Rich pickings

I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.

The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.

There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.

We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.

Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.

In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.

Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.

Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.

We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.

Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.

The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.

It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.

Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.

This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.

Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.

Parasol mushrooms are a culinary delight.

There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!

Heading home with dinner.

Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.

So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.

I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!

I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.

This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.

Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.

I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.

Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .

I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂

10 thoughts on “Rich pickings

  1. We’ve started into our leeks, parsnips and Brussels sprouts. But if we could still forage sans shirt I guess I’d wait too 😂. Lovely spread. We’re into serious apple processing at the moment and two thirds through the potato harvest. Incredible stone harvest at the same time!

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    1. Ha ha, I’d like to point out one of us managed to keep their clothes on! Yes, doesn’t feel right starting those lovely winter veg just yet but I’m happy to stick with the sunshine for now. Slightly envious of your sprouts though, not a chance here although I’m quite chuffed with the cabbages. Your harvest sounds great, will you have enough spuds to see you through to next year’s earlies? What are you doing with the apples? Are you filling your horreo? Amazing how the stone harvest is always guaranteed! 🙂

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  2. Well, what are you going to knit with that gorgeous wool? Such a beautiful colour. (Mr MG reckons it looks like a bowl of intestines during the steeping process!)
    I love that you can go out and forage for such delectables…what will you do with so many chestnuts and walnuts?
    Do you know the name of your pale fig? It looks similar to the no ID one I have..poor thing, its fruit cooked on the tree in last summer’s heat.

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    1. Hello, Jane! Tell Mr MG he made me smile because I have a son-in-law who calls my dyepot a pan of tripe! I’m planning some socks with the madder wool as it’s a Kent Romney / kid mohair mix so perfect for the job, maybe a textured stitch or a bit of cabling to show off the colour which isn’t quite as solid as in the photo? As for the walnut, I’m really not sure yet, it’s too soft for socks really but I think it will be so fine it needs to be something lacy at which I am completely hopeless. We’ll see! We eat walnuts almost every day in various ways, they keep all year in the horreo and are very much a part of the Asturian diet. I’m peeling and freezing the chestnuts, we throw them into things like winter casseroles and trays of roast veg, but I’m also going to try using them in things like pasta dough this year. Sorry, I have no idea what varieties the figs are as the trees were already here. What a pity about your fruit, they are so good. This one fruits in summer but the fruits are inedible, very dry and pithy so the birds take the lot . . . then we have to beat them to the October feast!

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  3. Your garden is making me hungry and I can’t wait to see what your gorgeous wool is made in to! My writing has ground to a halt at the moment as my indoor time seems to be taken up with lesson planning and finishing cardigans for our three year old twins! Your grandchildren are similar ages to ours. How long are you going back to the UK for?
    Autumn has arrived here, we now have a sheet and a throw on the bed! The duvet hasn’t made it out of storage yet. It is much more bearable and after the Gota Fria, despite the chaos it caused, everything is green again! Just finished in the huerto, planting onions, kale and sewing habas seeds. Peas going in next and we have spinach and salad leaves coming along now it is cooler and even without rain, there is a heavy dew each night. I am aubergined out, and they keep on coming! The fridge is now full of chutney! We are heading north this weekend but not as far as Asturias, it is our wedding anniversary and we are going to Salamanca. Maybe next year we will get to Asturias. Enjoy your weekend. Y xx

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    1. Well, it doesn’t sound like your garden is doing too badly, either! Being aubergined out is a terrible state of affairs, who’d believe it was possible? 🙂 It’s wonderful to be able to plant at this time of year, I’ve just been clearing some space in the tunnel and sowing salady things plus lots of oriental leaves to see us through winter. It’s more autumnal here, too, this week, we’ve had a fair bit of wind and rain but it’s still blissfully warm. We’re heading to the Galician coast tomorrow, it probably sounds awful but it’s the village fiesta and two nights in a row of no sleep until 4am really doesn’t suit us – the bands arrive in 3 container lorries and the stage dwarfs the houses, it’s like something from Glastonbury in our sleepy little backwater! Roger is running in Pontevedra on Sunday, we’ve driven through before but not explored properly, otherwise we’re staying on an island so hopefully there will be some coastpath walking to enjoy. Congratulations on your anniversary, hope you have a lovely time in Salamanca. Have you been there before? My brother used to live in Portugal and travelled that way, he says it’s a lovely place. Maybe we’ll get there one day, too! Have fun! xx

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  4. Oh my how wonderful I have fallen into your blog, your garden is delightful and as your is winding down into winter, Mine I am hopeful is gettting its summer on. It has been a crazy beginning to summer here in Tasmania. That some things are out of kilter.. Such a stunning part of the world you live in. I will enjoy reading your older posts, and your new ones. I love your spinning and dyeing

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