Food for thought

I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my food every day but at this time of year, when we are surrounded by such abundance, it seems even more pertinent. It isn’t just that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh foods from the garden but also the fact that we are able to process and store so much of nature’s bounty to sustain us through the colder, darker months ~ and that is a very wonderful thing.

As soon as the squash plants start climbing through the walnut trees and endangering the local sheep by hurling themselves down the mountainside at great speed, we know it must be time to start the annual harvest. It’s not easy to capture the steepness of the orchard on camera but Operation Squash Salvage is definitely a two-person job which generally sees Roger slithering and sliding about on the slope, wielding a knife and trying to stop the squash from escaping once cut while I meet him halfway down the slope to collect the prizes and pile them into the wheelbarrow (oh, and do useful things like take photos, too).

Squash plants climbing the walnut tree: time to start the harvest.
The bemused harvester wonders where to start on the terrace . . . you’d have thought he would be used to my excessive squash habits by now!
Meanwhile, the first barrowload is ready to go.

I love cleaning the squash up and laying them out in the yard for their first drying session; in a few days’ time, I will carry them up to the horreo balcony where they can ripen slowly in the autumn sunshine over the next few weeks before moving into their winter store. This is just the beginning: there are still plenty more to come but already I find myself enthralled by this year’s array.

The three blue-skinned ‘Crown Prince’ ( at the front of the photo) and all the butternuts were grown from commercial F1 seed but the rest all came from seed saved from a single squash we grew last year . . . and that in turn had been grown from seed saved in the same way from the year before. I find it endlessly fascinating that so many different types can come from the same fruit, such an incredible diversity of genes from the open-pollinated varieties we have grown in recent years. Last year, every single squash had firm, orange flesh, great flavour and made excellent eating; they kept brilliantly, too (we ate the last one in May) so fingers crossed, those traits have been passed down to their mongrel offspring.

The squash will form a large part of our winter diet but there will be plenty of other things on offer, too. We have a terrace full of Jerusalem artichokes and a good row of parsnips, both of which make great starchy comfort food, while in the main patch a selection of different kales will provide a reliable source of greens.

Rainbow chard (or leaf beet) grows pretty much as a perpetual crop here; the stalks and mature leaves giving us a useful and versatile vegetable and we can pick the baby leaves all through winter for salads. The plants suffered a bit in the last hot dry spell of weather but I’ve cut back the tired foliage and they are already putting on vigorous new growth.

Actually, despite the season and the shortening of the days as we head towards the equinox, there is still a tremendous feeling of growth and abundance everywhere around our patch and it never fails to amaze me just how much food it is possible to yield from a relatively small space. The terrace in the main garden would probably amuse many ‘expert’ gardeners, given that its shallow width only allows for the shortest of rows . . . but currently there are several varieties of lettuce, land cress, rocket, spring onions, purslane, calendula, nasturtiums, Florence fennel, cabbages and leeks all flourishing cheek by jowl and promising good food for several months to come.

Earlier this year, we created a mini hugel bed for the tomatoes in their blight-free shelter and we have certainly enjoyed the best ever crop this season; all that chopping of wood and carting of compost was well worth the effort and once the plants have finished this year, I shall be topping it up with another dollop of good organic matter.

The tomato crop is slowing down now but we are still enjoying plenty of summer on our plate. The tunnel is literally heaving with peppers and aubergines and also the best melon crop ever (their fruity perfume greets us at the door), while outside the globe artichokes have produced a bonus crop.

We are not self-sufficient by any means (and we’re not trying to be); in order to produce all our own food, we would need to keep livestock and grow grains to mill for flour, as well as find homegrown alternatives for the luxuries like tea, coffee and olive oil that we enjoy. However, there is something very satisfying and downright joyful about gathering the bulk of every meal from the garden. I’m still enjoying my ‘fruit burst’ breakfast; the figs are cropping very early this year and so heavily that we can’t hope to keep on top of them, but we’re trying our best. I feel like a monkey in a David Attenborough documentary, reaching up with expectant paws to pluck sweet fruits from the heavily laden branches.

For lunch, there are plenty of goodies on offer from the ‘salad bar’: romaine, cos and oak-leaved lettuce, baby chard and beet leaves, land cress, rocket, baby nasturtium leaves, purslane, spring onions, celery, peppers and cucumbers along with a wide range of herbs and edible flowers.

We’re not vegetarians but we eat (and love!) a lot of vegetarian meals; it makes perfect sense when we have so many wonderful ingredients to hand. One of our favourite dishes is roasted aubergines stuffed with quinoa (or bulgar wheat, pearl barley, rice or whatever grain is to hand), lentils, garlic, chilli and preserved lemons with natural yogurt. To accompany that this week, we made a vegetable ‘hash’ from courgette, peppers, French beans and New Zealand spinach. The courgette in the picture was really verging on the baby marrow but the beauty of ‘Black Beauty’ is that it stays firm and flavoursome even at that size. The beans are the fifth crop we’ve grown this year and are as tender and delicious as the first one, while the New Zealand spinach is creating a wonderful sprawl of succulent groundcover and proving itself a real winner in the kitchen. Mmm, not missing the meat! 🙂

I do enjoy a bit of foraging for wild food, too, and we’ve recently had a real treat in the shape of a bowl of blackberries. I realise that probably sounds a tad tame but the fact is, this is not berry country and despite having oodles of brambles with pink flowers full of pollinators every year, the fruits are either tiny and dry or non-existent. This season, though, has brought us treasure, and while I realise they don’t look too spectacular in the photo, they were totally scrummy cooked with pears and topped with an oaty, walnutty crumble. The polite way to eat that, of course, is as a hot pudding but I prefer it cold for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt. Well, why not? It’s a tasty, nutritious and sustaining start to the day . . . there is most definitely life beyond cornflakes!

It would be easy to become complacent with all this wonderful food to hand but we have been doing a fair bit of experimenting lately, both in the garden and kitchen. We usually sow a row of overwintering peas in November and then make further sowings in spring but beyond June, mildew becomes too much of an issue to make it worth growing more. This year, we’ve decided to try a very late sowing out of interest and there is a promising little row of new plants bombing up their sticks. We’ve also planted pointy (summer) cabbage to try for an autumn crop and they are looking very fine and beginning to heart up nicely. I noticed a while ago that where I have cut lettuce and (very lazily) left the stalks in the ground, lots of new lush growth has sprung up so I’m wondering if this would be a more sustainable approach in future, rather than growing endless successions throughout the summer?

It’s early days in my fermentation career and so far the results have been mixed. The sauerkraut was a complete revelation and instantly converted me from someone who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole to a crazy woman now willing those cabbage to get going so I can make some more. On the flipside, fermented cucumbers and courgettes made a promising start but quickly deteriorated into a foul-smelling, slimy mess fit only for the compost heap. However, I am not a quitter by nature and having been encouraged by my fermentation guru (you know who you are! 🙂 ) to try with grated courgettes rather than sticks, I’m having another crack at it. So, far, so good; the jar is bubbling away like an Icelandic mudpool and smells very fresh and fragrant. Just a few more days to go before the moment of truth . . .

Something else I’ve been experimenting with is making cottage cheese to go with those lunchtime salads. I would love to be able to buy fresh milk for making yogurt and cheese straight from the producer in refillable bulk containers but unfortunately, I haven’t managed to crack that one yet. We usually buy whole milk but having read in several places that any fat from the cream would end up in the whey, I plumped for a litre of semi-skimmed; the only other ingredient was the juice from one lemon. The process couldn’t have been simpler: I warmed the milk and lemon juice slowly over a low heat, stirring occasionally, and turned the heat off once it boiled. I left it to stand for a few minutes, then poured the whole lot into muslin over a bowl to separate the curds and whey, squeezing the muslin ‘bag’ to remove as much moisture as possible. Job done! In truth, this isn’t really what I know as cottage cheese (which is made using rennet) but more like a ricotta or paneer; I had read several criticisms of it being dry and tasteless, requiring the addition of cream and lots of flavourings to make it palatable, but I didn’t find that at all. It had a very fresh, clean, slightly lemony flavour and needed just a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, although I can see that some chopped fresh herbs would make a tasty addition. One litre of milk yielded 150g of cheese and 850ml of whey, a nutrient-rich liquid which is perfect for bread making. It was a lovely exercise . . . maybe we should have a house cow, after all? 🙂

Next experiment in the kitchen laboratory: fig jam! Of course, having a productive veggie patch isn’t just all about the harvesting, we do have to spend a certain amount of time looking after everything, not least the soil. I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to feeding the soil and the circle of the year sees well-rotted manure, homemade compost, green manures and green mulches being used on a rolling basis. I’ve been clearing a patch for winter salads in the tunnel this week where I’ve been trying a no-dig approach for the last couple of years, simply piling manure and compost on to the surface. I used a hand fork to lift a few oxalis seeds but otherwise just pulled the other weeds plus lemon balm and nasturtium volunteers and chopped them to use as a mulch between plants elsewhere, then sowed with a mix of lettuce, oriental leaves, chard and rocket. I’ve been making good use of the very prolific beds of comfrey scattered around the patch, too.

I regularly add chopped leaves to my comfrey tea bucket ~ this patch has been cut five times this year and seems to grow back overnight! The resulting potion is foul-smelling but to me it’s a black gold, making a wonderful feed when for everything in the garden when diluted in water, whether growing in pots or in the ground.

I also use comfrey leaves as a mulch, chopped and placed in a thick layer directly on the soil and this week, I’ve been tucking a decent blanket of it around the purple sprouting broccoli plants on the terrace above the squash garden. Broccoli is one of our favourite staple crops and we usually enjoy a prolonged harvest stretching from January to May, but I have to admit it is a bit of a high maintenance character in our little corner of Asturias. It doesn’t enjoy hot, dry spells so we have been hauling cans of water a fair bit over the summer to keep it happy. It also attracts a plethora of pests and a constant bombardment from flea beetle, whitefly, slugs, snails and caterpillars means we have to be very vigilant gardeners, checking every single leaf every couple of days to remove the little critters. By this time of year, the worst is over and the plants have started to romp away; as they spend a long time in the ground ~ almost twelve months, in fact ~ I felt it was time to give them a bit of a boost. The terrace was planted with a green manure cover crop of Hungarian grazing rye and vetch last winter, then topped with well-rotted manure. I’m hoping the comfrey mulch will provide a natural slow-release fertiliser to see the plants through the autumn . . . now the only problem I have is the blackbird population scratching it and scattering it in their morning hunt for food!

Finally ~ and just to prove it’s not all about food ~ an interesting little story from the world of flowers. For reasons I have never been able to pin down, I have struggled to grow French marigolds every year here which is disappointing because they are such an excellent and beneficial companion plant as well as very pretty, a great food source for pollinators and a useful natural dyestuff. I love them but they just don’t want to grow; germination is scanty to say the least, even using fresh seed, and most of the seedlings fail to thrive. Given how I used to end up in trouble for the jungle of volunteers that popped up in our less-than-tropical tunnel in upland Wales, I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t self-set readily around the patch. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Anyway, thankful for the tiniest crumb, I was thrilled to find a single late volunteer hiding beneath the cucumbers which has grown to bush proportions in recent weeks and has just started to bloom.

Here’s the incredible thing: it has produced four totally different blooms all on one plant in a way I have never seen on French marigolds before. Maybe it’s taking those mongrel squash on at their own game? I don’t know, but it was certainly well worth the wait! 🙂

Acting on principle

Change is in the air. It’s still summer, still shorts and sandals and bright blue skies and warm sunshine but there is a new softness to it all, a smudging at the edges of each day which hints at seasonal change. Mornings, creeping in a little later now, are fresh and beautiful with surfaces flaunting mosaics of dew and whispers of mist threading the valley. The swallows are still here, swooping and spiralling on practised wings, but their days in our skies are numbered. I shall miss them once they’ve gone, as I always do, but there is sweet solace in the robin’s autumnal song, serenading me as I eat my al fresco breakfast.

September brings us beautiful mornings . . .

I love these quiet, treasured times outdoors, breathing deeply and watching nature as it goes about its business, and the importance and relevance of such observations brings me back to the topic of permaculture. Fear not, I have no intention of turning my blog into Permaculture Central. Why would I? It’s just one philosophy, a single strand in my life which is woven from many colourful threads, all of which I love to include in my ramblings and musings. However, I’m hoping that readers will forgive me just this once for indulging in a sequel to my last post where I announced that I had embarked on the year-long #free permaculture course.

. . . and mellow afternoons . . .

Week 4 and I’m still going strong. 🙂 I am no stranger to distance learning or life as a mature student, having studied for both a degree and PGCE through the Open University whilst caring for our young children at home; I was very grateful for the opportunity to achieve a professional qualification without sacrificing our precious family life or missing those priceless early years with our little ones. I’m not pretending it was easy (it most certainly wasn’t) but I believe the rigorous mental stimulation made me a better mum and I know for sure that being a mum made me a far better teacher. This course is a very different beast: there are no deadlines for written assignments or exams, no requirement to follow the structure and no time pressure to finish yet it is such an in-depth, resource-rich course that I find myself going off in all sorts of fascinating directions. If I manage to finish in 52 weeks it will be nothing short of a miracle!

Sun-warmed Japanese quince are currently perfuming the garden with their gorgeous scent; they’ve developed some particularly rosy hues this year.

The only drawback of all this study is that it leaves less time for other things and that, of course, includes blogging. To mitigate against this a little (and to be super efficient at the same time), I am planning to combine the two at least occasionally where it seems appropriate; after all, much of what I’m studying in the world of permaculture is the type of thing I write about anyway. This week, I’m examining the principles of permaculture which includes a ‘hands on’ activity of making flashcards as an aide memoire and ~ since my artistic skills with pencil and paint are laughable and I’m leaving the digital artwork until I reach the actual design stage (let’s face it, that will be more of a vertical rockface than a steep learning curve) ~ I’ve decided to use the medium of blog. I have lots of photos and I’m comfortable with writing so in a way I’m hoping this little exercise will give me the opportunity to consider not only how Roger and I are already applying these principles in our daily life but also the areas where we can make changes and improvements.

Jerusalam artichoke flowers are making a colourful splash on the terraces and buzz with insect life.

One thing I have learned this week is that there are as many sets of permaculture principles as there are permaculturists, but for my ‘flashcard’ exercise I’ve decided to use David Holmgren’s circle of twelve principles, partly because, as the co-founder of permaculture, I feel he knows a thing or two but also because they are the ones I was familiar with before embarking on the course. For each principle, I will share a few ideas ~ in particular, those aspects which I think we have already embraced in our lives, bearing in mind permaculture is an holistic approach which spirals outwards far beyond gardening ~ and then choose one photo (mmm, that’s the tricky part) to illustrate. I’d like to underline the fact that this is not in any way meant to be a lesson or expert discourse, rather it’s just the brief notes and thoughts of an enthusiastic student on a voyage of discovery ~ and if I’ve made mistakes, it’s because I’m only one thirteenth of the way through! 🙂

The squash harvest looms . . . here come some of this year’s home-bred mongrels.

Observe and interact

All permaculture designs begin with reading the landscape, not just the topography and climatic factors but the behaviour of animals and plants, too, and the changes that occur through the cycle of the seasons or the movements between locations. Ideally, a whole year’s worth of observation should be carried out before making any changes. Everything is considered from an holistic point of view and careful observation allows us to mimic nature in ways that benefit all elements within a system. For us, this can mean spending quiet times in the natural world as we tend our patch, studying how plants in the garden respond to different situations, harvesting produce and walking through the meadows and woodland, foraging for wild foods and medicinal plants or watching the bubbles form in our sourdough starter.

Our verbena bonariensis ‘hedge’ is full of hummingbird hawk-moths at the moment; they are fascinating to watch ~ and yes, they really do hum!

Catch and store energy

Storing and using surplus energy, food and resources is an essential part of permaculture and a key tool in becoming more automonous, self-sufficient and self-reliant. For us, this entails planting and harvesting woodland for fuel, storing nuts and good ‘keepers’ like squash, drying, freezing and making preserves, capturing the rainwater that falls on our roof, growing perennial vegetables, maintaining fertile soil and saving seeds. The principle can also include areas like learning skills from other people; for instance, I would like to be taught how to make baskets and then grow some willow just for that purpose.

Freezing, drying, bottling, pickling, fermenting and making jams, jellies and chutneys all help us store energy from our yield for future use.

Obtain a yield

Something I hadn’t really considered in any depth before this week is how living a home-based lifestyle as we do helps us to realise a much greater all-round yield from our most expensive asset (our house and land) than under the social norms of modern society where much time is spent away from the home working, studying, shopping, socialising and the rest. It’s certainly food for thought. Yield refers to all harvests and includes those foods we can forage from the wild (which this year, for the first time ever, has included blackberries from our hedges). Planning for a harvest is important, both to ensure we don’t go hungry and also that any surplus is used wisely and doesn’t become ‘pollution.’ Careful management can result in very high yields from very small spaces which is why permaculture can be so successful in tiny gardens. For us, it means drawing up and adjusting a planting calendar each year, sowing seeds throughout the year for successions of crops and saving some for next season, increasing the diversity of foods we grow (and including perennial plants among them), experimenting with new food crops and ways of using them, swapping surplus and giving ample time to harvesting and processing. Every meal we eat starts with what’s ready in the garden (or orchard, field or hedgrows).

This week’s breakfast straight from the garden: melon, figs and strawberries.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

I find this an interesting principle, one that in many ways is based on discouraging inappropriate behaviour in all elements of a design. For us ~ the human element ~ that means a commitment to living simply, treading lightly on the earth, wasting nothing, being resilient and self-reliant, working with and caring for nature and basing our interactions on co-operation and peaceful negotiation. In the garden, it encompasses ideas such as plant guilds where plants are chosen and sited together in order to ‘help’ one another; for instance, we plant lettuce in the shade of taller, long-maturing crops, nasturtiums as a sacrificial crop amongst brassicas and comfrey as a companion plant to asparagus. Green manures help to reduce weeding and although some management and culling of plants is necessary, we try to develop a garden of self-reliant, self-reproducing plants as much as possible. Accepting feedback from nature entails asking ourselves what works (and what doesn’t!) and adjusting our approach accordingly.

It took four summers of failure and experimentation before listening to nature’s feedback led to our first bumper crop of blight-free tomatoes.

Use and value renewable resources and services

This is a principle that we are constantly working on, increasing our use of renewable resources and reducing our reliance on bought commodities and fossil fuels wherever possible. This includes using sunshine and wind to dry our laundry, either outside or in the barn, or the heat rising from the woodstove during wet, winter weather. We also use the same heat sources to dry foods for storage. Our woodland supplies us with fuel for heating the entire house (we use fallen wood and coppicing as much as possible) as well as cooking and heating water for drinks, washing dishes and washing ourselves during the cooler months; it is also a source of useful materials for practical activities such as replacing fence posts or staking young trees. We capture rainwater from the roof in a butt placed close to the polytunnel and turn all biodegradable ‘waste’ into compost, which we use to feed the soil along with manure from the local farm. We use plant materials in various ways, including for making herbal medicines and toiletries, natural cleaning materials and disinfectant and producing natural dyes. Spinning sheep’s fleece provides a ready stock of skeins for making new socks, hats and gloves when needed.

Washing drying in our wind-powered solar dryer!

Produce no waste

This principle asks us to adopt frugality as a positive lifestyle choice (in my opinion and experience, that doesn’t mean being tight-fisted, doing without or feeling ‘poor’ ~ far from it, in fact) and once again, to walk lightly on the earth. Closing as many loops as possible is an important goal and the way that we use wood, water and compost here goes a long way down that route although a compost toilet would be a big winner! The seemingly ever growing list of Rs ~ rethink, redesign, refuse, reduce, repair, reuse, repurpose, recycle ~ are central to the principle and an acknowledgement that recycling is the absolute last resort is vital. I would argue that there is much creativity to be found in working backwards through the list and tapping into waste streams! Caring for what we already have is also key, so it’s important to develop and use skills for maintainenance and repair, as well as considering ways in which we can use other people’s waste. We avoid waste through doing things ourselves whenever we can, composting, making things from scraps, meal planning, preserving surplus food (mostly in reusable / repurposed containers), sharing surplus, maintaining and repairing things (I’ve just patched a 16 year-old pair of jeans), living to daylight hours (why waste hours of electricity to light a dark house?), showering or basin washing and combining reasons for car trips. We have been working towards zero waste for some time but packaging still remains a serious problem.

Putting ‘waste’ to good use: walnut shells, wood shavings, twiggy sticks and marjoram prunings fuelled an evening barbecue this week.

Design from patterns to details

Permaculture is not simply a list of elements. We might have an organic garden, use renewable energy sources, ride our bikes and drink herbal tea but that doesn’t make a permaculture; the crux of the matter is the way those elements are linked in a flow, the patterns and relationships between them ~ and that’s where the ‘design’ bit comes in. This principle marks a switch from the previous ‘bottom up’ perspective to a more overarching view of systems as a whole. Nature is full of patterns and these can be used to inform good design in structure, time and process, starting from a wide-angle view of the overall pattern and then zooming in to the fine details. Once again, it’s not just all about gardens; when we were planning and implementing the renovation of our house here, the design started with a consideration of pattern, in particular the natural patterns and flows of our daily life and activities within the home. Our garden layouts, our use of polyculture and plant stacking, our (until now unconscious!) use of zones and sectors and various handicraft activities all reflect this principle in action.

I see the webs and industry of spiders in the garden reflected in my spinning wheel.

Integrate rather than segregate

This principle is about engaging the whole system, choosing elements that perform more than one function and functions that are supported by many elements. So for instance, the walnut tree I focused on in my last post performs many functions: releases oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, absorbs and releases water, creates structure in the landscape, acts as a windbreak, provides habitats, casts shade, produces wood for fuel and practical activities, produces nuts for food, produces leaves for mulch, compost and natural dyes . . . yet I could name many different plants or elements within our patch that also perform those same functions. It’s all about relationships and once again, practising polyculture, sowing green manures and using plant guilds is a good example of what we are already doing. Turning a ‘dead’ area of the garden into a small pond and wildlife habitat has led to an increase in our frog, toad and grass snake populations which in turn helps with pest control. This principle works at a community level, too; a quiet lane runs through our property and the blue seat we placed in the shade of a fig tree is there for all to use, a welcome resting place for passersby after the steep climb or simply a peaceful spot to sit, relax, contemplate, enjoy the flowers or chat.

Polyculture in practice: our garden is crammed with many different species and varieties, both plant and animal.

Use slow and small solutions

Small-scale, intensive solutions can produce both greater yields and diversity and underpin the goal of self-reliance, as well as being a far more efficient way of getting things done ~ I love the way that permaculture values hammock time! Doing things slowly gives us the time to observe, learn, enjoy, improve and relax, and is surely a welcome and healthy antidote to the rush and bustle of modern life stuffed as it is with fast travel, fast food and fast fashion, disposable commodities, social media and instant gratification. Making our own sourdough bread and yogurt, preserving, pickling and fermenting foods, foraging, collecting stone for building, coppicing wood, collecting, chopping and seasoning logs, making compost and comfrey fertiliser, using well-rotted manure, growing dye plants, seed saving, spinning, dyeing, knitting and crochet, making birthday cards and gifts and walking and cycling are just some of the ways we do things slow-time here. Preparing all our meals from scratch together is a real biggie and I’d argue that where ‘Slow Food’ is concerned, you can’t get much slower than starting with planting a few seeds! I think a good example of a small-scale solution would be solving the strawberry problem. Slugs and snails tend to thrive in the humid climate here and we knew that protecting a strawberry crop planted in the ground would be nigh on impossible. The solution? Build a trough from scraps of timber, raised high on stilts to prevent the slimy ones reaching the plants. Outcome? An ongoing, bumper crop of delicious, juicy, unblemished, slime-free strawbs!

It’s hard work in these mountains, but we are increasingly choosing to ride our bikes instead of using the car whenever possible.

Use and value diversity

Striving for diversity ~ biological, ecological and cultural ~ makes a lot of sense to me; there is much wisdom in the warning not to put all your eggs in one basket, and again having choices and back up plans (ideally for other back up plans!) gets us a long way down the path to automony, resilience and self-reliance. On our patch, we encourage and extend diversity through polyculture, exploring new plant species and varieties, seeking and using wild foods, seed saving (particularly open-pollinated and heirloom varieties), creating dishes and menus from the choice of home-produced foods we have and creating and encouraging mini-ecosystems. We value cultural diversity, too; I’ve written many times about the privilege and mind-broadening experience of living and learning in different cultures and countries. Sharing our space with neighbours and friends of different nationalities is a hugely pleasurable and enriching thing to do and our life reflects many ideas and approaches we have learned from other cultures. Diversity extends to structures, too: here, the house offers us shelter and warmth (and obviously somewhere to wash, sleep, cook and relax); the underhouse barn traditionally provided accommodation for animals but now acts as a utility and storage area; the barn gives us a workshop and tool store, an area for drying washing on rainy days and a useful space for indoor exercise; the polytunnel allows us to trap solar energy and extend the growing season; finally, the horreo in itself is a wondefully diverse structure, the perfect embodiment of ‘one element, many functions.’

The horreo provides a convenient stone log shed, a shaded outdoor area for sitting or doing yoga, a wooden balcony for drying foods and a dry, rodent-free food store. (Also, a location for siting a television aerial it seems, but that had nothing to do with us!)

Use edges and value the marginal

Physical edges ~ for instance, where fresh water joins salt water in an estuary or where forest meets field ~ tend to be fertile, dynamic places with much to offer. In permaculture design, valuing edges and marginal places (and ideas?) is a key principle that reminds us not to overlook or forget about such areas. Here we try to use edges as multi-functional elements, such as growing plants up fences necessary to keep wild boar out of the garden or letting wilder plants such as apple mint ramble along the bottom of them; dry stone walls built to create terraces have proved to be excellent habitats for lizards and favourite spots for useful and edible self-setters to appear; making wavy path edges by reusing old curved terracotta tiles has created mini ‘keyholes’ where herbs and flowers thrive. Beyond the garden, the margins offer us good forage of wild foods as well as a diversity of habitats for other species. By planting a wealth of flowers and herbs at the margins of our patch along the sides of the lane, we share our edges with others in the community.

Foods gathered from the margins of our patch.

Creatively use and respond to change

Change can seem frustrating, worrying, unwanted and threatening but it’s the only constant in life and being able to respond to it in a creative way not only builds resilience but can be a very uplifting experience. Flexibility creates durability and is essential if we are to pursue a lifestyle of sustainability and regeneration, now and in the future. Permaculturists often state that ‘the problem is the solution’, as illustrated by Bill Mollison (the other co-founder) and his observation that there is no such thing as a slug problem, rather a duck deficiency. This principle, therefore, is all about making changes to our own habits as well as responding positively to the unexpected. Certainly, choosing to move from ‘mainstream’ living to the way we now live here, making important choices about things like food, travel, energy and shopping, trying new ideas such as growing and eating different foods, adopting new gardening practices, making soap and toiletries rather than buying them, planting trees for the future and adjusting our lifestyles to try and help tackle the problems of the climate crisis are all ways we have embraced change. The ongoing ban of growing potatoes in our region of Asturias, now in its third season, has forced us to think creatively: no potatoes, now what? The solution has been to grow more starchy vegetables that we can use in their place ~ squash, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and, for the first time this year, oca. It’s too early to try the oca, but I can happily report that the other three at least make fabulous chips!

Planted for the (warmer?) future: our little orange tree is at last bearing fruit.

Phew! So much to take on board and of course, all these principles are part of a whole system revolving around the triad of permaculture ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. I’m quietly surprised at how much we are already doing without having realised it was a valid part of the permaculture concept, but of course there is plenty more to be done. Reflecting on what I’ve written, I can see that there are some very pertinent elements that would help us to move forward including solar panels for hot water and electricity, a compost toilet for humanure, going back to keeping chickens, ducks and bees as we have in the past, learning and using new handicrafts and skills, involving ourselves in community projects with like-minded people, finding our ‘tribe’ and thinking of ways to share our space. I can’t promise that we’ll ever crack it completely or achieve the full interconnection and flow of a true permaculture . . . but I’m inspired to give it a go and at the very least, it’s keeping me out of mischief! 🙂

. . . and stunning sunsets, too.

A design for life

I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why it should be, but this time of year always leaves me feeling slightly enervated. Perhaps it’s something to do with the weather, the sun still hot and high, the air slick with moisture and brewing storms. Maybe it’s all the busyness of harvesting and processing things from the garden; I’m not complaining ~ we are so lucky to have such an abundance of fresh produce and the means to preserve most of it ~ but it’s a pretty relentess activity at the moment. It could be some kind of circadian rhythmic response to the noticeably shortening days or just a throwback to that perennial sinking feeling that the holidays are nearly over and the new school term looms! I’m really not sure, but I’ve certainly lacked the energy that swirls in abundance through those stormy skies.

Sunny evening, stormy sky.

The irony is that I know full well as soon as we have passed the point of balance at the equinox, I shall be bursting with energy and buzzing like a fly in a bottle with ideas for new creative projects. In the meantime, I’m simply pottering about without much enthusiasm. I’ve been felting little bags to stuff with birthday goodies for Evan and Matthew, finished knitting a pair of socks which I’ve been fiddling at for weeks, made another batch of soap, done a bit of spinning here, a bit of crochet there and, at long last, finished the dress I have been sewing. All butterfly-minded, I’ve been flitting from one activity to the next, nibbling at the edges of things but with no real appetite to get stuck in.

Self-set phacelia and hungry visitor.

I’ve tried to find the discipline to go for a run a couple of times a week but I have to confess, yoga has been far better suited to my mood and, with the new horreo flooring finished, I find I have the perfect outdoor studio. I love the combination of the honey-coloured stone and wood, both old and new, in such a light, airy space; it’s totally shaded from sun and sheltered from rain but the breeze can still blow through in a soft, refreshing way; I have wonderful views over the tops of the peach trees and yet it’s completely private. It’s like being up high in my own little castle and I love it!

View from my castle ramparts . . .

One of my favourite parts of yoga practice is the inverted postures. Children turn themselves upside down at the drop of a hat but how often do we do the same as adults . . . and why not? It feels crazily liberating and, in addition to a healthy flow of blood to the brain, it encourages us to look at life ~ literally and metaphorically ~ from new angles. So it was that I was resting in Downward Dog, contemplating the mesmerising sight of the eucalyptus trees in our woodland catching a fair breeze in their silver boughs, when the random thought of ‘permaculture’ landed in my consciousness. (Apologies to serious yogis: I realise when I’m doing yoga, I should be concentrating on only that! 🙂 )

. . . and in Downward Dog!

Permaculture is something that has interested me for some time and I’ve been dabbling in it for a good while now. I’ve done a lot of reading, watched hundreds of video clips, followed permaculture blogs . . . but never really fully engaged in coming to understand it properly. I’m not in a position to sign up for studying for the Permaculture Design Certificate at the moment but I’ve been struggling to find a truly viable alternative, and I’m aware part of that is a personal thing. There’s a lot of material out there, some of it really excellent and inspirational, some of it utterly dire. I’ve found it hard to gel with certain personalities or to subscribe to elements of elitism from some quarters and I’ve also found the quality of some writing truly terrible. (I know it might sound fussy and pedantic and yes, I did hang up my teacher hat several years ago, but if I am constantly distracted from the bones of an argument by poor grammar and spelling then the course is definitely not for me!).

Beauty in bloom.

Anyway, my yoga moment had me thinking perhaps it was time to look again and I was very delighted to find the #freepermaculture site and sign up for the year long course on offer. It’s only early days but my goodness, I think I’m going to loveevery bit of this course! It’s very accessible and user-friendly, bright and fun without feeling dumbed down or lightweight in any way. I like the fact that it’s delivered by different voices and that disagreement and discussion are encouraged as part of the learning process; I think that is incredibly healthy and I’ve always enjoyed a good debate. I love that it’s hands-on so that all the theoretical study will be put into practice and that plenty of time has been built in to allow proper development of thought and action. The fact that it is free is amazing, although I shall certainly be making a donation in support of the good work ~ I think that might be the ethical principle of Fair Share in practice both ways?

So, why permaculture? Well, it became clear once I started reading about it that we have been applying some of the principles to our life for a long time without even realising it, so it makes a lot of sense to pursue those ideas further and see where they take us. Certainly, much of our gardening practice is already along the right lines; for example, I would argue that the time, observation, effort, thinking, building and working with nature that we have devoted over five summers to yielding a healthy tomato crop here is testament to that. I’m excited to really get to grips now with the design concepts and start playing with new ideas and strategies around the patch.

Certainly, for us the concepts of sustainability and regeneration are key to our personal philosophies. The more self-sufficient, self-reliant and resilient we can become and the more we can reduce our carbon footprint and care for everything living in our space now and in the future, the better.

Iberian grass snake: judging by the bulge halfway down its length, it had just found a living lunch in the compost heap!

It’s not just about gardening and food production, either ~ and that’s another element of this course I welcome, the fact that that is made very clear. Permaculture, based on three sets of ethics and twelve principles, is something that can be applied to all areas of life and the challenge is there for us to try and achieve that in a cohesive flow. It’s not perfect (what is?) and I’m not saying it’s the only possible design for life, but I think it’s a great peg for us to hang our future on and see what transpires.

Part of this week’s harvest from the orchard; the fig season has started, too.

In many ways, this is not so much about us as about the future. Roger and I are currently 57 and 53 respectively; we don’t consider ourselves to be ‘old’ but we are under no illusion that the larger part of our lives is behind us. What we do now is for our children and grandchildren and all the generations yet to come; I have no doubt that Planet Earth will endure, as it already has for several billion years, but I think we have a serious responsibility to hand it down in a fit, viable and valued state ~ and that certainly seems like a big ask at the moment.

However, I am nothing if not an optimist, and starting my new studies has given me a huge boost in the right direction. I suddenly feel hugely motivated again, full of energy and enthusiasm to look, listen and learn, to shake off this late August lethargy and get well and truly stuck in.

Not a bad classroom!

I even chose to do an extra optional activity in my first week, an observation and study of a significant tree in the locality. I chose one of our mighty walnuts and spent a very absorbing and happy time sitting in the shade of its wide green canopy, jotting down my ideas.

I definitely learnt many things just from this single activity, not least that my spelling brain and the word ‘mycorrhiza’ don’t get on! I also discovered to my surprise that on a mature walnut tree like this one, the leaves are larger at the ends of the stem than further in; if someone had asked me to sketch one from memory, I would have put smaller leaves at the end, as they are on the younger trees. Observation is a powerful tool, indeed!

So, I’m very eager to see what these 52 weeks of study and activity will bring ~ who knows how our lives might change in the next twelve months as a result? It feels like quite an undertaking, a bit scary in some ways, but I do love a challenge, particularly one that keeps the old grey matter busy. Life is exciting, so full of opportunity and possibility, and there is something very uplifting and exhilarating about stepping out on a new path, wherever it may lead . . . yes, even at my great age! 🙂

New dress, new path . . . the adventure begins.

Contrasts

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?

John Steinbeck

The rain came. After a day of humidity so high we could almost lick the moisture from the air, a storm broke and water fell on the parched garden. A brief respite the next morning meant I could take my breakfast outside as usual and feel the tantalising difference in the air; the sky was bruised and turbulent, swollen with the promise of more rain to come (several hours’ worth, as it turned out), but beneath it there was a bright freshness to the garden. It felt as though everything had let out a huge sigh, a deep, delicious exhalation of relief; plants had shaken off the dust, lifted their heads and stretched limbs upwards again. After many days of langourous lethargy, there was energy once more, a new optimism embracing the will to go on.

Clouds were forming in the valley, rising and looping from the woods like plumes of shape-shifting dragon’s breath; no matter how many times I watch this happening, it never fails to feel magical.

I love the change the rainy weather brings, the stark contrast and different feel to those cloudless, sunlit mornings. The water paints everything in deeper hues, so that beneath my feet the chestnut leaves, dropped in drought, shone like scales of burnished copper against the green. It’s a while since I’ve needed to wear wellies, too!

The leafy canopy so slick with rain, all shining and drippy, and the froth of wild carrot both had a palpably altered air seen against duller skies.

Lizards ~ those irrepressible hedonists ~ are two a penny here, scuttling about in busy flurries or simply sitting and soaking up the sunshine. The rain, however, brought out a more shadowy character, mooching across the yard with an exaggerated swagger. Fire salamanders are curious creatures, secretive, hidden amphibians that emerge under the cover of darkness to hunt . . . unless it’s raining, when they are happy to endure the daylight, too. They are poisonous and can be incredibly long-lived (almost as old as me, in fact): a small animal worthy of the greatest respect.

While so many things in the garden welcomed the rain, it wasn’t all good news. I love to grow sunflowers but have to admit it is nothing but a struggle here; the seedlings are usually decimated by slugs and snails, although this year most of the seeds were eaten by mice before they even had the chance to germinate. The survivors grow tall and top heavy and that is often ~ quite literally ~ their downfall; it’s impossible for them to put down deep roots on our slopes and any hint of strong winds or heavy rain can send them toppling over like fallen giants.

Of the three beauties flowering, two were lost and a plant in heavy bud lost its head; it’s an unwanted change but all part of gardening life and at least there is still one stunning plant for the bees to enjoy. I’m enjoying the salvaged flowers on the kitchen table, too, and the chance to study their intricate structures and fascinating beauty close up. It’s a vivid reminder of the pleasure there is to be found in small things.

The winds of change have blown through the vegetable patch this week, dancing to the steady rhythm of the seasons and bringing subtle contrasts of colour and flavour in their wake. We have moved from purple to green beans, cherry to plum tomatoes, from spearmint to apple mint, from sweet peas to sunflowers. The carrots and calabrese are finished, the aubergines and Asturian beans begun, the melons and squash whisper in the wings. Where onions have been lifted, cabbages are planted. The benign climate gives us permission to keep on sowing and nature shows us how: amongst the young spring onions and lettuce plants, self-set rocket, land cress and succulent purslane seedlings proliferate, with their promise of tasty salads for weeks to come.

Our meals begin with what is good in the garden; there is such choice and abundance now, we barely need anything else. What a blessing!

Further afield, and regular readers will know that one of the things we love to do is walk. It’s always exciting to explore new routes but I love to revisit old ones, too, especially to map the changes through the year. Not wanting to stray too far from home this week (the combination of holiday season and a public holiday making everything a bit busy out there), we opted to go back to the Ruta Vueltas del Gato. This is a circular walk of roughly 13 kilometres / 8 miles through a beautiful and changing landscape which I first wrote about in an earlier post; having only done it in winter, I was keen to visit again now and hear its summer song. Well, certainly we were going to be walking under a very different sky this time!

December
August

The trail leads across what feels like a wide expanse of moorland; it is in fact a large area of former eucalyptus forest that is being regenerated under a managed scheme that is pretty much letting nature take its course. It was much easier to appreciate how things are developing in the height of summer growth compared to the bare bones of winter.

December
August

For me, there was a tremendous sense of the land being healed here, of a brave new ecosystem and raft of life emerging from the ashes of monoculture. I can’t begin to describe the butterflies any more than I could capture them with the camera; there were literally clouds and clouds of them, like confetti in so many sizes and colours. Tiny blues rose from the path with every step we took while others shimmered above the undergrowth like a heat haze. The insect life in general was stunning, the heather and gorse alive with their activity and noise.

There are many, many reasons why I love birch trees, one of which is their pioneer spirit: give them a patch of land and they will be there in no time. Beneath the protective layer of shrubby undergrowth, shiny new tree seedlings were emerging, the birch most definitely leading the charge . . . and when they are given permission to reach for the skies, what beautiful trees they make.

There were other, more unexpected treasures to be discovered, too.

From this wide and open country, the path begins its long and sinuous descent to the bottom of a steep-sided gorge; it’s not called the ‘Cat Bends’ for nothing! It’s a difficult path, littered with boulders and deep gullies that make walking difficult. I must admit, I found it much easier under foot in the drier conditions of summer than the slipperiness of winter, so much so that I was even able to lift my eyes from the path and drink in the view.

That said, summer brings its own problems, it seems . . . so much growth in places, the path literally disappeared. Roger is in front of me somewhere, honest.

In winter, the mountainsides had seemed somehow metallic, the trees bare in silver and pewter or clinging to autumn colours in fiery flashes of copper and gold. Now, all was green upon green, lush and verdant in the higher light with not even the slightest hint of summer’s end in sight.

December
August

Down and down we went (170 metres in 500 metres of walking, to be precise), with the sound of the river growing ever louder until at last we caught the first glimpse of water through the trees.

Like our walk last week, we had arrived at a watersmeet, the place where the serene río Navelgas-Barcena meets the busy, chattering río Naraval before they continue their journey together as the beautiful río Esva. In December, the rivers had been full, stretching wide to their tree-flanked banks.

December

Now, everything was softer and slower. Sunlight strobed through the leaves and sparked off the water in scattered explosions, forming exquisite constellations of tiny diamonds on the surface. Pond skaters sought sunny patches, edging ever forwards against the current, whilst turquoise damsel flies flitted in twos and threes on indigo wings as dark as midnight.

This is a magical place: in contrast to all the movement and sound, the peace and serenity are so strong that they are almost tangible. You can breathe in pure, raw nature through every pore here. It is the sort of place I find hard to leave.

December
August

Leave, of course, we must ~ there were still many miles to go. There is no bridge across the río Naraval so wading is the only option. I love this sort of fun element to a walk but I have to say it’s a lot more enjoyable in summer temperatures!

December
August

The climb back to the top of the gorge is a long and steep one but the beauty of the woodland in its summer colours was a happy distraction from the hard work my legs were doing.

Emerging once more into open country, we could look back at where we had been walking earlier. That’s one of the things I love about a circular walk like this, the real sense of a journey, of distance travelled and landscape experienced and explored from different angles and perspectives. I loved the contrast of the dusty track punctuated with fresh puddles, too.

More contrasts in the colours and textures of the landscape again and reflecting on the pictures, I’m reminded of how every season holds its own unique forms of interest and beauty.

December
August

Just before our path turned into woodland once more, we had a sweeping view across the valley and the rocky path along which we’d walked. In the centre of the photo is a traditional feature of the Asturian landscape, a circular stone wall built to protect beehives from the attention of bears. It was a timely reminder of the fact that, although we were only a short drive from home and we could see farms and hamlets scattered across the landscape, it is very much still wilderness; humans might have been making their mark here for millennia but there remains an untamed, unfettered spirit of freedom to this land.

Home once more and we are likely to spend the rest of August pottering about at home while the holiday month runs its course. The weather remains changeable, playing a constantly fluctuating game of ‘Blue Sky, Grey Sky’ but I’m not complaining; it’s a little bit of variety and uncertainty, of changes and contrasts that surely makes life more interesting! 🙂

Woodlands and other wanderings

It has been hot here this week which is no surprise, really; it is August after all, and the sun is still high and strong. It’s the sort of weather that draws many people to spend their days on the beaches, but for me the loveliest thing is an early morning walk through the woods. First, I like to take my breakfast outside and enjoy it accompanied by the sounds and activity of the garden waking up: the flitting of small birds about their business, the low buzz of the early bumble bees, the whicker of blackbirds as a pole cat silently stalks the hedgerows, the garrulous natter of crows and jays in the woods, the joyful chatter of swallows tumbling around the sky. In keeping with the general culture here, our neighbours are late risers, so there is a peace to the village below, no sound or movement apart from the babble of the river and the occasional strident cockerel. Breakfast done and the woods call me.

Climbing the hill from home, I stop to turn and enjoy the view; in the west, the mountain tops are already illuminated, the waning moon a fading thumb print pressed into a lightening sky.

There is something very special about this quiet time of day under the trees. The smell of morning is unique, caught in the liminal time between the cooling balm of night and crisp heat of day. The eucalyptus, which exudes a sharp herbal scent after rain and a pungent spicy scent in warmth, now has a soft mintiness to it that allows other scents to come to the fore. Is it possible to smell in green? I’m quite sure that’s what I do, breathing in the essence of all that lush vegetation, the swollen growth of full summer.

If I could only ever have one flower in my life it would be honeysuckle. It is blooming now as much as it was in May, its delicate filigree flowers twining and climbing through branches and releasing the headiest of perfumes that wafts through the trees as I walk. Sublime.

Of the broadleaf trees, it is the chestnuts that make me smile the most at this time of year. In spring, they are tardy lie-a-beds, all bare branch and tight bud while everything around them flaunts bright plumes of fresh foliage. Then follows the race to catch up and overtake, elbowing their way into the woodland procession with branches thrown high and wide and a swanky, tiered canopy in the darkest of greens. In recent weeks, there has been an exuberant exhibition of flower and catkins, the woodland floor now carpeted in discarded soft tassles and branches boasting the burgeoning spiky explosions of future treasures. Come October, they will be showering the landscape with their glossy nuts and raining down leaves of bright fire in an autumn extravaganza. Show offs!

In contrast, the dark hollies stand silent and steadfast, so constant in their waxy deep hues . . . and yet, look closely and there is a hint of the flamboyant flourish to come.

In all this sensory beauty, it is the quality of light that draws me back time and time again. I love the startling contrast between light and shadow as the sun climbs from behind the mountain, its creeping rays fragmented and scattered through the leafy canopy.

August is a time of frenzy here; it’s the crazy holiday month that sees an influx of visitors (more this year than ever, it seems) and a soaring level of busyness and bustle about the place. We know from previous experience that the best thing for us is to hunker down and aestivate at home, brazening it out until September, when the veil of peace and serenity enfolds Asturias once again. That said, we do have to venture out occasionally for supplies and so this week, as we often do, we decided to sweeten the pill of a supermarket trip with a walk in a lovely spot first. We headed to Castropol at the very western edge of Asturias, then turned south and climbed the ear-popping, snow-poled road to La Garganta (900 metres) before spilling down the other side ~ out of the coastal mist and into a wall of warmth ~ to Santa Eulalia de Oscos and the Ruta de la Cascada de Seimeira. This is a pleasant walk to a pretty waterfall, and every time we have done it before, we have had the place to ourselves. Not this time! The car park had overflowed big time down the lane and there were crowds of visitors, rucksacks at the ready, heading off along the path. Now, please don’t get me wrong with this. I do not believe we deserve special treatment when it comes to this sort of thing and it is only natural that many people want to enjoy the beauty of such a place ~ it’s there to be shared, after all. However, we are not herd followers or crowd seekers and the idea of trooping along in a human crocodile, so close that masks were obligatory (in that heat?), just didn’t appeal. Time for a sharp exit; incidentally, if we ever end up doing Plan A, I may have to go and lie down in a darkened room for a while! 🙂

We drove a short way to a deserted woodland picnic site and, consulting the map over a flask of coffee, decided to walk from there along the Ruta del Forcón de los Ríos whose name suggested at some point we would come to a watersmeet.

The walk started along quiet lanes in open country; there is such character and charm to this western margin of Asturias, more rolling hills than soaring mountains, arable farming and stone houses standing square and solid under slate roofs.

Slate is very much a feature of the landscape and I am always fascinated by the great ranks of upright slabs, like rows of crooked teeth, which serve as fences in the region.

The route soon left the lane and picked up a trail down through mixed woodland and across the río Barcia; nowhere near as spectacular as the waterfall we had intended to visit but we would see this little river again later on.

We continued along the path to Vega del Carro where we passed the tiny chapel of Nuestra Señora del Carmen tucked away in a woodland glade. I have a soft spot for humble buildings like this, not from any shared religious conviction but because as someone who finds her ‘peace’ sitting under a tree, I greatly admire the hands, hearts and minds who built their chapel in the shade of a protective yew, using the stone beneath their feet and wood from the forest. For me, there is an exquisite beauty and sense of meaning and purpose in such simplicity, far greater than anything contained in the carvernous glories of great cathedrals.

It was turning into a hot day and I was glad of the shade as we walked through great stretches of woodland where mighty oaks stood sentinel over smaller trees.

There was a beautiful mix of tree varieties and I was particularly charmed by a pretty pairing of dainty birch and showy rowan, those bright berries so typical of high summer.

It never fails to amaze me how quickly we can walk into wilderness in Asturias; I don’t know why it comes as a surprise, because it’s exactly what we do from home but even so, it’s always a wonderful thing. Suddenly, we were in a gorge where craggy outcrops rose above the thick woodland and the air was clotted with the scent of sun-warmed heather.

We had been able to hear the river far below us for some time before the path started to descend steeply towards the valley floor. It was unbelievably slippery, the dead vegetation having made a silky carpet of straw which felt like ice beneath my feet. Still, it makes a change from mud and wet rocks, I suppose!

As the path led into the shade of trees once again, we crossed a wooden bridge and arrived at the confluence of the río Villanueva and río Barcia, their cool, clear waters meeting in a sparkling song across the stones.

What a beautiful, peaceful spot it was, not a sound to be heard apart from the bustle of the water and bursts of birdsong. We sat and watched the lazy flapping of butterflies and rapid darting of damselflies, the latter like splinters of metallic rainbows caught in the sunlight.

It was incredible to think that just a short distance away as the crow flies, crowds of people were filing up to the Seimeira waterfall. Over the entire length of our walk ~ eight kilometres (five miles) ~ we only saw one other human being, an elderly lady tending a very beautiful garden. Her friendly greeting reminded me how language becomes smudged and blurred on these Asturian fringes so that buenos días slides into bos días and then bom dia in a linguistic echo that ripples across Galicia and down into Portugal.

The path beckoned us on but, tempting as it was, we still had the supermarket to face, so decided to go no further. We will definitely return, perhaps when summer starts to spill into autumn and the colour and light shift across the landscape once again. In the meantime, I shall continue with my little morning meanderings in the woodlands closer to home! 🙂

Loving Lammas

The true harvest of my life is intangible – a little stardust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched.

Henry David Thoreau

At the halfway point between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, the beginning of August marks the festival of Lammas, which takes its name from the Saxon hlaf – mas or ‘loaf mass.’ Although at one level it is a Christian festival celebrated in some northern hemisphere countries, it is based on much older origins and coincides with the ancient Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh. It is a celebration of the first fruits of harvest and, in particular, the first cut of grain. Traditionally, harvest thanksgiving tends to fall later in the year, I suppose because then all harvests have been gathered ~ fruits from the orchard, roots from the earth, nuts and berries from the hedgerows, honey from the hives ~ but I believe it is very important to acknowledge the beginning of this season, too, as people have since ancient times. It’s the celebration and overwhelming relief that after so much growth and effort, nature has provided: there will be food on the table.

In France, we lived in an area of mixed farming where our home was surrounded by apple orchards and fields of maize, sunflowers and wheat. Coming from a land where hay and wool were the biggest harvests, it was fascinating to watch the seasonal changes in the wheat fields, from the first tentative green blades emerging from the dark soil in late winter or early spring to the standing corn, ripened ears popping and crackling in the summer heat. The rumble of combines left us in no doubt that the grain harvest had begun.

To celebrate the season, I learned how to make simple corn dollies and plaited a bridal horseshoe to give to Sarah on her wedding day, a seasonal gift from mother to daughter to mark such a joyful milestone in her life. It seemed very fitting for a country bride who gathered most of her bouquet from a hedgerow!

Here in Asturias, we are back to grass and the farmers, for the most part, are ganaderos who raise cows, not grain. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the importance of the grain harvest ~ in fact, we do it several times a week. Baking our own bread is a way of life for us and involves a little co-operative teamwork. I take responsibility for our sourdough starter which lives in a Kilner jar in the fridge and is fondly known as Yeasty Beastie. On baking days, I love my morning ritual of opening the lid and breathing in that sharp, beery scent of natural yeasts at work before gently stirring in a warm paste of water and rye flour to ‘feed’ it. Several hours later, after it has sat at room temperature and developed a lively covering of new bubbles, Roger uses some of it to make a dough.

There is something very special about the yeasty, floury smell in the kitchen and the silent miracle of the dough rising beneath a clean tea towel, the wonderful appetising scent of the bread as it bakes and the thrill of that first taste, straight from the oven and almost too hot to touch. It’s like a special little Lammas every time.

We are blessed to enjoy a good harvest of fruit and vegetables from our garden all the year round thanks to the mild climate, but this time of year signals the greatest productivity with a shift from enough to abundance. Now we can pick and eat almost a whole day’s meals from the garden ~ peaches, strawberries and walnuts for breakfast, soups or salads for lunch, hearty vegetable bakes or curries or stir fries for dinner. There is so much to choose from!

This week has also seen a flurry of preserving activity, as we have been processing gluts of fresh produce to enjoy in leaner times; we are so very lucky to have the technology and ingredients that allow us to do this. We would be lost without our freezer but space now is at a premium so there is an immense juggling game in progress as we try to use up foods such as roast squash and homemade stock to make room for new things. We are enjoying possibly the best harvest of French beans ever, but despite staggering the planting, the rows are all fruiting at once and we are literally picking kilos at a time.

I’ve been brewing up vats of chutney, with a sort of ‘half the garden’ recipe going on ~ beans, courgettes, onions, peaches, garlic, chillies, coriander seed, bay and anything else that comes to hand ~ all cooked down to a rich, spicy preserve; I’ve also pickled more cucumbers and nasturtium seeds.

A trugload of courgettes and cabbages suggested it was time at long last to have a go at lacto-fermenting some vegetables, something I know is a very beneficial thing to do but keep wriggling out of. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve never been a fan of sauerkraut but then I’ve never tried a homemade version; Roger, on the other hand, loves it so there really is no excuse. Well, in for a penny and all that . . . I decided at the same time to have a go at fermenting a jar of courgettes, too. Like the chutney, I used flavourings I could pick ~ garlic, chillies, coriander and bay ~ and the two jars sat bubbling away happily in the corner of the kitchen for several days. I can’t say they looked too appetising but appearances aren’t everything, although I did need to muster some courage to taste the results . . . Opinion? Well, I have to admit to being nicely surprised; it’s definitely the first time I’ve enjoyed sauerkraut (it’s really good!) and the courgettes are like a crunchy, tasty pickle. Think I might try some cucumbers next . . .

Something I have no problem eating is peaches and this week has seen many hours spent in picking and processing these most luxurious of fruits. They ripen so quickly that we can’t afford to ignore them, they demand instant (and what feels like constant) attention if they aren’t to fall off the trees and be wasted; Roger has spent much of his time up a ladder filling the trug and then processing each batch before returning to pick the next one. Jams and chutneys, bottling and freezing . . . there has been a busy peach-centred buzz about the kitchen in recent days.

Spending hours each day peeling, stoning and slicing kilos of peaches might not sound too appealing but for me, there is something very sensuous about the whole thing: the soft velvet nap and sunset blush of their skins, the pink starburst of the wrinkled stone hidden inside, the soft melting flesh, the juice running down my arms . . . it’s all a complete connection with the gift of food, a joyful celebration of this wonderful fruit. We have watched the story of this harvest unfold: nervous days in February where the delicate blossoms run the gauntlet with uncertain weather yet sunny days bring the busy and essential attention of pollinators; the velvety nubs of tiny developing fruit, swelling amongst the leaves; branches drooping under the weight of ripening fruits, tantalisingly close to being ready to eat. Arriving at that long-awaited moment of picking the first sun-warmed fruit, feeling its weight in our hand and breathing in its sweet fragrance, knowing there is a harvest to be had, is surely the perfect essence of Lammas.

Of course, it’s not all about gluts and an almost overwhelming abundance; after all, a couple of years ago, our entire peach harvest ran to a single fruit. I think it’s every bit as important to do honour to the tiniest crops, too. We’re enjoying tasty little pickings of cape gooseberries from a self-set plant that suddenly appeared from nowhere last year and I savoured every second of the three ~ yep, three ~ unexpected autumn raspberries. Earlier in the year, we planted strawberries in a trough Roger had made from scrap timber; we didn’t really expect much in this first season, but those little plants have surprised us with a slow and steady stream of delicious fruits. They tend to ripen a few at a time, usually no more than three or four in a week and often just one at a time, but they are truly wonderful. Is there a lovelier thing than sharing a strawberry? 🙂

Precious harvests like this call for special treatment; we seldom eat puddings of any kind but everyone needs a little indulgence now and then!

I’ve read two very contrasting reports in the British press this week which I felt were both very pertinent to my reflections on Lammas and harvest in general. The first reported that the amount of food waste in the UK, which dropped significantly during lockdown, is now rising rapidly once more towards its previous (and, in my opinion, appalling) level. I wish that someone could explain it to me: how did we arrive at this place in society, where food has become such an unvalued, disrespected, throw-away commodity? Why is it apparently ‘alright’ to throw away millions of tonnes of food every year, 70% of which is food that could have been eaten (according to latest WRAP research) ? It makes me very, very sad. 😦 On a more positive note, the second report, written by a doctor, suggested that an answer to tackling the problem of obesity could well lie in gardening, and in particular, in developing community gardens where people of all ages can come together to grow vegetables and fruit to eat. What a wonderfully positive and hopeful idea that is.

I think that much of it comes down to making changes in habits and that’s not always an easy thing to address: change might be the only constant in life, but it’s not always a comfortable thing. Take, for instance, my current tea situation. Cancellation of our UK trips has meant I am running dangerously low on the good quality, loose-leaf Assam tea I love; along with a pile of secondhand books, topping up my tea supply is top of the shopping list and I love to take my (well-travelled!) reusable brown bags back to the Broad Bean deli in Ludlow for refills. I am now having to limit myself to one mug a day to eke out my remaining tea for as long as possible, but really, I think this is a situation which is doing me a lot of good because I am having to look for viable alternatives. (I should say that of course, I could buy black tea here but it tends to come in boxes of individually wrapped teabags and I’m not happy buying into that kind of packaging nightmare.)

I still don’t love green tea ~ which I can buy here loose in paper bags ~ but I’m persevering with it and find that mixed with mint, it’s reasonably palatable; I’ve been drying bunches of mint to use through the winter months. I’m getting along much better with fresh herbal teas from the garden, especially a blend of lemon balm, lavender and thyme and I know that from a health and environmental perspective, it is far better to wander outside and pick my tea rather than buy something that has been processed, packaged and carted around the world. It’s another little ritual I’ve come to love.

I’ve also replaced one of my daily cuppas with a smoothie, something that presented itself as an answer to what you do when life deals you cucumbers. I’m not the world’s greatest smoothie fan as I tend to prefer eating my fruit and veg whole but one of the biggest issues I’ve always had is that so many recipes call for imported or expensive (or both) ingredients like bananas, avocados, blueberries, pineapples, lime, coconut water, almond butter and a whole load of other things I’ve never even heard of. Quite simply, if I can’t pick it from the garden, I’m not doing it.

So . . . chard, romaine lettuce, celery, cucumbers, mint and coriander from the patch, plus a piece of ginger and a squeeze of lemon juice (which are both bought foods but ones we always have to hand anyway). Given we have a basic food processor rather than a high speed blender, the results are always a ‘less-than-smoothie’ but I’m enjoying them and they exude a great air of healthy living. At this rate, I might never go back to tea . . .

Food is not the only harvest I am grateful for. In the recent hot, dry spell of weather we have needed to water the vegetable patches as well as the tunnel, and the constant and reliable supply of sweet, chemical-free water from a mountain spring is something we never take for granted. Our woodland provides us with all the fuel we need for warmth and cooking in the winter months and now is the time we start moving the seasoned logs into the woodstore, stacked and ready for the woodstove in autumn.

We have cut stout hazel props to support heavy branches on several peach and fig trees, used finer branches as supports for pepper, aubergine and cucumber plants in the tunnel and twiggier sticks in the pea rows; once they become too brittle to use again, we chop them and cook over them on the barbecue. Everything is valued, nothing is wasted.

I am thankful, too, for the wide variety of plantstuffs I can collect and use as herbal remedies, in toiletries and for natural dyeing.

I am very excited to see my new soapwort plant flowering, how have I never had such a pretty thing in the garden before? Grown from a slip of root given as a gift, this holds the future promise of household soap and I can’t wait to start using it.

The garden has been alive with clouds of butterflies this week, including some new additions like the huge and beautiful green-washed fritillary, which refuses to stay still long enough for a photo! In fact, there are insects everywhere, and I am reminded of our dependence on them for so much food, the importance of connection once again.

In many ways, our harvest has barely begun; in the tunnel, vegetable patches, orchard, nuttery, fields and woodland there are still so many treasures to come, so much of nature’s bounty to enjoy. In the meantime, it’s back to the kitchen . . ! 🙂

Spotlight on Ponga #2

Having recovered from our Grand Adventure on the Tiatordos walk, we decided the only thing for it was to go back to Ponga for more, opting to start with the somewhat gentler Ruta de Arcenorio. For us, this turned out to be weirdly civilised: it was signposted from several kilometres away, started from a large and organised car park (completely free of charge as they all are here) and the entire trail was a wide, gravelled forestry track. Now that might sound a bit tame following some of our recent jaunts but sometimes it’s good to do things the easy way for a change!

The walk goes through the Bosque de Peloño which is a Partial Nature Reserve and at the start, it’s possible to see a conservation project in action where the landscape is being regenerated to help protect the endangered orugallo or Cantabrian capercaillie. From there, the path winds through several meadows full of wild flowers and scattered stone buildings; those curved terracotta roof tiles are a feature of eastern Asturias and were traditionally shaped by folding clay around a thigh.

A short distance further and we entered the forest. Some 37% of Ponga is covered in mature native woodland and the extensive Bosque de Peloño is a stunning example which is of huge ecological importance. It’s a good job the path was kind under foot because I spent the next few hours with my eyes lifted to the canopy, revelling in the astonishing variety and proliferation of species.

Oak, ash, birch, cherry, elder, alder, rowan, maple, holly, willow, hazel, walnut and more in a rich carnival of growth and verdancy . . . but the undisputed king of this greenwood was the beech. There were thousands upon thousands of them, many growing ramrod straight from the steep mountainside to seemingly impossible heights, others more sprawling, their thick knotted trunks and contorted branches plush with dark mosses and dripping silvery lichen.

Together with birch, beech is my absolute favourite tree, so lovely in all seasons. I could imagine what a joyful walk this must be in spring when the tightly-rolled cigar buds unfurl into silken bursts of the freshest green or in the fire of autumn through burnished coppery leaf fall and spiky mast crunching beneath my boots. Now the trees were in their full summer glory of green, branches swept skywards so that even in the most crowded of places, the fretted canopy was rippled and stippled with puddles of sunlight. They offered us other visual delights, too.

It felt a complete privilege to be walking through such a huge and vibrant broadleaf forest, especially considering we were over 1200 metres above sea level ~ somewhere roughly between the summits of Snowdon and Ben Nevis. What a difference latitude makes to the botanical world! Actually, deep in the trees it was easy to forget exactly where we were until spaces opened out and the mountains reasserted themselves in the view.

Magnificent though the beech trees were, they weren’t to have the last word in all things arboreal. Several kilometres into our walk, we peeled off the track to follow a path down to the Roblón de Bustiellos and, discovering a wealth of convenient beech logs to sit on in the clearing, we decided this was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch. The Roblón de Bustiellos is a single sessile oak tree growing in the middle of a beech grove, towering high above its companions and commanding complete attention. At its base, the girth measures eight metres in circumference and it stands 27 metres high ~ that’s sixteen of me! There was no chance of capturing the entire tree in a photo.

There is something very precious and humbling about spending time in the presence of a tree like this, so ancient and venerable. What stories it could tell!

Leaving the clearing somewhat reluctantly, we climbed back to the path and continued on our way. Although much of our walk was through trees, in places the landscape opened out to sweeping meadows full of contented cows. Well, how could they not be with a view like that to enjoy?

The walk in its entirety was 24 kilometres long but we opted to shorten it to sixteen as we were staying in Ponga that night and planning a more arduous hike the following day somewhere in the mountains rising out of that blue haze. Ah, but that’s another story and another walk . . .

. . . and one that starts back in the village of Taranes, the Ruta Valle de Muro. Taranes is a pretty village boasting a wealth of ancient houses and horreos, perched precipitously on a mountainside and completely surrounded by forest. It was the ideal place for an overnight stop which allowed us to set off on our walk reasonably early in the morning (as an aside, one of the cultural differences we’ve never quite got the hang of is the late, late breakfasts in Spain!).

It was a beautiful morning and, given how quickly the cloud cover was dissolving and the fact that we weren’t expecting to be grubbing about in undergrowth, we decided it was definitely a day for shorts.

Knowing that this was going to be a steep one, I also opted to take my stick which in the end turned out to be the wrong decision. We had expected the concrete track to peter out pretty quickly into an uneven rocky path but unbelievably, the concrete continued for miles and miles and miles. The amount of time, effort and money it must have taken to build, as well as the sheer logistics, beggar belief. Still, it did make things a bit easier for us underfoot but left me encumbered with a redundant stick!

Now, we live up a very steep concrete track but honestly, this one made ours look like child’s play. I won’t go quite as far as calling it a vertical ascent but the truth is, it felt that way as we wound round tight hairpins, climbing ever upwards. I was very glad of the shade beneath the trees at this point as the temperature was climbing much faster than I was. Note I’d already stopped (any excuse for a breather) to tie my hair up off the back of my neck. Phew, this was going to be a warm one.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable climb, the path levelled out and the landscape opened dramatically into wide sweeping vistas of the mountains.

Although much of our path was now in open country, the extent of the forests in this area was clear to see, great swathes of mature woodland blanketing the mountains right to their peaks. It was totally stunning.

It’s written into our family lore that if there is a rock, summit, peak, overhang, crumbling cliff edge or other dubious geological feature to hand, then Roger has to stand on it. This one was a very mild event (even I could have climbed it) but what struck me looking at the photos afterwards are the contrails . . . it seems there’s a lot of the ‘old’ creeping into the so-called new normal.

The benefit of less demanding stretches of walking is that it gives us time to really appreciate our surroundings; on tough hikes, I sometimes find my eyes having to spend too much time focusing on where I’m putting my feet rather than the enjoying the beauty around me. The scenery was completely amazing, but there were smaller things to be admired, too.

One of the (many) problems we’d encountered on our nine-hour trek a couple of weeks earlier was that the two springs marked on the map as places to refill our water bottles had run completely dry; luckily, we had carried plenty of water with us but even so, it meant having to eke out the last drops carefully. No such dramas here, the spring was flowing with blissfully cold, sweet water so it was the perfect spot to top up and grab a quick rest, too.

In fact, we decided this would be a good place to turn round and head back down the mountain, not wanting to do the whole 24 kilometres of the official trail. Given this is a well-marked and popular walk, we only met four other people, all when we were on our way back down. Mind you, there were plenty of others on the path going about their important business.

Time to leave them in peace and turn our faces homeward. What a truly incredible time we have had exploring this most beautiful corner of Asturias. ¡Gracias, Ponga! 🙂

Spotlight on Ponga #1

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

A third of the Asturian landscape has protection status of one kind or another and the province has the most Biosphere Reserves in Spain: seven. I totally understand why well-known areas such as The Picos de Europa National Park and the Somiedo Natural Park are such people magnets, both for locals and visitors as they are completely stunning and special places. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ponga Natural Park because it is very beautiful, very wild and very, very quiet and the chance to spend some time there exploring new corners and walking routes as part of our summer ‘staycation’ was one definitely not to be missed.

Covering an area of 255 km2 and rising to a maximum elevation of 2,142 metres, Ponga offers a wealth of fabulous possibilities when it comes to walking. Our first adventure started at the mountain village of Taranes from which we decided to follow the circular route of Foz de la Escalada-Tiatordos; this was in fact something like Plan D that day ~ certainly not what we’d been expecting to do when we left home ~ but at roughly 20k / 12 miles with a climb of 1000-1300m / 3300 – 4300ft it looked like our kind of challenge. We set off up the cobbled path, so typical of many we have walked in Asturias; whether an ancient route between villages, a drovers’ road or medieval pilgrims’ way, the work that went into constructing them in such difficult places never fails to amaze me.

We hadn’t gone very far before I decided to trot back to the car and fetch my stick. I usually prefer to walk without it but when a local council here feels the need to post a warning that you are embarking up a ruta muy peligrosa (very dangerous path) then you can be confident we are talking extremes and for me, that means my trusty walking stick is essential. An old lady sitting on a bench and cracking walnuts with a stone in the shade of a huge ash tree nodded her approval when she saw what I was back at the car for, telling me it would give me ‘great strength.’ Mmm, she had probably already skipped round the entire walk like a spring lamb that morning. I kid you not; the Asturian mayores are something else! So, stick retrieved, we started to climb the path, quickly leaving the village far below.

The path rose steeply up through a spectacular gorge; it was warm work and I was very grateful for the cloud cover as we wound our way forever upwards. Mighty rock formations towered above us, the river splashed and crashed over boulders and down waterfalls, there was an abundance of green at every turn and the wildflowers were breathtaking. What a magical place!

We paused to share a flask of coffee and drink in the natural beauty around us, watched over by a pair of choughs who bounced their rubbery croaks at us from a great height. Continuing to the top of the gorge, the path turned into a vast swathe of broadleaf forest, still constantly climbing but now through a tunnel of green.

Any hopes of the path becoming easier in this stretch were completely dashed as we found we had exchanged slippery cobbles for gullies of mud where trying to find a foothold was almost impossible in places. I have to admit that my progress was also severely hampered by the fact that I was so enchanted by my surroundings, I kept taking my eye off the path.

After much mud-surfing (and a little yoga) we eventually emerged from the trees into a sunlit meadow, so high now that we were above the clouds. My goodness, it was breathtaking!

The wild iris were incredible, growing in carpets of the most gorgeous shade of blue. Surrounded by the sound of bees and birdsong, we decided this was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch; quite honestly, we could have sat there all day.

The next section of our walk was without doubt the easiest, following a well-defined path through meadows, still climbing but at a far gentler pace now. The landscape was alight with the bright yellow of Spanish broom, underplanted with iris and mountain thyme and the air was full of butterflies.

We came to the ruins of an abandoned village, the sort of place that always make me feel slightly wistful. Most probably, it had been a summer lodging for the vaqueros who drove their cattle up to the higher pastures to graze; the cows are still there but all that is left of the humans are their tumbledown buildings and the whisper of a way of life that has long since gone from that place.

Nature, as it does, had filled the vacuum with sprays of delicate wild roses growing out of the ruins.

Onward, and upwards more steeply again as we climbed towards the highest point of our walk. Note that at this point I was still smiling . . . it’s important to remember that later.

At the top of the pass, we decided it was time to sit for a while again and enjoy the views; well, it would have been rude not to ~ they were simply stunning. We exchanged greetings with a Spanish couple who were walking in the opposite direction; they were the only other human beings we saw on the entire walk. When I said Ponga is quiet, I wasn’t joking.

Every map we have seen of this walk since doing it has shown it as an out-and-back, stopping at this point or taking a while longer to climb right to the summit before following the same path back down to the start.

If only we’d had a crystal ball, then that is exactly what we would have chosen to do because even scrambling up that rocky peak and slithering back down the forest mud gullies would have been a stroll in the park compared to what was to come . . .

I should say that up until now, the route had been fairly well marked with occasional wooden fingerposts and regular enough way markers ~ two horizontal paint lines, one white, one yellow, usually daubed on rocks ~ to keep us on the right track. The problem from this point was that those all but disappeared: we literally lost the path and much of our descent over the next few hours became pure guesswork.

We found ourselves following what we hoped was the right path, only to have to backtrack many times. It was impossible to tell whether we were on the right path or some random cow trail; a few faint footprints amongst the hoofmarks in the dust suggested we were right but in truth, it was others who had been forging their own path, too. In places we had to push through undergrowth in the absence of anything even remotely looking like a path; although by this point I was feeling the heat, I was glad I’d opted to wear my super lightweight summer walking trews rather than shorts.

Eventually, we found a waymarker and hoped we’d picked up the right trail again but trying to find the subsequent ones was like following a will-o’-the -wisp. Once again, we had to retrace our steps and try to find some sort of clue. Luckily, we both have a good sense of direction and knew we had to keep bearing left to get back to our starting point; there are so few roads in Ponga that taking the wrong path down could easily mean ending up many, many miles from the car which wasn’t an idea that really appealed. I was starting to feel slightly disconcerted by the vultures wheeling overhead as if they sensed the possibility of dinner!

I have to admit that I was also starting to feel tired and more than a bit fed up, my sense of humour waning rapidly, so I knew it was time to have a word with myself. This is where those core values are so important! What right did I have to be grumbling when I was so privileged to be out having this incredible adventure in such a wild and beautiful place? Time to ditch the Muttley mutterings and start feeling a sense of gratitude, vitality and wonder once again. Come on, keep going . . . and please smile!

Slowly ~ very slowly ~ we wound our way in more or less the right direction, constantly on the lookout for another marker. The scenery was as beautiful as ever but the shadows were growing longer and we still had miles and miles to go.

When we reached a clearly marked (yippee!) path leading down through woodland, we hoped that from then on things would get better but in fact, the worst was yet to come. Eventually emerging from the shady canopy, we found ourselves high up on the flank of a steep-sided mountain; the path across it was the faintest of lines completely overgrown with vegetation which in places, was higher than my head. Underfoot, it was alarmingly uneven with prutruding rocks here and drops into muddy bogs there, criss-crossed with thick fibrous gorse roots and totally hidden under all that green growth. I literally moved along it one step at a time, constantly feeling in front with my stick to get an idea what was coming ~ like punting without the boat. I lost count of the times I stumbled to my left into gorse bushes but it was preferable to stumbling to my right and falling down the mountainside!

Our progress had now dropped to snail’s pace and there was a collective sinking of hearts as several times we reached what had seemed like the end only to find yet another long stretch ahead of us. I’m not sure it helped that we could now see the village of Taranes again; there was still so obviously a long, long way to go.

In Roger, I have the best of walking companions. He is strong, athletic and sure-footed and rarely fazed by anything. He steps in to help me when he knows I’m struggling (at this point he insisted on carrying my rucksack for a while, walking ahead of me and trying to forge some sort of path through the tick-infested undergrowth), otherwise he lets me get on with things without fussing over me. He stays positive and optimistic long after I’ve lost the will to be either. In short, he makes me braver than I really am and there is no way I would have managed this walk without him. I was so glad he was there!

The rest of the walk is something of a blur. I know we scrambled down an impossibly steep gully to a meadow where a herd of horses was grazing and still had two hours of walking to go. We picked up a track which was blisfully grassy and reasonably flat for a while before deteriorating into a steep and slippery stream bed that made for a difficult downhill of several kilometres. By this stage, for the first time since running a half-marathon nearly three years ago, I was so tired that I was literally having to tell my feet what to do. Thankfully, there were still some beautiful distractions to enjoy.

Now at least we were seeing fairly regular markers along the way but none at the numerous junctions we came to so we just had to make an educated guess each time as to which fork was the right one. I could have turned several cartwheels when we finally met the road back up to Taranes (another climb of two kilometres to the car, but hey, who cares?) except that I was just too pooped to even think about it. The entire walk had taken us almost nine hours and has to be one of the most physically demanding I’ve ever done. Of course, the old lady was no longer sitting on the bench by our car which was a shame because I would have loved to have told her how right she’d been about my stick. As we wearily peeled off our mud-encrusted boots and topped up on food and water before the two-hour drive home, the setting sun silvered the mountains in a majestic light and we smiled to think we’d climbed all the way up there. Tired? Exhausted (bitten, scratched and blistered, too)! Happy? Ecstatic! Going back to Ponga? You bet! 🙂

Dog Days

The dog days are here. In the dark, moonless sky Sirius lopes along brightly at Orion’s heel while under the cloudless blue of day, the land pants in the shimmering heat. Not that it’s anywhere near as hot here as even a short distance south but the increased warmth and prolonged dry spell have brought a palpable shift in perspective, a breath of change across the langourous landscape. South-facing slopes are crisping from green to brown and the high sunlight flattens leaves and bleaches colour from the meadow; not that the crickets and butterflies seem remotely bothered, going about their usual business in the rippling heat of afternoon when others are seeking shade.

No matter how settled the weather might seem, however, we can always be surprised by a sudden wet day that tumbles clouds down over the mountains and brings a soothing freshness to the air. It’s the reason Asturias is so green . . . and the garden revels in it.

In the vegetable patch there is a sense of things just ‘getting on’ with it and yes, in some cases, getting away from us, too. Every fresh, flavoursome, crisp and crunchy mouthful comes from this space now and I love the rough and tumble of it all, the jostling for elbow room in every direction. Our current harvest includes cabbage, calabrese, chard, celery, New Zealand spinach, beetroot, carrots, French beans, onions, spring onions, garlic, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and rocket.

Note the self-proclaimed ‘Under Gardener’ hard at work on the terrace.

Enjoying a smooth succession of lettuce crops has been a game of trial and error in our time here but this year we have most definitely cracked it, with little patches squeezed into every available nook and cranny. A quick recce recently revealed six different varieties growing in fourteen separate locations: salad days as well as dog days, then.

Oak-leaved and blond romaine lettuce nestled between beans, courgettes and New Zealand spinach (and self-set coriander and Californian poppies, too).

The ‘Purple Teepee’ French beans grown from saved seed are every bit as prolific as they were last year; after a cloud of gorgeous mauve flowers, the plants literally droop under the weight of those purple beans. We are eating them daily hot or cold and I have made several jars of dark, deeply-spiced chutney.

The ‘Latino’ and ‘Black Beauty’ courgette plants have grown to elephantine proportions and the stems and leaves are so tough and prickly that playing Hunt The Courgette has to be done in wellies ~ very glam with shorts! 🙂

With the cucumbers, it’s a case of turn our backs for five minutes and there’s yet another picking. They are officially a gherkin variety so the bigger ones are perfect for a chilled yogurt soup, the smaller ones are being pickled with dill, garlic and chillies.

The tunnel is heaving with plants and is starting to take on a jungly feel; stand still long enough and there’s a danger of being wrapped around by melon plants whose tendrils literally meet us at the door. The afternoon temperature soars in there and it’s a full-time job watering; we’re wishing it had some kind of retractable roof we could peel off for a while!

Not that I’m grumbling when we are already enjoying a tremendous harvest of peppers with aubergines following closely behind. There is also a lush forest of basil which I’ve been freezing in ice cubes so we can enjoy a wack of summer in winter sauces.

We haven’t grown melons for a couple of years so it’s very exciting to have several plump fruit fattening daily; we’re going to have to organise some supports for them very soon.

On the subject of fruit, one of my very favourite seasons has just begun . . .

We had a worse than usual muddle with plant labels in the spring so somehow we’ve ended up with a courgette in the squash patch and a ‘cucumber’ and ‘courgette’ that have both magically transformed into butternut squashes. We have a good crop of the latter and ‘Crown Prince’ coming along plus a tribe of mongrels grown from saved seed in various colourways and patterns ~ blue skinned, yellow and orange smooth and wrinkled, green striped . . . it’s all part of the fun. As for the state of the squash patch, probably the least said, the better. There is a garden under there somewhere.

It’s not all about food, of course, and I’m really thrilled that at long last the sweet peas are flowering. They have been so unbelievably slow this year, it feels like they’ve been in the ground for ever, but they are promising to be the best we’ve grown here and the garden and house are both full of their wonderful perfume.

To wilder things and one of the natural dyes I’ve been planning to try for a while is Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot (daucus carota) and with the verges, orchard and meadow full of the white froth of its lacy caps, the time seemed to have arrived. I’ve seen it described by many people as an invasive weed but I’m not keen on either word, to be honest; in my opinion, it’s merely a survivior or a good doer, and I happen to love the plant in all its various stages of growth wherever it happens to pop up.

Queen Anne’s lace is perfectly edible; the flowers, for instance, can be sprinkled over summer salads as a good source of potassium. However, it looks very like its close cousin, hemlock (conium maculatum), which is highly toxic even in small quantities, so let’s face it, muddling the two could have pretty dire consequences! I wasn’t intending to ingest the contents of my dye pot but even so, I had no desire to be handling anything poisonous; although I was 99% sure that I had the right plant, I spent some time on research before I went out foraging.

This was a timely reminder about the nature of Nature. I know it might seem that I wax lyrical about all that beauty and wonder and bounty but I’m not naive; my attitude towards the natural world is most definitely not some airbrushed, Disneyfied, fluffy bunny love-in. Nature can kill as well as cure, delight and destroy, bring happiness and heartache: there is a very good reason why I chose to put the word respect under the heading of ‘Nature’ in my post about core values! One of several ways to distinguish between these two plants is that Queen Ann’s lace can have a tiny dark red flower nestling in its centre; it isn’t always there so it’s not a foolproof method, but it’s a pretty little find when it is, like a tiny hidden jewel.

At this point, I should come clean and admit that this whole project could really have been called Messing About With Stuff. I have done a lot of reading about natural dyeing techniques and I’m always very grateful to be able to tap into the expertise of others, particularly where that means not making huge mistakes or wasting time and precious resources. That said, I think it’s also important for me to do a certain amount of my own exploring and learning; after all, if I never have a go at breaking a few rules such as using an adjective dye (one that requires a mordant) without a mordant, then what benchmarks do I have to work from? You can read about things until the cows come home but nothing actually beats the experience of doing. So my plan was to start by seeing what sort of colour (if any) I could extract from Queen Ann’s lace without pre-soaking the fibre in a mordant.

At the same time, I decided to play around a bit with heating techniques, too. It’s all well and good spouting about using natural dyestuffs but in the spirit of a truly holistic approach, I need to pay attention to how I use resources like water and energy, too. During the winter months, I can make free with the woodstove heat but using electricity is another matter, so my intention with this little escapade was to use minimal hob time and make the most of the weather by sitting the dye pot out in full sun. Lesson 1: never underestimate solar heat ~ I needed an oven glove to lift the lid after a couple of hours of dye pot sunbathing! The resultant liquid was a pale brown colour, smelling crisply of lemony carrots but not really promising the sorts of yellows I had been reading about.

The fleece I chose to use is a length of Southdown which I bought after seeing flocks of the delightful mop-headed sheep when hiking with Adrienne and Sam across the South Downs (strangely enough). I’ve had it for ages, trying to pluck up the courage to actually get on and do something with it. It’s a soft wool and very elastic which gives a lovely springy bounce to yarns, it doesn’t wet-felt easily and is one of the best fleeces for dyeing so everything about it should be screaming,”Socks, socks, socks, yippee!” but ~ and it’s a big BUT ~ it has a very short staple and is notoriously difficult to spin. There is no point in me fantasising about a fine, consistent, high-twist yarn of the type I’m spinning with ease from the indigo-dyed Kent Romney and silk; given my total lack of confidence and skill in the long-draw technique this fleece demands, I’m expecting a thick, uneven rope full of nepps and slubs which I will (tongue in cheek) label as an ‘art yarn.’ Socks it won’t be, but there will be a future for it somehow, somewhere . . . I hope!

Anyway, back to the dye and a simmer and overnight steep yielded the palest of creams, not exactly disappointing (there is a place in the world for cream yarns, after all) but a bit underwhelming all the same.

Onward and upward into the next stage of messing: bring on the onion skins. This was a bit of an impulse move, to be honest; we had lifted the first crop of onions several days previously and laid them out to dry in the sun and when the time came to start cleaning them up for storage, it seemed a pity to consign the outer skins to the compost heap straight away. Another simmer and suddenly the dye pot was looking a lot more exciting!

Ah, the colour this yielded in the fleece was completely gorgeous. I know it isn’t fast and will fade like summer snow but there’s no harm in enjoying it for the time being. There’s a good chance it will end up having a dip in my next indigo pot, anyway (if you’re messing about, then really mess about, I say) so the future will be bright in blues and greens, if not orange.

On the subject of blues and greens, I had so much fun and enjoyment from sewing a nightie from a fabric remnant recently that I’ve pushed the boat out and bought my first length of proper dressmaking material in twelve years. It might seem a bit odd for someone who lives in Spain but I only have one sundress to my name, partly because I tend to wear shorts and partly because I like to wear clothes until they fall apart before replacing them. My old faithful hippy-style tie-dyed crushed cotton number is seriously on its last legs, breaking out in little holes that just can’t be mended because the fabric is so thin. I used it to make a bodice pattern for the nightie so its spirit will go on and although I’m still wearing it, I know its days are numbered.

My ancient dress: the bodice is pulled in by ties at the back when I wear it, but the width was just perfect for a loose-fitting nightie pattern.

Playing with indigo had me thinking about all things batik, so I couldn’t resist a 100% quality cotton in fresh blues and greens; mmm, the colours are yummy. I don’t have a pattern and I’m not feeling brave enough to draft my own for this project so I’m planning to have a crack at a no-pattern kaftan. https://www.thestitchsisters.co.uk/diy-kaftan-free-tutorial-no-pattern/ I love the idea of creating a garment so simply constructed from rectangles without any zips, buttons or other fiddly fastenings, cool and flowing yet looking shaped and fitted.

So with the garden happily doing its own thing, I can set up my sewing machine in the shade of the sunbrella once again and indulge in a little summertime sewing. Dog days? Happy days! 🙂

If music be the food of love

The photos in this post come from two recent walks, one in the wild mountains of Ponga Natural Park and the other to the beautiful Cascada del Cioyo.

When we last lived in Wales, our neighbour Alwenna walked the lanes every day in all weathers and, regardless of whether she was striding out purposefully or gently meandering along, we always knew where she was because as she walked, she sang. Not some quiet, self-conscious humming to herself, but a full-blown belting out of tunes at the top of her (very tuneful) voice which never failed to make me smile. It was a wonderful outpouring of happiness and the sheer joy of being alive and it has floated back into my memory this week as I have been rediscovering the delights of playing a recorder.

Now I promise I am not going to become a recorder bore; far from it, I need to put time and effort into practising rather than writing about it. However, I wanted to dedicate a post to it because I think what I’m doing sits so well with my approach to and belief in a simple life. I think it’s vitally important ~ as well as massively rewarding ~ to pursue new interests and learn fresh skills and knowledge throughout life; it’s a positive, optimistic and meaningful thing and in this day and age, when we are all too aware of the necessity of keeping our brains busy, stimulated and healthy then anything that forces us to build new neural pathways is surely a worthwhile activity.

When it comes to taking up new interests or trying different things, these days we are blessed with an almost overwhelming choice but I would like to fly the flag here for the benefits of revisiting an old pastime rather than always feeling the need to jump in at the deep end of something bright and shiny. It’s a well-known fact that in our modern western society, countless attics, sheds and garages heave with the evidence of abandoned hobbies, of kit and equipment bought in the first flush of excitement and quickly dumped as the novelty wears off, or the activity becomes too costly in terms of money, time or effort. One of the great plus points of blowing the dust off an old interest is that you know, to some degree at least, what to expect.

Like many children of my generation, my first foray into the world of making music was being taught the rudiments of recorder playing by school staff generous enough to spend their lunch break with a group of excruciating little squeakers! From there my love of music grew through singing and a (mercifully) short flirtation with the violin before settling on the guitar as my ‘thing.’ I was lucky enough to have a few terms of lessons but I’ve never really developed my skills much beyond a basic level so that is something I’m determined to put right. I have a very beautiful steel-stringed acoustic guitar which I am guilty of neglecting but my plan is to right that wrong . . . by learning to play the recorder again (obviously 🙂 ).

So why not just go straight to my guitar? Well, part of the problem is I have spent so many years using guitar tab and the same old strumming and picking patterns that I have forgotten about the complexities of reading music from a manuscript and all the associated symbolism and language that goes with it; I feel the need to sharpen those skills first by really getting back to basics in the sure knowledge that it will then inspire me to work on improving my guitar playing, too. To that end, I am approaching the recorder with total humility like a complete beginner, paying much attention to things like posture, breath and articulation ~ the sorts of niceties I was happy to ignore as a child. I’m taking time to work carefully through the excellent and very human video tutorials by the hugely talented Sarah Jeffery of Team Recorder and making sure that I practise at least once a day, over and over until I feel I’ve really cracked it.

That said, there are many benefits to being an adult ‘re-learner.’ For a start, I can read notation on a stave without any trouble so I don’t have to learn that from scratch. Of the 27 notes possible on my recorder (according to the fingering chart) I can already play 21 so I am choosing pieces of music which will allow me to add one new note at a time ~ although I sincerely doubt I will ever be able to hit the highest ones. At least I don’t have to drive myself or anyone else mad with constant repeats of ‘Three Blind Mice!’ Having spent several decades listening to and enjoying a wide variety of music and having been lucky enough to experience a wealth of live performances in many styles, I have a secure understanding that music is based on a number of elements and is not just a smattering of notes tooted out at the same speed and volume.

As an adult, I also now have far more discipline to apply myself to getting things right. Something I realise very clearly is that at least 95% of the music I’ve ever made has been by ear; let me hear someone sing or play a phrase and I can copy it fairly accurately but give me a piece to sight read and I’m in deep doo-doo because in all honesty, I’ve been winging it forever. I’m not sure whether I was too fidgety, distracted or idle (possibly all three?) but I have never, ever had a proper understanding of note value, finding far more gratification in the names of things like minim or demisemiquaver than in actually doing the maths in each bar of music. Well, that has to stop and sorting it all out in my head feels like some pretty effective brain gym, that’s for sure! What is wonderful is that there are many online sites where I can download free tunes but also play along with an accompaniment and listen to someone else play, so I can have a crack at it on my own first then check against the correct model. Progress is slow . . . but at least it is progress.

Something I am really enjoying is brushing up on all those wonderful terms that add such important information to a piece of music: accelerando, rallentando, glissando, crescendo, fortissimo . . . rolling off my tongue in those delightfully dramatic Italian words. Being me, I’m having a lot of fun making connections with Spanish so andante obviously shares the same root as andar (to walk) and allegro is sister to one of my favourite Spanish words, alegría (joy).

Meanwhile, back to the actual playing and as I enjoy a wide range of different types and styles of music, I’m having fun dipping in and out of all sorts of bits and pieces: English and Welsh folk, baroque, ragtime, blues, film themes . . . but without doubt, the pieces I’m enjoying the most at the moment are Irish jigs. They are fast and furious and I’m nowhere near up to speed and still croaking out the high notes like a strangled Clanger but there is something just so energetic and vibrant and downright joyful about traditional music that brings people together and makes them want to dance.

I’ve made a start on building a repertoire of Celtic tunes, not just with a lively toe-tapping ceilidh vibe but those more haunting and mournful melodies, too. For me, this is a style of music that is truly evocative of bleak windswept landscapes under open skies, the aching green of woodland glades, the rocky strongholds of eagle-haunted mountain tops or the booming timpani of waves along a wild coastline. Northern Spain has much in common with Brittany and the Celtic lands of the British Isles ~ and not just the fact that it rains a lot! There is a strong sense of shared history (Castro de Coaña, a Celtic settlement a short trip from home, is a fascinating place to visit) and common culture in terms of art work, traditions, folklore and of course, music. Indeed, I am practising a piece of traditional Asturian flute music called ‘Ancestros’ which could quite easily have hailed from any of those other countries, so similar is it in style and sweet, sad melody.

I love the idea of the spirit of landscape and nature being captured and reflected in music. Let’s face it, nature itself bursts with its own wild tunes and I like nothing better than to close my eyes and listen: sitting by the Cascada del Cioyo, my ears feasted on the pulsating rhythm and crashing of white water against rock, the deep moody notes of the plunge pool, the staccato of a wren underpinning the mellifluous legato of blackcap, and the breeze dripping notes like liquid silver through the leaves.

It was all there and I couldn’t hope to better it; not that I want to, but I do love the idea of taking my recorder into the woods and simply playing from the heart for pure pleasure. It might seem a complete contradiction to the disciplined study I’m making myself do, but I think life should be a balance. After all, music has been an oral tradition for most of its existence and sitting under the leafy sunlit canopies surrounded by the buzz of life, I think I should be allowed to dispense with sheet music and metronomes just for a while. I’ve learned how to mute my recorder, too, so I can sit and ‘feel’ what I’m playing without disturbing the peace of all those I share this precious space with.

This idea brings to mind the concept of awen, a very lovely Welsh word (Cornish and Breton, too, I believe) which has no precise English correspondence but roughly translates as ‘flowing inspiration.’ It’s much invoked by those who practise modern Druidry but I believe it can be used by anyone and applied to anyone as a beautiful expression of the spark that ignites the energy and enthusiasm of a creative activity. Although traditionally referring to poetry, I think it’s completely appropriate to recognise that flow of inspiration in many other areas, tangible and abstract ~ music, art, dance, handicrafts of all kinds, cookery, gardening, architecture, scientific enquiry, mathematical reasoning, building relationships . . . in short, any activity that brings head, heart and hands together in a vibrant celebration of creativity.

It’s in everyone, and I think there is something very liberating and exhilarating at being allowed and encouraged to express it; it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at something (trust me, I am never going to be a talented musician) because that’s not what this is about. How often do we stop ourselves from trying something new or different or wacky because we lack confidence or have doubts or are worried . . . about what? That we’re going to fail or be judged or ridiculed? Well, who cares? In lives that can be so overstuffed with busyness and stress and in what are currently very strange and troubled times, I believe more than ever there’s a need to let our hair down, go for it and above all, have fun. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ended up in fits of laughter with my recorder over the last week. Regret about chances not taken and things not done must be one of the saddest of all human emotions so, go on ~ blow the cobwebs off that old musical instrument, paintbox, set of tools, tennis racquet or whatever, pick up a pen or a needle or a lump of clay, take a lesson in dancing salsa or metalwork or Japanese or anything that appeals to you. Do it. Smile, laugh, enjoy. What greater celebration of the gift of life can there be? 🙂