, rough pieces- and they were a similar purple-blue as some of the painted eggs. And then the blue Fabindia napkins fell into place. A few wooden hens I had purchased from a charity shop years ago in Canada fitted in with the Easter theme– I did not have chicks but I had their mothers !

The mothers of chicks !

The blue marker pen letters on the burlap -not really out of place !

Anthurium plants in reed baskets from Tanzania completed the picture–

—Just sharing, from Lucknow, India.  At home on Easter Sunday we did crack some boiled eggs in remembrance of the beautiful Romanian tradition.

Hope you like this !   See you next time !


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A haveli named after a mystic, Waris Manzil, in Saidanpur, Uttar Pradesh

It is the mango orchards that I see first when I arrive in the village of Saidanpur on a morning of May. At 8 am the temperature is 36 degrees. But it is the open countryside and it does not feel hot. We have driven down from Lucknow with Jyotsna, whose family, the Habibullahs own mango orchards and a haveli in the village.

Saidanpur lies in the district of Barabanki, 54 kilometres from Lucknow. It lies on the route to Faizabad, which was originally the capital of the nawabs before they moved it to Lucknow. There is extensive cultivation of marigold flowers, mangoes and licit opium in the region.

Although I have grown up in Uttar Pradesh, I am now surprised that I have been to an orchard such as this only twice. The first, of which I have hazy memories, was a visit to my mother’s maasi’s orchards in Maslandpur in West Bengal and the second was when my father organised an ‘Indian village experience’ for a couple of American Field Exchange students, one of who came to stay with us. Turned out, since we had never visited an Indian village before, not counting our farm in Naini, it was as much of a village experience for my siblings and I. This ‘village experience’ visit also included a mango orchard where we were given donkey and camel rides while the entire village came to watch the ‘gori mems.’ Later we all sat around buckets of desi mangoes and feasted on them.

A large, low-branching mango tree in the orchard

It is a treat to be in an orchard. The thick tree trunks start branching out very near the ground. They make a perfect place to sit on and I spot a couple of children perched on them. Branches spread all around, reaching skywards. Looking up from under the trees you can hardly see the sky or feel the heat from the sun already blazing. Many of these branches hold the luscious fruit, some green, others tinged with yellow, indicating they are ready to be picked. A few women sit on the cool, beaten earth sorting a large pile of mangoes which will be later packed into plastic crates to be sold in the wholesale market.

We drive up a kilometre or so to the village nearby. It lies in an open area, meandering to my left. Most of its houses have mud walls with thatched roofs. It is neat and surprisingly quiet. You see, I have just arrived from the cacophony of the city of Lucknow and cannot quite remember quietness. I enjoy it.

Sections of the old haveli lie ahead of the new one.

Ahead of us , set away from the village, telling us stories of the past, lies an old boundary wall and beyond it arches in ruins. Further ahead with a fresh coat of white paint lies the wall of the haveli  with a large wooden doorway set in the centre.

The freshly painted facade of the newer building. The wooden gateway is a classic one.


Jyotsna’s father-in-law Wajahat’s ancestors had settled in this area, he says, around the 12th or 13th century, during the reign of Muhammad Ghori. They were made taluqdars of Saidanpur by the nawab of Awadh. Later, Wajahat’s grandfather Sheikh Mohmmad, an anglophile, was given ownership of 13 villages and formally made taluqdar by then British government. Wajahat Habibullah is not sure when the buildings that now lie in ruins were built but the first floor of the haveli, in its present form, was built by Wajahat’s great grandfather, Sheikh Inayat in the late 19th century. Although Sheikh Mohammad spent most of his time in Lucknow he rarely visited his village and haveli .

His son, the eminent General Enaith Habibullah and Wajahat’s father, set up a stud farm in the village in the later years of his life. The orchards and haveli were looked after by his wife, Begum Hamida.

In the style of havelis , the large outer gateway leads to a small covered space that, in turn, leads to an inner doorway that creaks open. And in here lies a large courtyard surrounded by rooms. Beyond the rooms, now padlocked, was the zenanakhana, the part of the house where women lived.

The open courtyard inside the gateway. Rooms surround the courtyard.


Another view of the courtyard with its mandatory tree and well

A large door to the left opens to a staircase which leads to the upper floor. We arrive at an open verandah. To the left it opens on to a beautiful, large terrace with rooms on one side. The caretaker and his family live there now. A grass roof covers a verandah on  one side. The fact that it is perhaps periodically remade is heartening . Which means craftspeople in the village still know how to make them!   It is quiet, and, with open skies above, we are in a private, secluded space.

A tiled roof on the right and a grass roof supported on elegant pillars covers a verandah on the terrace on the first floor

The verandah we had stepped into leads into a lobby. An elegant table stands against the facing wall. It has casual chairs on either side. Photographs of family members are arranged on it, almost as if they lived there still.

The European-style lobby that leads from the grass roofed verandah

Unique teak folding chairs with cane woven backs and seats in the lobby. The table has a marble top

There is a large western style drawing room beyond the lobby with chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and a melange of elegant sofas and chairs arranged in a large circle, left alone, exactly as they had been placed perhaps by Sheikh Mohammad.

The European-style drawing room. The painted borders along the ceiling and pelmets are untouched and the colours remain vibrant

An elaborately framed Belgian mirror and coloured glass chandeliers decorate the room

To one side of the drawing room is a bedroom that opens onto a breezy balcony and, on the other, is a room which was used by Haji Waris Ali Shah(1819-1905), the Sufi mystic, whose famous tomb, Dewa Sharif, in the district of Barabanki, near Saidanpur, is well-known and revered by both Hindus and Muslims from across India. Sheikh Mohammad’s father was a devotee and friend of the mystic who frequently visited the haveli and stayed in this room. It lies untouched from that time. The haveli was also named ‘Waris Manzil’ after the mystic.

A bedroom on one side of the drawing room. A fabric,hand-drawn punkha (fan) still remains suspended from the ceiling


Haji Waris Shah’s room remains untouched from the late 19th century

The caretaker, Wasi, who lives with his family in a part of the house, serves us hot, puffed puris, aloo rassa, mango pickle and chutney on a table laid out in the front verandah.

The balcony adjoining the bedroom commands a view of open grounds along the village


An ideal place for meals-the verandah

Jyotsna, a woman of many talents, takes active interest in the village of Saidanpur. She has organised various training camps for the women and is taking their tradition of weaving forward by marketing gamchas  or cotton towels woven in the village. Her visits to the village are frequent as are her stopovers at the old haveli.

No doubt, the Habibullahs’ ancestors, wherever they are, are happy that the beautiful building stands in good shape, well preserved and looked after.

I have written about the mud-walled, traditional houses in the village of Saidanpur in an earlier post. Read about them here.

The discovery of houses such as this always amazes me. In the middle of the Indian countryside, in villages placed away from arterial roads and highways lie buildings of immense beauty, interest and importance – historical and architectural. And very few people know about them. Think a mapping is greatly needed !

Do keep reading these posts and spreading the word about these gems. Visit them ,if you can. I will be happy to help -write to me on my email or in the’Comments’ section !

Until next time….





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Canadian fall and Halloween inspired tablescape

I had actually created this tablescape on the 30th of October. But then by the time I uploaded the images, it was time to go to Allahabad, the city where I was born and brought up, where my sister and two brothers live and where I share a bond of memories with families of friends.

So back in Lucknow, in between planting seasonals, I am writing this post.

Just before Halloween friends from Canada had started putting up Halloween images on Facebook-you know, orange pumpkins on doorsteps, collecting pumpkins from farms, witches and cobwebs in their rooms. And then they shared pictures of the magnificent Canadian fall–trees aflame in reds, oranges and yellows, leaves piled up on the ground,etc. In our garden the dwarf poinciana, an amazing shrub that flowers for almost 7 months, was full of orange blooms.So I felt inspired enough to create a table setting.

The dwarf poinciana with its clusters of orange flowers in our garden

A sabzi wala (vegetable vendor)makes rounds of our neighbourhood almost every day. His cart is loaded with fresh produce. So, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of seeing his cart, I buy at least one or two vegetables every time he comes. He was delighted when I bought all three of his green pumpkins (In India’s cities it is rare to find ripe, orange- skinned pumkins ) that I had decided I would carve.

The sabzi wala and his cart laden with fresh vegetables–inspiration enough for many tablescapes !

I tackled the pumpkin first armed with a couple of kitchen knives. I wonder why my knives never seem sharp enough !

A pumpkin roughly scored with a simple pattern

For those of you not familiar with hollowing out and carving pumpkins/vegetables, I am sure there are better carving techniques but here are my utterly  amateurish ones-                 1) Score a pattern on your pumpkin, the simpler the better.                                                       2) Slice off the top.                                                                                                                                  3) Using a tablespoon, hollow out the pumpkin, removing as much of its flesh as you possibly can.                                                                                                                                               4) Using the tip of the smallest knife you have start cutting out your scored pattern- do be careful to control your knife so as not to slice off a finger !                                                             5) One pumpkin down, just carry on being patient, you have 2 more to go ! Or just abandon the other two and be happy with the one !

Ever since we returned to Lucknow, my large table covers had been all but forgotten in boxes which were gathering mountains of dust in a store upstairs. I remembered my Rajasthani , off-white on off-white embroidered cloth and traced it to one of the boxes. It still had a couple of stains from the last table setting it had seen in Dublin, where my husband held his last post. I used this cloth on my table, bunched up. I used the same cloth on yet another tablescape with Cherry Blossom I created in Dublin. Take a look here.

I created elevations with dishes placed upside down, under the cloth and let the pumpkins sit on them.

Carved pumpkin elevated and placed on a large leaf of the Money Plant

Persimmons from Himachal Pradesh, a fruit introduced in India by European settlers are in season and since they come closest to ripe orange pumpkins both is shape and colour, I bought some and used them on the table. Little vases bought at charity shops in Dublin and a couple of shot glasses worked well to hold the Poinciana blossoms.

Shot glasses hold the flowers

Hundreds of years ago, in 1981, my husband, then a bachelor, employed in the Indian Foreign Service and on his language training at Hong Kong (his language was Mandarin), bought his first china tea set at  one of the ‘China Products’ stores in Hong-Kong. China Products, where I , as a newly married woman, on my maiden voyage abroad, was taken to buy my first winter coat before making the 48 hour train journey to Beijing from Canton, was a chain of stores owned by the Chinese government that sold everything Chinese at prices, which, even then,were the cheapest. So you got dried fruit(including apple, pear, pineapple, crab-apple) in dented cardboard boxes, all kinds of tea in pasty green or bright yellow cartons and tins, a huge range of Chinese medicines in large and small boxes with crackling plastic film and gold and black Chinese lettering, steel cutlery-shiny and cheap (many of which I still use !), carved furniture, down jackets in four standard colours, grey and dark blue overcoats (I got the grey one), jade and porcelain figurines and vases- ranging from diminutive to life-sized ones, and, of course, crockery. The last included the almost translucent, beautiful orange flowered tea set.

So I used these tea cups and saucers on my white dinner plates.

Orange tea cup and saucer from ‘China Products,’ Hong Kong.


At our second Halloween in Ottawa, by which time I had learnt a bit about how to decorate your front door with a pumpkin or two, and my two kids had gone out trick or treating, I  got kind of carried away by the witch theme and dressed the part with a shawl draped over my head with fake dracula teeth stuck into my mouth. A little boy rang our doorbell and when I opened the door with my basket of treats, the kid ran off in fright to his waiting father. Turned out he was the very handsome father of my daughter, Geetika’s friend ! I suppose it would have been a far better idea to dress like Snow White !



Hope you liked the tablescape !   I suppose it is possible, with just a bit of effort, to lay out your table, if not with all the crockery and cutlery, then with your favourite piece of cloth, some fruit or vegetables or with a sprig or two of flowers and , in India, depending on whether you have the ceiling fan on or not, a couple of candles or tea lights . Something pretty and elegant for the eyes !

See you next time !

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