Home from home

No sooner had we returned home from our first trip to the UK in almost two years than our thoughts turned to continuing southwards to Asturias; not because we felt the desire for an easing-of-Covid- restrictions travelfest (far from it, in fact) but because we needed to check the state of house and land before hunkering down in Mayenne again and tackling some major projects in the coming months. I hadn’t been back to Asturias since February and I must admit it felt like a slightly surreal home from home, waking in our old bed to the sound of village cockerels once more, almost as if we’d never left. Mind you, there was so much I had forgotten in the intervening months: how even on the gloomiest, wettest, cloud-shrouded day the air remains blissfully warm; how steep the mountain roads are, giddy with hairpins; how the air is pungent with the smell of eucalyptus and rings with the music of cowbells; what a luxury it is to pluck fresh figs from the tree for breakfast; what a pest mosquitoes are in the night; that forgetting to carry a brolly is downright daft; how mesmerising the skyscapes and sunsets can be; how everything grows so ridiculously quickly and how it is all so verdantly, lusciously, eye-wateringly green. I was slightly perturbed to find I had lost far too much Spanish, although in truth my grasp of the language had only ever been tenuous at best and obviously I’ve been operating in French for the last nine months (my excuse!). Even worse, my mountain legs had gone, too, so that walking about seemed far more difficult than it used to be. That said, the sight of a heavy moon hanging over the morning valley was enough to set me climbing the steep lane to wander through the woods in the same way it always used to. Ah, Asturias. Still special.

Time to wander.

I’m not naïve enough to expect the garden to have benefited from neglect but it was still bittersweet to see the jungle it had become and the sad lack of vegetables in what previously had been such a productive patch. No need to feel too downhearted, though, as there was still plenty of colour to enjoy with roses, geraniums, Californian poppies, calendula, cerinthe, pansies, dahlias, verbena bonariensis, hydrangeas, hibiscus, hollyhocks and nasturtiums still giving it their all. We had taken a huge box of fresh veggies from our French garden but there were a few little edible surprises in the jungle, too: some self-set parsnips (how ironic, given they were a nightmare to grow when we lived there), rocket, landcress, oca, New Zealand spinach and, judging by the row of bright sunburst flowers on the terrace, a good crop of Jerusalem artichokes.

Bonus New Zealand spinach amongst the nasturtiums.

I was surprised that no squash had emerged from the compost heap (there’s a first time for everything, I suppose) but there is one in the polytunnel and the less said about that, the better – just don’t try opening the door! The kiwi, ever the thug, was dripping with unripe fruit beneath its dense canopy and both fig trees were loaded with huge crops of soft, sweet fruit, sending the blackbirds and blackcaps into a frenzy of clacking and fighting. I’d forgotten how numerous and aggressive they are in fruit season but can’t say I blame them, those figs are fabulous.

Breakfast!

Having spent so many of our final months in Asturias living in virtual isolation, it was lovely to have a brief chance to catch up with friends and neighbours and make up a little bit for the lack of ‘normal’ socialising during that difficult time. Beyond that, we’d expected to have a fair bit of work to do but had hoped to grab something of a mini holiday, too, perhaps doing a couple of long hikes to stretch our travel-weary legs. No such luck; it quickly became very obvious that there was more to be done than we had bargained for so much of the week felt just like the good old days, working hard up and down those merciless slopes – no wonder we were so fit when we lived there! – then collapsing with a glass of Rioja on the terrace, enjoying the evening warmth, the sweet scent of honeysuckle and Japanese quince and revelling again in that beautiful view. Mmm, it could be worse . . . we didn’t really need a holiday, anyway, did we?

We had at least made sure of a brief respite from work by booking a night away in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela and there is a rather lovely story behind that little excursion. Several weeks ago, I was contacted out of the blue by Emma, a former primary school pupil of mine, who was walking the Camino del Norte and wondered if I fancied meeting her for a coffee as she passed through Luarca. I felt very sorry to say we no longer lived there and definitely wouldn’t be around when she trekked though the area. However . . . we were planning to be in Asturias a couple of weeks later so maybe we could catch up with her somewhere else? In the end, we decided to head to Santiago and be there in the Praza do Obradoiro when she arrived at the end of her incredible solo walk of almost 500 miles. I’ve written about visiting Santiago before and how the atmosphere in that huge square literally crackles with emotion as sore-footed pilgrims finally reach their destination and stop in front of the magnificent cathedral.

The reasons for walking the Camino are as diverse as the people doing it and their responses to arriving in the plaza make for some fascinating people-watching. Some sink to their knees in prayer or sit cross-legged in quiet contemplation; some throw their arms into the air and cheer while others collapse in a heap on top of their rucksacks; some rush in to be greeted by family or friends or other pilgrims, others wander around in stunned silence. There is so much chatter, a babel of different languages joined together in celebration, so much laughter, singing and tears; it is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Emma and I hadn’t met for twenty years yet we recognised each other instantly and it felt like a complete privilege to be with her once again and helping to celebrate her wonderful achievement (actually, walking the Camino had been peanuts compared to some of the things she has done since I last saw her, I am in utter awe of the interesting and adventurous life she leads!).

Still smiling after all those miles . . . bravo, Emma!

I love continental cafe culture, so it was no hardship sitting over coffees for a couple of hours and catching up on news as the world bustled by, a joyful carnival of colour and life moving through the beautiful streets of the old city. We agreed to meet later for dinner and left Emma to grab some well-earned rest while we checked in to our hotel, several kilometres out of town. By a complete coincidence, we discovered it was on the Camino so decided to walk back into the city that evening, following the iconic blue and yellow signs and brass scallop shells set into the pavements. Compared to the pilgrims, we only did a fraction of the walk but it felt right somehow to be following in their footsteps and I could only imagine the range of emotions they must feel winding through the cobbled streets past ancient buildings (there is a wealth of history here!), drawn by the sight of the cathedral’s spires to journey’s end. I still don’t feel any desire to walk the Camino myself but it was lovely to be in Santiago once again and share another tiny chapter in the story of this fascinating city . . . and spend time with a very inspirational young lady, too!

Following in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims.

On arriving home, we did a quick review of all the tasks that still needed to be done ahead of our impending return to France and then had one of our famous ‘soddit’ moments: did we really want to spend the afternoon beavering away at jobs when the sun was shining and the great Asturian outdoors beckoned? It didn’t take long to answer that one! As a brief nod to us both doing at least something useful, I stuffed a load of laundry into the washing machine while Roger promised to go walnut hunting before we got to boar o’ clock later. (On our recent UK trip, I spent several hours playing a complicated game invented by our little grandsons, part of which involved escaping from imaginary sneaky creatures called Pigsnozzles. Trust me, that is the perfect name to describe a family of wild boar discovering a carpet of fallen walnuts at dusk, they hoover up the lot in a trice. We know from experience that the even sneakier two-legged Snozzles need to head out early with a collecting bucket and outwit the pigs if any kind of walnut harvest is going to be enjoyed!).

Hah! The wild boar didn’t get these beauties.

We brewed a flask of strong Spanish coffee, packed a modest picnic of bread, local cheese, olives marinated in lemon, garlic and rosemary (which I’d made for our Galician trip and promptly forgot to pack) and a decadent slice of caramel-crusted homemade tarte tatin, then set out on our favourite local walk of all time: Las Hoces del Esva.

The path winds around rocky outcrops with spectacular views.

I’ve written about this walk many, many times not only because we’ve done it many, many times, but because it simply never fails to delight; as Roger remarked, you just can’t help but smile along the route. The first couple of miles are pretty enough, passing through apple orchards, a small village and long tract of mixed woodland but then you arrive at the head of a stunning gorge and the real adventure begins. From there on in, it is challenging enough to keep me on my toes – literally, at times – but not so unrelenting that I can’t lift my eyes from the path and drink in the incredible landscape.

The boardwalks are the easiest part of the route, despite some missing and wobbly planks in places.

It’s not just the natural beauty of the surroundings or the incredible peace of the place that I love (the vast majority of times we’ve walked this route, we’ve never seen another soul) but also the sense I always have of it being somehow a showcase for the elements. Earth is the ancient mineral solidity of the fascinating rock formations and the path beneath my feet; air, the soft breezes soughing through green branches, spiced with heady scents of woodland and sun-kissed heather; the fire of sunlight breaks through the clouds and sends down bright long fingers to set the river sparkling; water, water everywhere – dripping from the leafy canopy, oozing and trickling from mossy rocks and the crystalline waters of the beautiful Esva itself, babbling and chattering through the deep gorge, rushing ever onwards to the sea. It is completely magical.

We’ve never seen the otters that are known to live there, but there is no shortage of wildlife to enjoy: bright green lizards basking on rocks and scurrying along the boardwalk handrails, clouds of butterflies of every size and hue, damsel flies decked out in electrifying blue, so dainty compared to the huge stiff-winged dragonflies coursing the river’s surface for prey. We stopped to watch a busy dipper, bobbing on a rock mid-stream then diving into the water and reappearing elsewhere, its underwater activity leaving a stream of silver ripples on the surface. As we ate our picnic beneath the spreading branches of a chestnut tree, a robin serenaded us with its sweet autumn song and I felt a deep sense of contentment and peace suffuse my entire body. Santiago was fascinating with all its buzz and bustle but I will always be a child of the wilds; to quote a favourite line from W.H Davies’s poem ‘The Kingfisher’, “I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.” Enough said.

I don’t have a single regret about leaving Asturias, for us it was absolutely the right decision and I am deliriously happy to be living in Mayenne once again. The year so far has been full of the kind of busyness I love as we settle into our new home and start to create an outdoor environment to sustain ourselves and the rich biodiversity of life with which we share this precious patch. We will hang up our travelling trews for a while now and let the car sit and collect cobwebs; I shall press my trusty bike back into service, wander up the lane to check on the coppice now and again and get busy once more in the garden. I’m happy to be a homebird – always! – and rarely feel the desire to go anywhere unless I really have to. However, we will need to return to Asturias at some point so instead of digging in my heels and looking for excuses not to go, I shall try and remember that when all is said and done, it’s only a case of going home. I am so very lucky.

Beans and berries

I’ve written a good deal about the importance (for me, at least) of building resilience into the garden in order to create a space that continues to produce food, flowers and a haven for wildlife come what may. The best test of this must surely be seeing how everything holds up in a period of neglect so our recent 10-day trip away provided just such an opportunity for observation. Typically, the weather forecast promised the hottest spell to date which didn’t fill me with a lot of hope, so we emptied the rainwater butts in order to soak the tunnel and the window boxes and plant nursery, which we also moved into the shade. (As a brief aside, moving them back I felt very guilty at disturbing a couple of huge toads hiding under the foliage – isn’t it amazing how quickly wildlife moves in and takes advantage?) I had my fingers crossed that, left to their own devices, most things would hold up without too much trouble but then, who can ever be sure? The garden is still so much in its infancy, the soil in particular nowhere near as rich in moisture-retentive organic matter as I would like; I have to confess I felt a tad nervous about it all.

In the event, I needn’t have worried; yes, it most certainly had been hot but thankfully it had rained, too, so everything apart from a couple of trays of seedlings had survived and continued to flourish in our absence. Although the presence of deer and wild boar in the locality has been more noticeable of late, thankfully neither had found their way into the garden; our food crops were safe.

I loved the fact that save for a bit of cheese, some natural yogurts and eggs picked up in St P, we didn’t need to shop for anything on our return. We keep a decent stock of milk and meat from the local market in the freezer, a store cupboard of staples like grains and pulses, several shelves of preserves and herbal teas and make all our own bread; the rest all comes straight from the garden and there is something about that self-reliance that I love. I never tire of eating piles of homegrown vegetables and a small bowl of strawberries and autumn raspberries provides the perfect addition to my breakfast oats.

Of course, it’s not all rosy and as always there have been a few issues to deal with. The first job was definitely getting some water into the tunnel which must have experienced searing daytime temperatures during the mini heatwave. The aubergines and butternut squash had held up well but the winter salads and herbs I planted before leaving had suffered without daily watering, rocket and coriander the only survivors. I shall sow again and hope there are still enough hours of daylight to get some young plants going. One very unexpected bonus is that a tiny pepper plant – the only one of two that survived rubbish germination and growing on, poor soil and wireworm damage – is fruiting! I’d totally given up on it weeks ago but couldn’t quite bring myself to pull it out of the ground, so what a lovely surprise that is. Next year we should be far more organised with raising young plants but in the meantime, the aubergines take top prize for tunnel produce.

Caterpillars and slugs have wasted no time steaming into the brassicas and I’m reminded of how valuable those few minutes a day spent checking and de-bugging plants can be. A couple of hours’ concerted effort had things back on an even keel and I must say, after such a difficult start, I’m really delighted with how healthy and lush the brassicas are looking despite those pesky nibblers.

The temporary strawberry bed had all but disappeared under a jungle of ‘weeds’, mostly clover but also a fair few docks and creeping buttercups. I lifted the greenstuff from around the plants and piled it to rot down so it can be returned as a green layer mulch once I’ve shifted the plants to the Strawberry Circle in autumn; of all the potager beds, this one has enjoyed the least improvement this year so I need to rectify that in the coming months. The plants have been fruiting for several months now and are still going strong so I gave them a good liquid comfrey feed and tucked clean hay around them to lift the ripening fruit. There are a dozen established plants to move plus the same in runners I found in the undergrowth; I’ve potted those up to grow on and I’m thinking perhaps a few plants for grazing along the mandala bed paths will be just the thing next year. If they grow half as well as the young herb hedge I planted around the mandala edge a few weeks ago, I shall be mightly chuffed.

Despite having cut and eaten every single tiny courgette before we left, we were greeted by a regiment of giant marrows on our return. Does anything else grow so fast? I see them as inevitable collateral damage and don’t feel too guilty recycling them via the compost heap; there are still plenty of young courgettes coming and the flowers make a bright starburst of beauty in the low light of early morning.

What a change in the squash patch! Having spent the summer spreading across the garden like some monstrous tentacled beast, the plants have started to die back and reveal their hidden treasures; it’s too early to harvest them yet but my heart skips with joy at the thought of all that wonderful winter comfort food to come.

The first rows of dwarf beans left to fatten have started rattling in their pods so that means it’s time to begin the harvest. This is one of those slow old jobs that takes a good deal of time, but what’s the hurry? I love to sit and tackle the pod mountain outside in the fresh air, enjoying the September warmth and making the most of the chattering swallows who surely will be leaving us very soon. There’s a simple, therapeutic rhythm to the task, splitting the pods and putting the drier beans aside for next year’s seed and the rest for the freezer; these are such good food, eaten fresh for four or five months of the summer and providing a nutritious staple through the winter months. We’ve grown three varieties this year and all have cropped heavily: ‘Purple Teepee’ with deep purple pods and beige seeds, ‘Stanley’ with green pods and pearly white seeds and ‘Delinel’ with its incredibly long fine green pods and seeds so darkly purple they seem black.

Watching the separate piles grow, I reflected on how it is little wonder people talk of seed ‘banks’ – this is our currency, our investment in the future and a very precious one at that. Seed saving is an ancient art and one that is absolutely vital to the survival of the human species; it’s a sobering thought that such a huge percentage of seed varieties have been lost since the advent of seed companies and catalogues, a fact that has me determined to hugely increase the amount of seed saving I currently do. Genetic biodiversity is crucial for survival: it’s that resilience thing all over again.

I love the way our food production activities reflect the gentle ticking of the seasons; barely were the windowsills cleared of drying flowers and leaves that I started covering them with plates and trays of seeds, some for culinary purposes, most for sowing next year. The house that smelt of summery floral things like lavender, lemon verbena and peppermint is now scented with the more robust, spicier notes of coriander and dill and the warm fruity fragrance of apples straight from the tree. What a wonderful celebration of September!

Looking at the abundance of produce we have, I know it is only a matter of time before the house will be smelling of chutney, too. We aren’t great jam eaters but a tree of tiny sharp apples (a cider variety, I think, but not far off being crabs) has me hankering to make some autumnal jellies just for a change and I’m picking and freezing the huge tomato red hips from the rogosa roses with a view to making a cordial. We don’t have quite the thuggery of Asturian nasturtiums here but I see enough seeds now to set about pickling them to use in place of capers. Our kitchen renovation might not be finished but I’m going to have to spend some time being busy in it, all the same.

This is also a wonderful time of year for some wild food foraging and I’m delighted that we don’t even have to leave the patch to enjoy some decent pickings. It’s a tremendous year for berries and the hedgerows are alight with vibrant shades of red as rowan, guelder rose, rosehips and hawthorn berries all jostle for attention. I’ve been picking and drying the latter for tea, acknowledging the health benefits they bring (they are a good heart tonic); I love hawthorn leaves and berries combined with lemon verbena, lavender and lemon balm and have decided to call the mix ‘Best Brew’.

In contrast to the riot of red, our blackthorn trees are hung with dusky blue sloes, strung along the thorny branches like pearls on a necklace. We haven’t made sloe gin for many years – it’s not something we normally drink – but this year is going to be an exception as Sam and Adrienne have booked to visit us from Norway for a few days in late December. I’m not shouting too loudly about it as I know there’s every chance the Covid situation could scupper their plans but it will be two years since we last saw them and to say I’m excited is an understatement; it will most certainly be a time of much laughter and good comfort food and what better way to toast some Yuletide happiness than with a nip or two of warming sloe gin?

Looking from our bedroom window earlier in the summer, I was puzzled to see what appeared to be a cascade of pink blossom in a large holly tree. Closer inspection proved it was exactly that: not holly, obviously, but a mass of bramble flowers tumbling from the top of the tree and literally shimmering with bee activity. Fast forward a couple of months and the cascade is now one of blackberries at the perfect stage for harvesting – well, those I can reach, at least! Is there a more iconic seasonal fruit? Their fruity scent wafts across the garden in the afternoon sunshine and for me, there is something quintessentially autumnal about their flavour and glossy fruits that brings to mind woodsmoke, mushrooms and leaves on the turn.

The flower garden is still full of colour but in a way that speaks of the changing season, too; the patches of annuals are thinning and fading, taller plants have started to bend and collapse, seed heads are fattening and popping while the likes of perennial rudbeckia, Michaelmas daisies and sedum send the butterflies into delirium. It’s a week of starry, owl-haunted nights followed by soft, misty mornings, full of the robin’s song and laced with dewy cobwebs. Summer is bowing out, autumn is tiptoeing onto stage and the garden has survived without me. Happy days, indeed. 😊