Dare to be different

One of the many things I like about writing this blog is that it serves as a sort of vague gardening diary which I can use to refer back to what we were doing in previous seasons. I know this means I tend to repeat myself – and I have apologised for that in an earlier post – but it can be both useful and interesting to see how things were going in the garden at different times of the year as well as being a handy reminder that it’s time to be planting such-and-such once again.

What I really wish, however, is that I had been organised enough to make a note of the precise dates on which there have been major gardening events in the village over the last four years in the hope of finding a pattern. When we lived in France, it puzzled me that absolutely nothing happened in the vegetable gardens until the first week of May, then within the space of two or three days the entire patch was dug and everything (potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and courgettes) was planted at once. Our neighbours thought we were très excentrique for pottering about the winter garden doing various jobs and being busy with preparations and plantings as early in the year as possible (mind you, they thought we were very strange for eating parsnips, too!).

Our pickle of a French potager raised a few Gallic eyebrows . . .

Perhaps it’s a quintessentially British thing, that urge to shake off the ennui of long, dark days and revel in even the slightest hint of warmth and seedtime? To be planning and planting and sowing as soon as the robins mark the lengthening days with their sweet song and the velvety bumblebees emerge from their winter caves. I don’t know. Here in Asturias, things are a little different to northern France; the winters are blissfully mild, there is a quiet level of garden activity pretty much all of the time and planting is certainly staggered. What fascinates me, though, is the way in which it all appears to be guided by a mysterious and invisible calendar, as if everyone is dancing in step to a familiar but silent tune, to ripples of invisible notes floating imperceptibly through the air.

I know some gardeners here work to the lunar calendar; indeed, we have bought from several seed outlets where the current one is displayed above the shelves of seed packets and boxes for easy reference. Last September, our neighbour Antonio told me that las berzas (winter cabbages and turnip greens) should be planted out on the day of the autumn equinox. I’m not sure of the relevance but it did at least seem to make a lot more sense than the old adage (which is not followed locally) about planting potatoes on Good Friday, seeing that is a date that can shift by a month and the equinox at least will only move by a couple of days. Recent weeks have seen several days with nothing much happening in village gardens followed by a huge burst of activity with everyone out and working like crazy, then disappearing as if by clockwork until the next big gardening day. It’s as if everyone wakes up one morning and thinks,’Ah yes, today is Bean Planting Day’ and that is why I regret not having kept a note because I’d love to know how they know!

Planting a block of celery . . . possibly on the wrong day?

As I have said before, our neighbours are all wonderfully tolerant, friendly people so our very different gardening style doesn’t seem to bother them one bit – or at least if it does, they’re far too polite to say. Yes, our garden is a bit alternative (well, a lot alternative) with it’s chaotic jumble of flowers and food and our piecemeal patchwork of planting but I celebrate the fact that it is a riotous mix of knowledge and ideas we have gleaned from our neighbours and our own eclectic approach. I’m not sure whether it makes us eccentric or exotic but to me, it’s a wonderful fusion of cultures and a living expression of our love for this exquisitely beautiful place.

The flowers in recent weeks have been bursting into bloom in a paintbox of colours, from broad sweeping swathes to surprising pointillist pops, and filling the air with their heady perfumes. I’ve spent precious moments knitting socks in the garden and seeing the gorgeous dye palettes reflected in the world around me.

The roses scrambling up the house wall have been indescribably stunning this year, dripping with blooms so heavy we have had to tie the plants with rope to stop them collapsing into the lane. There are four varieties in this mix; each has its own unique beauty and character but together they create a pot-pourri of astonishing allure.

Although there is much to be said for agreeable colour combinations, the kind garden designers classically choose to be easy on the eye, I have to admit to a sneaking admiration of those wild and startling combinations that nature throws into the mix. Phacelia has self-set all over the garden, flaunting its gauzy mauve prettiness in the kinds of soft Monet-esque pastel alliances that would happily grace an English cottage garden. That’s fine . . . but how I love its radical flirting with the stunning crimson of poppies!

I love the way things appear in the garden as if from nowhere, too. Rising unexpectedly from the froth of phacelia and poppies, scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ is a single spire of delicate stars; my goodness, here is a summer bulb I planted last year – or was it the year before? – and totally forgot about. It’s taken it’s time but it’s been worth the wait. Nasturtiums are two a penny here and with a very mild winter, they have flowered for twelve months with no break in as many shades of yellow and orange imaginable; now, from nowhere, on the terrace of summer brassicas, a flower of the deepest, richest red has emerged. In the ‘enchanted garden’ of the orchard, a mystery plant has proved to be a linaria which grows readily in the verges and wild places here and is more than welcome; its common name is Three Birds Flying which makes me think of origami or tai chi. It’s totally charming. Sweet Williams are a favourite of mine with their spicy clove scent and jewelled colours and they have set themselves all over the place, popping up in bright bursts in the most unexpected of places. How I love this business of gardening without so much as lifting a finger!

It seems that the insect world is enjoying all this unbridled floral chaos as much as me. We are used to the garden buzzing and fluttering with a healthy population of bees and butterflies and their supporting cast of gentle hoverflies, rowdy crickets, scurrying ladybirds and beetles of all shapes and sizes. There have a been a few new and unusual characters centre stage this week, though. Feeling the need to capture another riotous colour combination with the camera, I ended up with more than I bargained for in my picture. Look closely at that poppy . . .

The length of those antennae was outrageous! Meanwhile, it seemed a knapweed flower was the perfect setting to show off a smart metallic green jacket to great effect.

There’s nothing unusual about yellow butterflies, the garden is full of their buttery flutterings, but catching this one feeding on deadnettle was another reminder of how important it is that we leave plenty of ‘weeds’ to thrive amongst the ‘formal’ flowers. It’s a garden shared rather than a garden controlled.

Ah, but enough of this floral frivolity; ’tis time to turn to the business end of things and seek the food amongst the flowers. It’s an interesting time of cross-over where food from the patch is concerned. We finished eating some of the winter staples like parsnips and leeks several weeks ago, leaving the last plants to flower and set seed for planting next year; meanwhile, this year’s new seedlings are going strong. Otherwise, there are still dribs and drabs of overwintered foods left and we try to eke them out as much as possible at the same time as enjoying fresh pickings from the new season’s collection. It does create a bit of a juggling challenge in the garden, sowing and planting new things around the old which is partly why everything is so higgeldy-piggeldy; I know clearing the lot and starting with a wide open space of bare earth as the locals do would be so much easier, but where’s the fun in that? I love the fact that we have to fight our way through swathes of bee-ridden flowers to find the vegetables, for me it’s all part of the charm of our crazy little corner.

There’s plenty of vegetables to be found in there . . . honest!

So, what have we been eating lately? Well, the purple sprouting broccoli which we’ve been picking since January has gone on and on . . . and on. It’s been blooming in a froth of pale yellow for weeks and although we purposely leave the flowers for a bit (bees love them), it has felt like time to remove the plants to the compost heap for a while now, except they keep producing very edible stalks. Added to a picking of summer calabrese – this is an extra early plant which self-set last year – and we have a decent helping each time.

Last autumn, I planted a patch of beetroot with the intention of pulling a few baby beets but leaving most in the ground to pick the leaves for winter salads, a method which worked brilliantly. With the plants gone to seed, it was time to lift them and I was pleasantly surprised by how many tender, perfectly edible roots were left; roasted in olive oil then blitzed with walnuts, spices and Greek-style natural yogurt, they made a delicious dip of sweet, earthy gorgeousness.

One of our favourite default dinners is a meal that is comprised of several small dishes in a tapas / meze / smörgåsbord sort of way. I think this is a delightful way of eating, first because there is something infinitely pleasing and appetising about a spread of colourful, flavoursome dishes that appeals to all the senses at once but also because it is an excellent way of using up tiny quantities of ingredients in a meaningful way. Half a dozen olives bobbing about at the bottom of a briny jar might look like something that desperately needs hiding in the depths of a cooked dish . . . but marinade them for a few hours in a glug of olive oil with a sliced garlic clove and sprig of thyme, then lay them lovingly on a tiny saucer and you have a dish to be completely savoured. That beetroot dip was perfect for just such a meal, along with a hummus made from roasted squash (our penultimate one in storage) combined with tahini, oilve oil, garlic, spices and pomegranate molasses. A couple of globe artichokes and three spears of asparagus might not really present themselves as much of a helping but lightly steamed and sliced along with raw courgette – or perhaps a few peas or baby broad beans – dressed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with chive flowers, they become a delicate dish that is a celebration of the season.

Our salads have shifted to something new and different with the season, too. Gone are the oriental leaves from the tunnel (aubergine plants now fill that space), the beetroot and chard leaves and the outdoor rocket and land cress which have been left to go to seed. Now we are enjoying the first of the lettuce, pulled young and mixed with an abundance of fresh herbs and flowers, perhaps topped with artichoke, asparagus, peas and broad beans for a little more sophistication. Later in the season, when we have a glut of them, we will use them as a cooked vegetable but for now there is something wonderfully fresh and crisp about those tender raw leaves.

It won’t be too long before we are eating our own cucumbers, either; we’re growing a small Spanish variety this year which seems deliriously happy in the garden and is doubling in size each day. I love the way that a forest of self-set dill has appeared around the plants as if to remind me what a perfect pairing they are, that sort of classic combination like tomatoes and basil that shouts happy summer greetings from the rooftops.

On the subject of tomatoes, it took us four seasons of living here to finally crack the blight problem, much of last year’s success coming down to the wisdom of our gardening neighbours. This year we have kept things very simple with just three varieties planted in the hugel bed under their anti-blight shelter: beefsteak ‘Marmande’, cherry ‘Rosella’ and plum ‘San Marzano.’ Roger is being totally scrupulous in checking them daily, tying them in and pinching out the sideshoots; each plant will only be allowed to set a few trusses. This is very organised by our standards but we’ve learned the hard way with these beauties and it would be lovely to enjoy a truly abundant harvest this year. I have basil plants waiting in the wings, after all.

We are still eating celeriac, carrots, chard and kale although all four are almost finished now and the very last scraps will be used to make vegetable stock if nothing else. We’ve also eaten the last of our pears bottled in spiced cider and red wine; what an amazing success they have been, we will be preserving as many as we possibly can this year.

Where fruit is concerned our favourite forage at the moment is for wild strawberries that grow in such abundance here; it’s very exciting, though, that for the first time since moving here, we will soon have our own cultivated varieties to enjoy, too.

Our top priority in the garden is to produce sufficient fresh foods for our needs whilst having a minimal impact on the environment. Our choice of plants and varieties to grow has been honed over years of experience and while it might seem boring or predictable to opt for, say, ‘Musselburgh’ leeks or ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ peas, the point is we know that such tried and tested varieties will grow successfully. We simply don’t have the space for too many wild cards, especially as leaving patches deliberately uncultivated or planted specifically for wildlife is important to us. However, I think there should always be room in the garden for at least a little bit of experimentation to keep things interesting. Something new for us this year is a patch of ‘Barletta’ onions, the silverskin variety that is so popular here. As a dual purpose onion, it can be harvested young as a spring onion or left to develop fat white globes as the locals do to use as a cooking onion. Our crop is almost ready to start pulling and should see us through until the maincrop varieties grown from sets and seeds are ready for harvesting.

Sticking with the allium family, and last autumn we decided to have another crack at growing garlic; it’s never been happy here, struggling to thrive through the mild, damp winter. We opted for a Spanish purple variety ‘Spring Violeta’ this time and gave it a vernalisation spell in the fridge before planting; it has never looked back and promises a good yield, despite the fact it is currently providing a foil for a jungle of self-set Californian poppies!

One unexpected benefit of the garlic crop is the picking of scapes that have sprouted from the tops; these are perfectly edible and completely delicious, having a sweet, citrussy flavour followed by a garlic hit, perfect chopped into all sorts of dishes both raw or cooked.

I’m also trying some celery here for the first time, the self-blanching ‘Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin’, some tubers of oca (thank you, Sonja!) which is a completely new one for us, plus some Spanish varieties of lettuce, sweet peppers and French beans in amongst all our usual crowd . . . and yes, a crowd it certainly is. It’s already standing room only in some places and there is still so much growing to be done. It’s a crazy, jumbly tangle. Many would probably call it a mess. Perhaps they have a point, but I love it; there’s food in there, more than enough once you really stop and look, and a wealth of wildlife, too. What more could we ask from our garden, even if it isn’t likely to win any prizes? 🙂

A solitary supper

What a beautiful day. After a week of wet and gloomy weather, it was the kind of golden day that makes my heart sing with the sheer joy of simply being alive. Such a pleasure and treat to be outdoors again, basking in the warmth and peace of a sunny Asturian autumn day. Bliss, in fact.

I love the way each week brings changes, small and subtle and understated, others banging and crashing in, all fanfares and fireworks. How did the autumn crocus, dotted and spotted through the meadow grass suddenly become great swathes, a tide of soft lilac rippling through the green?

They are things of great beauty, delicate faerie cups bearing saffron candles; I’m hoping the cows don’t return to trample them under hoof too soon.

The chestnut trees, ever the tardiest to green up in spring, don’t rush into autumn, either, but suddenly they are lit up in shining bronze and gold against the dusky eucalyptus.

I wasn’t the only one relishing the return of the sunshine. The garden bustled with butterflies – mostly red admirals, peacocks and fritillaries in their painted splendour – and a sudden outbreak of the biggest bumble bees I’ve ever seen. There were baby lizards everywhere, too, almost impossibly tiny but completely perfect and full of life and curiosity.

This was a day for activity in the garden, time to clear a space and start planting for next year. I can’t believe what a difference using green manure and keeping bare earth covered has made to the soil this year, so that a patch that formerly housed summer brassicas with white clover and yellow trefoil carpeted below yielded a deep, loamy, moist, warm, luscious area just crying out for planting. In went ‘Imperial Green’ broad beans and ‘Douce Provence’ peas; these will germinate in no time then sit quietly over winter ready to give an early crop next spring. I also put in a few small purple kale plants left over from the main planting weeks ago. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about them but they’ve soldiered on, rootbound in their section trays, unwatered and unloved – well, they really deserve every chance now and in my opinion, you can’t have too much kale in the garden.

Returning to green manure, and I’m beginning to wonder if I will really need the seed I have for next year since volunteers are popping up all over in a sort of self-perpetuating cycle. On the squash terraces, the winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares is going well; I love that fresh green muddle of bright grassy blades and ferny tendrilled vetch but hadn’t quite planned for the nasturtiums deciding to join in of their own accord. Mmm.

Eating an evening meal on my own is a very rare occurrence these days; planning, preparing and enjoying our main meal of the day together is a large part of our life and something that brings us great satisfaction, especially when most of the ingredients come from the garden. It felt a bit strange, with Roger away at a race, to be thinking about dinner just for myself. Cooking for one is not always easy; apart from missing the social side, I find it hard to work in tiny quantities and also to muster much enthusiasm – in the past, and especially when I was working, I tended to default to a jacket potato or mushroom omelette. Even worse, eggs on toast or cheese on toast. Or just toast. There’s such a difference between eating to live and living to eat, so with this in mind -and trying to avoid the lonely toast option as much as possible- I cooked a bit of buckwheat in the morning and left it to cool with a vague notion of turning it into some kind of salad. I’m a great fan of buckwheat, that humble little seed packed with phytonutrients; I far prefer it to its fashionable friend quinoa as it’s chunkier and more substantial somehow, with a pronounced nutty flavour. I’ve grown it for the first time this year and I have to admit I am completely under its spell: green manure, companion plant, weed suppressant, perfect food source for bees and a hoverfly attractant as well as being a handsome plant with pretty flowers . . . buckwheat really cuts the mustard. My only disappointment is that after conducting a bit of research, I discovered the variety I’m growing is no good for human consumption as it has a very bitter flavour. Shame.

Anyway, back to my salad plan. We still have a good selection of salad leaves and herbs in the garden, baby carrots and young Florence fennel, the occasional late courgette and although the aubergines have finally given up the ghost, the sweet peppers are still going strong in the tunnel. Possibilities, then.

As I pootled about the garden, though, I started to think that maybe this would be a golden opportunity to see if I could create something different, a recipe new to me that used as much home-grown produce as possible and gave me the chance to further explore the ingredients we buy in terms of economy and environmental impact (something I started investigating closely a few weeks ago). As the soft afternoon light played across the vegetable patch, my eye was constantly drawn to the bright fire of beetroot leaves; ah, here was a good place to start!

Roger is not a huge fan of beetroot but I love it and this year I’ve made successive sowings to keep me supplied for many months. I threw this last lot of mixed seed in as a random patch rather than formal rows and it’s bursting with plump baby beets; the leaves are a bit ropy but the roots are sweet and succulent. I usually grate them raw as a salad or roast them to eat hot or cold but this solitary supper called for something new, so I decided it was time to sit down for a mug of tea and a quick blast of sock knitting with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Well, obviously not the man himself but two of his books, River Cottage Veg Every Day and Much More Veg; we were given both as gifts and they are fantastic, much used and well thumbed. It’s handy to have a good supply of recipes that make vegetables the star of a dish; we’ve made many of them from both books, and often return to old favourites simply because they are just so delicious. Time for a bit of beetroot love, then.

I really liked the sound of Beetroot and Chard Stir Fry with Chilli, Ginger and Lime and quite fancied the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat, too; the problem for me was that even with my open-minded attitude to food, I felt Chinese meets Moroccan (or maybe Indian?) was definitely up there on the confusion cooking scale. In the end, Moroccan won the toss, not least because we didn’t have any lime but we did have a jar of preserved lemons just ready to eat. We’ve been making our own preserved lemons for years; it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, simply pouring salt into the split fruits and packing them into jars with extra lemon juice (although Roger has now branched out into slightly cheffier ideas which incorporate things like rosemary, too).

They are utterly divine (I could quite happily eat them straight from the jar which would be pretty disgraceful behaviour) and are such a fantastic ingredient to use. It’s a shame that unless we are lucky enough to be given some lemons, we do have to buy them as when we moved here, ours was the only house in the village without any citrus trees. Two lots of good news, though: first, Spanish lemons are superb quality, cheap and plentiful and we can buy them loose without any packaging; second, the lemon tree we planted three years ago is bearing fruit – not quite enough for a jar of preserved ones yet, but where there’s fruit and flowers, there’s hope.

One of the many things I like about Mr F-W’s cooking is that he encourages changes and swaps, seeing his recipes as starting points or guidelines rather than rigid prescriptions. For that I am truly thankful because I’m not sure he would have recognised his works of cheffery by the time I’d finished with them. First things first, the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat which I decided was crying out for the addition of walnuts . . . and what lovelier pastime on a sunny afternoon than doing a bit of outdoor food prep?

Next, a sally forth into the garden to source some veg: beetroot obviously, some yellow chard (the youngest, most tender stems), a small bulb of fennel as the row really needs thinning, a handful of purple kale, a green chilli, red and green sweet peppers and some fresh coriander and mint. Not a bad little haul (and yes, already looking like far more food than one person needs).

It’s true that for a meal like this, the preparation takes way longer than the actual cooking (and eating) but then, that’s part of the fun. I love the sensory pleasure of prepping ingredients, all those yummy colours, textures, scents and flavours mingling before the cooking proper has even begun. Using the wickedly sharp paring knife made by my cutler nephew Harry always reminds me of the joy and satisfaction of crafstmanship, of using fingers and thumbs to do more than just press buttons or touch screens. This is what I ended up with (excuse the onion being obliterated by sunlight in the photo, the late October light brings us a blast of rays straight through the kitchen window at around 6:30pm):

Top board. clockwise from top left: Florence fennel, chard stalks, chard leaves, purple kale, beetroot leaves, red and green peppers. Bottom board, clockwise from top left: garlic, green chilli, green olives, mint and coriander, preserved lemon, beetroot, onion.

The only bought ingredients were garlic and green olives. It’s frustrating that we can’t grow garlic here given how well the allium family thrives but it doesn’t get the blast of winter it needs and rots in the ground; any that manages to grow doesn’t keep so we’ve stopped trying and buy Spanish stuff in loose bulbs instead. Olives are one of our store cupboard essentials, we use them in so many dishes. We can’t grow them here – the Asturian climate is not Mediterranean enough – but there are plenty of good Spanish varieties available and we buy them in large jars which we reuse for storage or making big preserves. Other bought ingredients I used to cook the meal were olive oil (Spanish, bought in five litre bottles to reduce packaging), sea salt (Spanish, bought in large containers), cumin and peppercorns (both large packs bought during a UK trip as we’ve failed to find anything other than small packs here . . . and cumin just won’t grow in the tunnel, despite my best efforts) and a squeeze of lemon juice (see note about lemons above).

With all the prep done, cooking the meal took literally minutes. I heated some olive oil in a frying pan and stir fried the garlic, chilli, onion and beetroot with coriander seed (saved from the garden) and cumin for a couple of minutes, added the peppers and fennel and cooked for another couple of minutes, then stirred in the olives and preserved lemons to heat through. After seasoning with sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, I scattered the greens over the top and covered the lot with a lid to let the leaves steam gently. Meanwhile, in another frying pan, I dry toasted more coriander seed, cumin seed and the chopped walnuts from earlier then stirred in the previously cooked buckwheat; I added a glug of olive oil to loosen everything, heated until piping hot then finished with a squeeze of lemon juice and scattered the chopped fresh coriander and mint over the top. Job done. Fast food indeed!

Having tasted the veg, it transpired that the little green chilli was a bit on the lip-tingling, ear-steaming side so I added a dollop of cooling Greek-style yogurt (bought stuff sadly, I discovered the hard way that the house is too cool for making my own without The Beast lit) and headed outside for an al fresco supper. The dish was totally delicious and very substantial; needless to say, I had made far too much so there was enough left over for lunch the next day (it turned out to be great cold, too). It was lovely to reflect on the fact that we can create interesting, nutritious and tasty meals based on what’s good in the garden and that more and more, our awareness of what we buy is leading to a focus on local / Spanish ingredients with reduced food miles and packaging. As the sun sank, treating me to another of those beautiful light shows across the sky, and the first tiny bats came out to play in the twilight, I also had to admit that when it comes to a solitary supper, there really is no excuse for toast! 🙂

Summer’s end

Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.’ Hals Borland

They say that change is the only constant in life and goodness me, have we been dealing with it over the last couple of days! I love the circle of the year, the way seasons slide from one to another bringing all their associated joy and beauty (and chaos and woe at times, too) but I do prefer the change to be gradual, to give me time to adjust gently.

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We are so lucky here that summer stretches lazily away into the autumn months. Was it only last weekend we were paddling in the sea off Portugal? Was it only two evenings ago we were sitting outside in the evening sunshine in shorts and sandals, enjoying the light and warmth so much we didn’t want to go inside and make dinner? What a transformation, then, to wake to something so different yesterday: the valley hung with sullen clouds and threaded with mist, the garden soaked in rain.

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There was the true smell of autumn in the air – that heady, spicy, leafy scent – and a crisp freshness to the air that had me pulling on long-redundant layers. I love sunshine, the light and warmth and colour it bestows on everything, the comfort it brings to life, but I have to admit there is something special about the garden after rain. Everything looks different in a changed light, there is a new slant to the old and familiar – leaves hung with diamond raindrops and petals washed to translucence.

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The landscape, too, changes its coat as it shrugs off those bright blues and greens for something more muted. I have to confess, there is a certain delight in seeing smoke curling from the chimney once again and catching the sweet scent of wood smoke on the rain-spangled air.

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Nature it seemed had only just started with us, though: cue a night of thunderstorms and violent hail showers that left the garden looking ragged and the mountaintops white over in the sluggish morning light. From summer to winter in one fell swoop? It certainly felt that way!

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Still, life is not all summer and nature and the season are simply reminding us there is a balance in all things. It would be easy to feel a shiver of melancholy blowing with the chilly wind but this change brings good things into our lives, too. There is a shift in our daily tasks, the most obvious one being keeping the log bucket filled. Our woodstove (aka The Beast) is back in business and it has a pretty hearty appetite; this is what all those days spent hauling, chopping and stacking logs have been in aid of. We have to switch our cooking activities to the other end of the room as here are hob and oven ready primed for action; the kettle sings away merrily, giving us a plentiful supply of hot water for drinks and washing up. It’s a strange thing, but our fuel bills drop drastically in the cooler months! What lovelier way to pass a miserably wet afternoon than making peach marmalade with our very last bag of frozen fruit, the sweet, citrussy smell of summer remembered wafting through the house on a wave of toasty warmth?

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Actually, this first dose of cabin fever sent Roger into a wonderful kitchen overdrive. Just to add to the tantalising smell of peaches and lemons, two gorgeously crusty sourdough loaves emerged from the oven. We were given a sourdough starter in July by Sam and Adrienne; it is fondly know as The Yeasty Beastie and lives happily in the fridge until feeding time ahead of a baking session. We honestly couldn’t imagine making bread any other way now. On a serious cooking roll, Chef then set himself the challenge of doing something with figs. What to do with a glut of fresh figs has become a bit of an annual conundrum for us; I love them straight from the tree or with yogurt and walnuts for breakfast or chopped into a salad of bitter leaves. Fig recipes don’t tend to be very inspiring and often exude a sense of desperation. What do you do with them? (I appreciate we could dry them but I have to confess that dried figs are one of those foods I really don’t like, there’s something about the seeds that literally puts my teeth on edge.) Well, how about a dark chocolate torte with figs poached in Calvados? Mmm, now you’re talking! Gosh, we hardly ever have puddings but this one was to die for.

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More comfort food required: steak and kidney casserole (boosted with borlotti beans), creamy mash, spiced roasted squash and cheesy leeks. Oh my word. There’s another change, though; when was the last time fetching veg from the garden required wellies and a garden fork to rummage about in the mud? Well worth it, I’d say.

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It was a bit of a shock to be back in long trousers and socks . . . but a timely reminder that I have a pair of socks to finish knitting and there should be time to get the second one done before we leave if I get my skates on.

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Something I have finished, though, is my chunky woolly stuff bag and I’m so thrilled with it. It was just the right thing to curl up with and potter away at in front of the stove while the rain battered against the windows. I have loved every minute of this project, it has been a dream working with chunky yarn and I’m delighted with the zippy cheerfulness of those colour stripes.

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Even better, there is enough yarn left for another bag project; I’ve wound it into balls and they’re already snuggled in there, packed for the journey along with some sock yarn. My new mittens are in there, too, and there’s room for a hat, a book, my specs . . . everything I will need on the boat and more. Forget the Bag of Doom: here’s to the Bag of Room.

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It will be a long time now before I write another post; we have many thousands of miles to travel in failing light and dubious weather, and much work to be do in the coming weeks. There will be the pleasure of catching up with friends and family, too, and enjoying good food and happy moments together. In the meantime, autumn will walk on here in our absence and things will have changed once again by the time we return . . . but that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it? 🙂

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Simple p-leisures

One of the best things for me about being with family and friends is the opportunity to indulge in shared interests; simple things, little leisure pursuits and happy hours that make wonderful memories. When we get together with Sam and Adrienne, walking, cooking and sharing good food and music are pretty much guaranteed to be top of the list and the few days we have just spent together were no exception.

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One of our top priorities was the long-awaited trip to the Cabo Busto cake shop  where we had promised to treat our visitors to a belated birthday cake (and of course, it would have been very rude of us not to join them!). What an amazing place it is, set in a village house brightly painted in red and green and run by a friendly and talented young couple who are very happy to explain what each cake is made from and to (thankfully) allow customers plenty of time to choose. These are not so much cakes as exquisite works of  art and trying to pick one from the gorgeous selection is demanding stuff! After much deliberation, Adrienne was thrilled to indulge in a creation made entirely from almonds (bottom left); Sam opted for the sumptuous dark chocolate hit (top left); Roger plumped for a most beautiful confection celebrating honey (top right) and- no surprise- I was drawn to that soft, summery shortbread topped with a beguiling little heartsease flower. You are welcome to eat your choices in the pretty garden from which the flower was picked but we opted to savour them in a beauty spot by the sea. What a great start to our long weekend!

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Staying with the coastal theme, we took the incredibly steep path down to Playa de Gueirúa, a beach which fascinates me not least because the tide seems to come in from two directions.

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Adrienne and I share a love of pretty pebbles so while Roger and Sam explored the beach and cliffs, we were happy to pootle about looking for examples of interesting colours and patterns, texture and sparkle.

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Sam’s interest in the stones veered more towards practising his skimming skills; he also played chicken with the tide and lost, soaking his enormous walking boots in salt water. I was reminded of a phase in his childhood when we didn’t go anywhere (and I mean anywhere) without a complete change of clothes and footwear for him because he always managed to end up soaking wet, even where there was apparently no water. I smiled to see there is still a whisper of the little boy in the man he has become! (By the way, in case you are wondering –  he isn’t wearing a kilt in any of these photos, it’s a tartan shirt tied round his waist.)

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Another day, another walk, this time up the río Esva gorge. It was the second time in three weeks for Roger and myself but I don’t think we could ever tire of such a beautiful spot. It was interesting to see how things had moved on since our previous walk  despite the recent inclement weather. The flowers were not quite as spectacular but it was good to see that new little stars had opened.

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Heavy rain had certainly swollen the river which literally boomed down the gorge in a state of white rage and water seemed to ooze from every pore in the rocks. There was a fair bit of scrambling over rocks to be done, but ironically it was the flights of steps and boardwalks made from local oak rather than the rocks that were lethally slippery.

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With this in mind, we decided not to return the same way but to take a longer route back up  and over the mountain. Well, why not? We had plenty of time after all. Plenty of food, too. Last time we did this walk together, we left the picnic in the car not realising quite how long we would be; oh my goodness, we were all so hungry and grumpy by the time we had finished! So, fortified by a wonderful spread – little dishes left over from a tapas evening, homemade sourdough rolls, a very gooey, fruity, seed-laden flapjack, peaches and apricots – eaten at a picnic table under the trees, we set off up the mountain. It’s a steep old climb but well worth the effort as the views from the top are completely stunning and once again, we had the place totally to ourselves – just the birds and insects for company. Perfect.

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Crossing the river for the final time, it was decided that a game of poohsticks was needed. This is the kind of nonsense we love, something that is simple, free and – let’s be honest – rather pointless, but which always gives rise to silly banter and much laughter. The competitors readied themselves at the start line . . .

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. . . then dashed to the other side of the bridge to eagerly await the arrival of their sticks.

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Braveheart thought he had it in the bag . . .

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. . . but victory was snatched from him in the last seconds by Adrienne, the reigning poohstick champion (who was very demure and restrained in her celebration, as you can see).

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Ah, time to go home and light the barbecue . . . which in reality ended up being the stove when torrential rain set in yet again, this time with a a dose of thunderstorms for good measure. 😦

We weren’t downhearted, though, as the next day took us to the Muniellos nature reserve in southern Asturias for a walk that promised to be rather special. For a start, only twenty people a day are allowed to do it; access is strictly by prior permission from the government and you can only apply once in any year so we felt very lucky to have obtained the necessary permits. The walk follows a 20km mountain trail to an altitude of 1400 metres through the largest oak forest in Spain and some of the most ancient and primitive woodland in Europe. The bald facts, however, don’t even begin to describe the sheer beauty and majesty of this place. The views are utterly breathtaking: mile upon mile of unbroken forest sweeping right to the tops of the towering mountains; given some of these are roughly a couple of Snowdons high, that’s pretty impressive.

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I have often struggled to convey the green-ness of Asturias but here it surpassed everything I have seen so far. From the ancient oaks with their massive hollow boles (some are six metres in diameter) to graceful birch, brooding holly and yew, glossy beech and hazel and a wealth of lush undergrowth there was just layer upon layer of green. Imagine an ancient oak, its gnarled bark wrapped in mosses with ferns growing from the cracks and silvered lichen dripping from every branch; magical, indeed.

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This walk is not for the fainthearted; in fact, there are strict rules as to who can and can’t do it, and for good reason. Distance and steep climb aside, the path is hard going in many places, narrow and precipitous and often becoming a scramble across scree slopes or rock faces above vertiginous drops. I don’t usually carry a stick when I walk but this was one place I was happy to have my sturdy Asturian pole in hand!

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One of the outstanding features of the forest is the complete lack of human inhabitants and minimal human impact; here nature calls the tune and there is a wealth of natural beauty to appreciate and enjoy.

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What a privilege to walk back in time and experience the northern forests of centuries ago, the pure scale and unspoilt wildness of it all. No wonder this is where the largest concentration of bears chooses to live. No wonder so much hard work goes into preserving this sacred space. What a very precious place it is. Paradise indeed.

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Having shared a picnic lunch at the highest point, we started our three-hour descent with an hour’s scramble down a rocky stream bed, balancing on slippery boulders and trying to avoid wet feet. If you are very tall with huge feet, then straddling a stream is easy . . .

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. . . but if you are shorter with smaller feet, things can be a bit trickier.

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There were several times when I almost got very wet (the worst being later on when I lost my footing next to the much wider and deeper river); I was just hoping that in a timely role reversal, Sam had a change of clothes and footwear for me in that bag! If I’m absolutely honest, I wouldn’t have minded getting wet; it wasn’t cold and it would have been worth it for the amazing day we had spent together. On our return, the warden encouraged us to apply again in a year’s time and I know we will, maybe in autumn next time as the colours must be truly spectacular then.

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So to our final jaunt, a walk along the beach at San Juan de Arena and another picnic before trundling to the airport. The sea was wild and moody, the beach empty and invigorating but sadly, due to a minor technical hitch with the camera, I have no photos to share. Never mind; I have captured the moment in my memory and that, after all, is what counts. 🙂

 

 

Lone thoughts from abroad

Once again, the month of May has brought me a time of solitude.  Just a few days this time rather than the three weeks of last year but the principle is the same. I’ve never minded being alone – in fact, I think times of gentle solitude are a beneficial thing for everyone now and then – but I do find the days very long, so the key is to keep busy. No problem there, I am never short of things to do and – if you will excuse the photo pun – I’m not short of time, either.

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Gardening is always my first port of call, partly because we grow so much of our own food and those plants need to be looked after but also because for me, time spent outdoors being busy in the fresh air and totally engrossed in nature is so precious and rewarding. We have had a very concentrated effort together over the last week, so all the major preparation and planting have been done and now it’s down to me to keep an eye on it all and potter away at general ‘caring’ activities – weeding, tying in, watering, bug patrol and the like. I love the way everything grows so quickly at this time of year, there’s such a feeling of burgeoning growth and excitement in the patch and something truly wonderful about the promise of all that good food to come.

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Of course, it’s not just about food and I’m always happy to spend time with my nose in the flowers, too. I’ve been potting up geraniums for ripples of summer colour.

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The roses and jasmine are building up to a spectacular show and their heady scent hits my senses and feeds my soul every time I step out of the door (which is always open at this time of year to invite those tantalising perfumes to waft inside).

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I have no idea what variety this rose is but happily we have several of them, deep-scented and gorgeously resplendent, cartwheeling down the walls in their ruffled cancan petticoats.

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Wandering around the garden, I find myself seduced by those unexpected moments, the kaleidoscope of plants and flowers doing their own thing. Here, a white rose mingling with Jacob’s ladder, pretty as a picture.

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There, self-set mustard in a halo of acid yellow, thrumming with insects.

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A single Welsh poppy, soft as a sigh.

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The filigree pincushion of a flowering Welsh onion.

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How can I not smile . . . and how can I drag myself indoors to attend to other things with so much beauty to savour? Well, of course at some point I just have to, in part because I need to eat! Making bread has become a way of life for us and I see no reason to abandon that just because I’m on my own so I’ve been happily beating back the dough this week. It is one of the great bonuses of our lifestyle that we have the time to bake and we are blessed with a wide choice of flours and plentiful supply of fresh yeast. Our usual loaf is made from a mix of white, wholemeal and spelt flour flavoured with seeds or walnuts (the traditional local bread) but we love to make ‘world’ breads, too and think nothing of throwing together some naan or tortilla, pitta or pumpernickel or whatever, depending on what we’re planning for dinner.

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Tapenade rolls

Bread making is such a wonderful activity; for me, it’s like making mayonnaise – something to be done with care, patience and love. One type of bread we’ve always had mixed results with is sourdough but that has all changed since our recent UK trip. Sam and Adrienne (who have the whole sourdough scene totally sussed) gave us a jar of starter to bring home and I can’t describe the enormous responsibility I felt towards it. After all , it’s a living organism that needs careful feeding and I was slightly terrified of killing it before we had even made the Spanish border. By an amazing coincidence, the book I was reading at the time told how the Pilgrim Fathers had carried a single crock of leaven on their famous journey across the Atlantic, keeping it alive all the way;  suddenly, West Sussex to Asturias didn’t seem quite so bad!

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Sourdough starter feeding time: strong white flour and rye at the ready.

Our first try at a couple of sourdough loaves was fascinating; the speed with which they rose in the oven was totally insane! We have a long way to go to perfect the technique – particularly getting the scoring right – but so far the bread has a lovely texture and is completely delicious. Here’s to many more happy sourdough bread moments!

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Like making bread, planning and preparing our evening meal together is a huge part of our lifestyle. Always based on what’s good in the garden, we love to indulge in old favourites and try out new recipes alike. One of our preferred dining styles is a tapas / meze type of meal with lots of different small dishes combined to make a perfect whole. It’s such a great way to eat and suits homegrown veg so well as a little bit of something special – a few asparagus spears, a globe artichoke, a handful of baby broad beans – can be made to go a long way.

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Cooking for one, though, can be a bit awkward. It’s very tempting to live on scrambled eggs (during last year’s time alone, thanks to the warm generosity of our neighbours I ended up with four dozen eggs!) or soup which is fine but not very exciting, so for me at this time of year the answer is salads. I LOVE salads, I think they are such a wonderful way of celebrating the season and there is nothing better than a freshly foraged mix of leaves, herbs and flowers packing a healthy punch of crisp colours and zingy flavours.

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It’s certainly nothing new. I keep coming back to this passage, originally written in Italian in 1614:

Of all the salads we eat in the spring, the mixed salad is the best and most wonderful of all. Take young leaves of mint, those of garden cress, basil, lemon balm, the tips of salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and tenderest leaves of borage, the flowers of swine cress, the young shoots of fennel, leaves of rocket, of sorrel, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the tenderest leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious herbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with a clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt and vinegar. An offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, by Giacomo Castelvetro.

How on earth in latter times did limp lettuce, slimy cucumber and tasteless tomato become an ‘acceptable’ salad? Whoever thought that was a good idea? What a truly wonderful thing it is to wander about picking edible bits and pieces to combine in a dish of gorgeousness: here I chose Little Gem lettuce (we have a pile that needs eating out of the tunnel before the melons take over), baby chard leaves, mint, chives, marjoram, chervil, lemon balm, baby peas and pea shoots with borage, coriander, calendula and chive flowers. Of course, I made way too much so there was plenty left for lunch the next day.  🙂

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When I was raising a family or going out to work, cleaning the home was always something of a chore, a necessary activity to keep our household ticking along but not something I ever particularly enjoyed. Now I have to admit to feeling a sort of contentment at spending time cleaning. In part, I think this is because I can now do it at my leisure, rather than cramming it into tired evenings or precious weekends. As we’ve spent two years slowly but surely turning a grotty hovel into a bright, warm, comfortable home, caring for it brings a sense of achievement and celebration. Also, our living space is fairly small (four rooms and an entrance porch) so it’s hardly an onerous task! I favour a ‘green clean’ policy: like organic gardening, I think it’s better for us and the environment we live in and natural cleaning products are so much more pleasant to use than all those heavy duty, chemical-laden gloops and squirty stuff. My basic cleaning kit comprises white vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, bicarbonate of soda and lemon essential oil – simply add elbow grease.

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The vinegar is brilliant for cleaning windows and mirrors. Mixed with lemon juice and bicarb, it makes a great all-purpose paste for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom. A small amount of olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice and few drops of essential oil makes the best wood polish I’ve ever used. Any bits left over are mixed with a squirt of eco-friendly mild washing-up liquid and hot water to wash the floors. Job done – a bright, sparkling home smelling of freshly-squeezed lemons and garden flowers.

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Who needs air freshener?

What has been especially lovely about cleaning this week is there has been the guestroom to prepare, too; Roger’s mum is flying back with him for her first trip to Asturias so it has been a real delight to make everything ready and comfortable for her. We’re hoping it will be the first of many such visits!

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A glimpse of the guestroom.

The evenings are the time of day that seem to stretch out when I’m alone so there’s been nothing for it but to resort to my unquenchable wool habit. What a pleasure to sit in the evening sunshine serenaded by the raucous birds and crickets, then move indoors at sunset and curl up with a mug of tea, some background tunes and a basket of yarn. I’ve been having a bit of a birthday sock knitting bash of late; it’s an activity that I truly enjoy but I now really need to turn my attention back to the September Bouquet blanket if I have any chance of finishing it by early July. I’ve been doing bits in odd moments here and there and the squares are starting to mount up but probably not fast enough. Thankfully,  the sunburst flower pattern is a lovely, easy make with that ‘sunflower’ snuggled in the centre of every square.

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My starting point for the blanket is 90 squares, five in each of the eighteen colours I’ve chosen; from there it will be a case of working out the finished size I’m looking for, accepting that I might have to work some extra squares. Then of course there’s the joining and border which will both take time. I’ve resisted the temptation so far to start messing about with possible layouts but my eye is constantly drawn to those piles of squares nestled in my basket and I can see how the whole colourwash idea might just work.

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Time to make haste and get those squares finished. Mmm, yes but . . .

I’ve banned myself from starting any new knitting until the blanket is finished and in all honesty, it would be good if I could just focus completely on this project. Good . . . but totally out of character because as always there’s an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for some time and this week I had a little nudge in the right direction (or wrong direction, depending on your perspective). Now that we have lovely clean, dry storage upstairs I’ve finally moved my sewing machine-and-other-stitching-paraphernalia box down out of the horreo. Having a little sort through my treasures, I found a wooden quilting hoop that I bought for a few pennies in a closing down sale many years ago; I subsequently discovered it was much easier to quilt on the sewing machine so the hoop had become completely redundant until I had a little lightbulb moment. I have been toying with the idea of making a mandala for several months; it seems to be one of those essential crochet rites of passage but as I’m really not a ‘make woolly mats to stand things on’ sort of person, it’s been hard to find an excuse. Until now, that is . . . because I think the children’s sleeping den we have created upstairs needs something bright and colourful to jazz it up before Annie’s visit and what better than a giant rainbow dreamcatcher worked inside the quilting hoop?

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I’m using the starflower mandala pattern from Zooty Owl  and my goodness, what an amazing project it is! My plan is to work the rounds in the order of rainbow colours and keep going until the circle is large enough to stretch on to the hoop in a colourful web. This is so different to working blanket squares and every round seems to bring a magical change; I need to concentrate very hard, not least because I’m mentally converting from US to UK terms as I go along, but I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

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Actually, since starting on my crochet adventure last year, I have had as much enjoyment from the things I’ve made to use up scraps as I have from the major works and there’s a lot to be said for that – except perhaps for the fact that they distract me so much from the matter in hand. Ah, but how can I possibly resist such dazzling temptation?

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The ebb and flow of the days bring other activities, too: sharing emails and Skype chats with loved ones; pushing on with my Spanish study; taking photos and drafting blog posts; walking through the woods; chatting with neighbours. Time ticks away and very soon I shall need to turn my thoughts to airport taxi duty and a special homecoming meal. How lovely it will be to have company, conversation and shared laughter once more. Until May comes round again, perhaps? 🙂

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Simply celebrating

Christmas means different things to different people and how it is marked and celebrated comes down to personal preferences. I’m sure that many people would think our Christmas was very boring – even miserable, maybe: no pile of presents; no tree; no turkey or mountain of festive food; no frantic shopping trips or round of visits and visitors. We have had huge traditional family Christmases in the past but I have to admit there has been something lovely about paring it down in recent years to a very simple celebration.

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The subject of family perhaps needs a little more discussion before I go any further. We have been asked how on earth we can bear to live abroad when we have young grandchildren in the UK: surely we miss out on so much? Well no, not really. Ironically, I have seen more of our grandchildren in the time we have lived in Spain than I did in the same amount of time living in the UK, where full-time work and all the responsibilities and demands of life left me short on ‘Granny time.’ I’ve also seen more of the little munchkins than a fair few of their other UK relatives have in that time, and the truly wonderful thing is that we might only get together three or four times a year, but each one is like a mini-Christmas. I’ve been reflecting this week on some of the things we have done together in 2017: had day trips out, eaten cafe and picnic lunches, had long walks in pretty places, climbed trees, made dens, built towers, jumped in puddles and paddled in rivers, grazed and nibbled around gardens, shared ice creams and gingerbread men, explored caves and ‘castles’, done very serious business with toy farms, horses, machines and Lego, coloured pictures, stuck stickers, curled up with stories, gazed at the moon (and talked about why you can’t go there on a tractor) . . . priceless moments. You can’t wrap any of that and put it under a tree. 🙂

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So, to our quiet and simple Christmas here. One of the things I value now that we aren’t tied to the timetable of work is the fact that we have the chance to acknowledge and celebrate the Winter Solstice. For me, the solstices and equinoxes all mark important turning points in the wheel of the year and I like to spend time at each one reflecting on their significance. I love the Winter Solstice! Yes, I know it’s a while before we really notice the days lengthening and of course the coldest months are yet to come but . . . there is something so joyful about knowing we are turning a corner and spring will come again. I’m not fussed on tinsel and glitter but I have always enjoyed gathering winter greenery and what better day to choose than one where the sun ‘stands still’ – especially when it is shining?

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A short walk up the lane and I turned to look at the view; I never tire of seeing those beautiful mountains and there is something so comforting about the wood smoke spiralling up from the chimney. No need for a Christmas tree in the house when we can enjoy those enormous beauties next door!

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No holly for the house, either: it is a protected species here and cannot be cut. That’s no problem as I’m happy to enjoy it outside; we are blessed with swathes of it in our woodland and I have recently found several tiny new self-set trees growing in the garden – precious things indeed.

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There was no shortage of colour and greenery and I found myself revelling in the simple beauty of the trees around me, native or otherwise.

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Even on the shortest day of the year, my very favourite spot at the end of our forest track, was bathed in sunlight. One resolution for 2018 is to build a simple seat here.

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Over an hour of wandering about with my head in nature, five minutes to ‘create’ in a vase. My kind of Christmas decoration! Later that evening, we sat and watched the sun go down, marking the spot against the mountainous skyline.

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I’ve heard of an elderly couple who pack smoked salmon and a bottle of bubbly and enjoy them as a picnic every Christmas Day as they have done for all the years they have been together. How lovely to be brave enough and imaginative enough to do something different. We did have a delicious roast dinner (local free-range chicken, most definitely not turkey) and a pile of vegetables from the garden but chose to do that on the 21st; for Christmas dinner, we had good old-fashioned homemade steak and kidney pie. Well, why not? We’ve indulged in a couple of cooked breakfast, too, enjoying Vita’s lovely eggs . . . and sending her box back as full as it came. This is the sort of gift-giving I love.

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It has been so good to spend time outside and smile at those little signs of hope for a new growing season. The peas and broad beans are through the ground and enjoying the current mild weather.

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Borage and calendula have provided splashes of colour non-stop but there are a few new arrivals to enjoy, too.

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Given the weather forecast, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve a day early: yesterday just shouted out for a barbecue in the early evening sunshine (and yes, Roger is wearing shorts!).

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It’s wet and windy today for the real event but that’s no bother. I don’t know about resolutions but of one thing I am very sure: whatever 2018 brings, we will continue to enjoy this simple, lovely life as fully as we can every single day. That’s better than all the Christmas presents in the world. Happy New Year!

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Good granola

I am a huge fan of simple food, by which I mean dishes and meals that are created from the most basic and least processed of ingredients. It doesn’t mean that what we eat is boring – far from it. We love to spend time creating complex dishes from an array of ingredients, and mezze/tapas-style meals of many delicious bits and pieces are a great favourite, especially as they usually mean lots of leftovers for lunch! Using ingredients from our patch here is a wonderful way for us to eat but you don’t need to grow or produce your own ingredients in order to enjoy the benefits of creating meals from scratch.

For me, there are three main reasons for cooking this way:

Pleasure: eating should be a joyful thing. If we have enough to eat every day, we are lucky; if we have the choice of many delightful ingredients to choose from, we are blessed. Preparing even the simplest meal with hands, senses and hearts should be a daily pleasure.

Economy: many pre-packed and pre-prepared foods are expensive. Sourcing your own ingredients means you can choose what’s good, in season or on offer and buy in bulk to save money. Even the simplest of dishes – say a basic tomato and herb sauce for pasta or humble vegetable soup – that has been made at home is likely to be of a better quality than the bought stuff, so when comparing cost it’s important to look at the high end of the market.

Health and choice: if you create your own meals from scratch, you have control over what goes into them and that’s a powerful thing. It’s fascinating – and often hair-raising! –  to read the list of ingredients on food packaging. Making your own means you can control the amount of different nutrients and foods that go in (so for example, less sugar and salt, more fibre, no artificial colourings, flavourings or additives). It doesn’t mean you can’t indulge, either! I recently made some cinnamon and ginger ice cream as a treat to eat with hot mince pies. The ingredients I used were egg yolks (from our neighbour’s free range hens), double cream, whole milk, sugar (from a jar with several vanilla pods in to flavour), ground cinnamon and ground ginger. Healthy? Not really! Decadent? Most definitely! The point is, though, that nothing else went in. Compare this with the list of ingredients in a quality brand of ice cream (vanilla – I couldn’t find a cinnamon and ginger version) : reconstituted skimmed milk, glucose fructose syrup, sugar, glucose syrup, coconut oil, whey solids (milk), stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan), vanilla bean pieces, emulsifier (mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids), natural vanilla flavourings , colour (carotenes). Ice cream without  . . . cream? Stabilisers and emulsifiers? I’m happy to stick with homemade.

As an example of just how easy and rewarding cooking from scratch can be, I’d like to share my granola recipe and encourage you to give it a go. Granola and ‘crunchy’-type breakfast cereals tend to sit at the luxury (and therefore pricier) end of the breakfast cereal market with an aura of healthy eating about them. Researching some of the top brands, I found that after oats, two of the biggest ingredients were sugar and palm oil, and many recipes for homemade granola use large amounts of sugar, maple syrup and corn syrup. Mmm, no thanks. I based my recipe on Sam and Adrienne’s which is delicious, nutritious and sustaining (in fact, it’s what I stoked up on before running the half marathon in September) but I have played around and made a few changes of my own. The recipe is very flexible so ingredients and quantities can be changed to suit your tastes and preferences; I definitely didn’t want to use sugar as I think the honey and dried fruit are plenty sweet enough. I didn’t buy anything ‘new’, just used what we already had at home; in fact, it was a good way of using up some bits and pieces left over from other dishes. It is so easy to make that it hardly qualifies as cooking!

I started with 450g of oats,

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then added sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds – about 150g in all – and another 150g of mixed walnuts and almonds.

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For the wet ingredients, I began by stirring in several tablespoons of apple puree. These were windfalls that I’d frozen earlier in the autumn; when defrosted, I remembered that I’d added orange zest and juice when cooking them – this gave a lovely additional flavour.

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I then added a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil (Sam and Adrienne use walnut oil but I didn’t have any) and a very generous glug of village honey straight out of the jar. I gave it all a good stir, then spread it onto two lined baking trays: the mixture was wet but not overly so.

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Many granola recipes call for a fairly cool oven but I just whacked the trays into the woodstove oven which was sitting a bit below 200 degrees Celsius and kept a careful eye on things to make sure the granola didn’t burn. I took it out and stirred it a couple of times and at this point I was slightly worried as it wasn’t doing the clustery thing I’d expected. No worries: after about 45 minutes, it turned a lovely golden brown and clumped together a bit as it cooled.

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Once cool, I added roughly 150g of mixed raisins and dried cranberries, then piled it into an airtight jar.

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This has made a truly delicious breakfast (I like to eat it sprinkled over Greek yoghurt) which has kept well and gone a long way; it’s very filling, so only small portions are needed, and it has a lovely flavour and crunchy texture without being cloying or overly sweet.

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Simple, wholesome ingredients quickly and easily transformed into a breakfast of gorgeousness. Perfect! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Simply living

‘Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?’ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

We have never set out to be self-sufficient in an extreme ‘Good Life’ sort of way; there are too many commodities we need but can’t produce ourselves, and  – to be completely honest – there are also things we love and wouldn’t like to live without (coffee and tea, for instance). Our aim is to live simply, walking lightly on the Earth and living gently from the land as much as we possibly can. We are happy to have just what we need and no more, and that is a lovely place to be. Neither of us is shy of hard work and yet somehow even on the busiest of days, spending our time on tasks that support our lifestyle can feel exactly like taking it easy! What’s more, the freedom from rigid timetables and responsibilities allows us to take time ‘off’ and enjoy the beautiful place in which we are so lucky to live.

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Walking the coastpath last weekend . . . 

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. . . then up into the mountains.

In cooler months, the woodburning stove  – aka ‘The Beast’ – is absolutely central to our lifestyle. We had hoped  to keep the original stove here but it proved so inefficient and unreliable in our first winter that replacing it was the only choice and once again we opted for a Nordica.

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This is an Italian make, at the ‘budget’ end of things compared perhaps to better known makes of kitchen ranges but we rate it very highly – so much so that this is the third house where we have installed one. Nothing clever or fancy, it simply burns wood in the form of good old-fashioned logs . . . and here is an area where we can be self-sufficient. Half our land here is forest, about four acres (1.6 hectares) of mixed woodland which contains a lifetime’s sustainable supply of logs. We can take what we need through careful woodland management, there is no question of plundering or destroying; all it requires is careful planning and a lot of work! The wood needs to be hauled home, cut into lengths, split into logs then stacked in a stone shed to season until dry enough to burn.

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This is an ongoing process, always looking ahead. This year we have the added bonus of an enormous pile of old timbers which were removed from the house when it was re-roofed in the summer.  We could have paid several hundred euros to have it thrown in a skip and taken away but what would the point of that been? A few days’ hard work at the time created the timber mountain outside and Roger’s daily chainsawing session is steadily reducing it to enough logs to see us through one if not two winters.

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The benefits of having the stove are many. Having opted for an open, cabin style-home it heats the entire house; we have a few modern electric radiators for back-up but quite honestly, I doubt they will ever be used. We are toasty with a capital T! We don’t have a tumble drier: 95% of our laundry is dried outside in the fresh air, but a collapsible wooden airer in front of the stove overnight dries or airs anything if we have a run of rainy days. A kettle of water sits permanently on the hob, providing boiling water for tea and coffee, all our washing up and household cleaning purposes. A constantly hot hob and oven mean we can cook as much as we like without having to worry about using the electric cooker efficiently and it is perfect for those things that need long cooking like the batch of marmalade made earlier this week.

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A hot stove in the morning also means we can cook dishes for lunch, a luxury I have really enjoyed since giving up work and being at home – it beats a lunchbox any day! In the photo of the stove above, there is a pan of lentils cooking as a base for a lunchtime salad and on the worktop next to it, two trays of dough rising for ciabatta loaves.

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Gardening and growing our own food have always been important parts of our life and something I find difficult to regard as work; I love being out of doors with my hands in the soil and the benefits of fresh, organic produce with zero food miles are priceless. Sarah and I often agree that there is a lot of fun to be had ‘foraging’ in your own garden as even at this time of year when it is perhaps at its emptiest, it is amazing what can be gathered. With this in mind, I set off to pick what I could find to go with those lentils, thinking probably a small bulb of fennel and a few herbs would be it . . .

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What a lovely little haul! There was fennel (the smaller bulbs are starting to go to seed now so need eating quickly), mizuna and baby komatsuna from self-set plants, peas ‘three ways’ (a few pods of sweet baby peas, small pods to eat whole and pea shoots), mint and chives for herbal flavour and calendula and borage flowers for colour. Mixed with lentils, salt, pepper, olive oil, grated lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice, what a splendid salad they made.

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Making stock is a way of life for us and here again the stove comes into its own. We bought a stainless steel stockpot over 20 years ago and it is one of the best investments ever, we have used it so much (not just for stock – that marmalade was made in it, too). No bits of meat or fish bone, skin, scraps or shell (in the case of seafood) leave the kitchen without first having been boiled and simmered into a gorgeous, flavoursome stock. For us this is not just about creating the base for future meals but also doing full honour to the animals we have eaten. There is simply no waste. The same is true of vegetable stock, so easy to make and a world away from anything that comes from a cube. The beauty of it is that any bits and scraps of veg can be used so it’s a good way of using up anything that’s past its best and, as the finished stock is strained, the veg can go in skins and all. Here is the pot I made this week:

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A scrappy onion, a couple of garlic cloves, rainbow chard (stalks that had self-pruned), the last few carrots from our late crop now suffering from rootfly, some leafing celery, a tiny leek that came out when I was lifting bigger ones, a couple of definitely-past-their-best parsley stalks and salt and peppercorns yielded three litres of delicious stock, some of which went straight into vegetable soup, the rest into the freezer for future meals. Really, this is something from nothing!

On which subject . . . we are trying hard to get as close to zero waste as possible; it’s not easy, but making compost has again always been a way of life to us, and a great way to recycle organic matter into (eventually) more food. I’m not keen on having a kitchen compost bin which always seems to go slimy, so we use a large plastic mixing bowl instead and empty it daily. I don’t think our current compost heap would win any prizes at it is not very pretty and breaks several golden composting rules: it sits directly on concrete, it isn’t covered, there is only one heap rather than two or three in rotation, we only turn it once a year and we just throw on whatever needs composting rather than any strict green / brown layering. Oh dear!

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Well, the proof of the pudding and all that: I turned the heap a couple of days ago and found many, many barrow loads of the richest, crumbliest, most wonderful compost ever – enough, in fact to mulch the whole of the veg patch currently fallow (most of it) with plenty left to dig into the area where a polytunnel will soon be going up. I think we’ll just stick with the rule breaking, it seems to be working a treat.

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Back to the idea of living simply and taking it easy. A very rainy day saw me looking for an indoor activity and I had just the thing which certainly felt like relaxation. Some months ago, I crocheted a couple of dishcloths from scrap cotton yarn and they have proved to be the best things ever (I realise sounding enthusiastic about dishcloths might seem a bit sad, but I am a simple soul). Given that we don’t have a dishwasher and all our washing up is done by hand, they have taken quite a bashing without showing any signs of wear and tear at all. I throw them into a hot wash with sheets and teatowels and back they come, ready for another go. On the strength of this, I decided to make some more, this time from a slightly heavier cotton: a 100g ball yielded two dishcloths and a larger floorcloth. While I was at it, I dug out some more scrap cotton and knitted a purple tawashi knot scrubbie to use as a scourer (thank you to Sonja for the idea!).

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Simple things and happy days. There really isn’t anything better! 🙂

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Simple pleasures, golden treasures

No question that Black Friday and its friends have taken root in Western Europe, despite the ironic lack of the Thanksgiving celebration of gratitude to precede them. People like to shop and that’s fine. I don’t, and that’s fine, too. I don’t feel the need to follow fashion, have the ‘latest’, grab bargains or accumulate stuff so in all honesty, the long weekend of frenzied shopping completely passes me by. What I have been doing is reflecting on all the things I have been up to over the last week that have brought me great pleasure; many of them very simple, most of them costing nothing but all of them bringing me more joy than all the retail therapy in the world. Here, then, is my list of little treasures:

Holding our two new little grandsons for the first time, kissing their soft, silky heads and breathing in the sweet baby smell of them. Enjoying lots of fun and nonsense, games and stories and jumping in puddles with their older siblings.

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Looking for the next muddy puddle . . . 

Enjoying  a long walk on the South Downs with Sam and Adrienne. Okay, so the weather was rubbish and conditions underfoot were a quagmire but the fresh air and exercise were great and there was much chat and laughter as we slithered along. Devil’s Dyke, a  deep dry chalk valley,  was spectacular even in the pouring rain. Our picnic lunch was delicious: Adrienne’s ‘squashage’ (go on, try saying it!) rolls of sublime homemade rough puff pastry wrapped round spicy roast squash, chorizo and chestnuts. So seasonal and utterly scrumptious.

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Picnic time and nowhere dry to sit . . . but the food more than made up for that slight inconvenience!

Coming home to a house that feels for the first time more like a home than a hovel: warm, dry, bright, clean, comfy and smelling of new wood. Coming home, too, to warm sunshine and beautiful blue skies.

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Harvesting, cooking and eating piles of fresh vegetables from the garden, some of them late surprises: who said we’d had the last of the peppers and courgettes? Who thought the late peas and cannellini beans had really had their day? There was also a surprise in the form of a good bunch of purple sprouting broccoli; this is supposed to be one of our spring veg, but it’s decided to put in an early appearance . . . well, I suppose we can only eat it once!

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Butternut squash, carrot,  Florence fennel, courgette and green pepper from the garden, ready to roast.

Admiring plenty of summer colours still lingering in the garden.

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Welcoming a visit from our lovely neighbour Vita. Seeing washing out on the line, she realised we were back from our travels and hitched a lift up the hill on Jairo’s tractor to bring us a dozen new-laid eggs. Treasure indeed! Those little brown beauties were just perfect for my ice cream making plans. I know there are lots of healthy yoghurty options for ice cream these days but ’tis the season for comfort food, so I felt the need for a rich, custardy creamy base, deepest yellow from golden yolks  – one swirled through with cooked peaches from the freezer, another spiced with cinnamon and ginger (to be shamelessly melted over piping hot mince pies).

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Starting my new crochet project, the ‘Moroccan Spice Mix’ blanket: another gift blanket, but my own colour choices and designs this time so quite a challenge. Actually, quite a pleasure, too.

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Working in the garden. It’s amazing how quickly the patch goes to look empty at this time of year . . . but not for long. After a second season of cultivation and feeding, the soil is deep, rich and wonderfully friable so I’ve had a happy time lightly forking and raking then planting early peas and broad beans for a spring harvest.

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I’ve also planted a couple of large glazed pots with tulips, an early birthday gift from Mum and Dad. A December birthday can be very gloomy weatherwise but it’s always a pleasure to have such gorgeous colours to look forward to in the spring.

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Making mincemeat. I’d happily dispense with most of Christmas but never, ever mince pies. I love the cosy kitchen time spent making them and the seriously decadent business of eating them. A homemade mince pie of buttery crisp pastry bursting with soft, spiced fruity gorgeousness is a thing of utter beauty – and far surpasses anything bought, no matter how many times ‘luxury’ appears on the packet. Likewise, homemade mincemeat is a world away from the shop bought stuff, which is why I have always made my own and would encourage others to have a go. It’s child’s play and takes a matter of minutes: honestly, if you can chop an apple and grate a lemon, you can make mincemeat.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve used Delia Smith’s recipe  adding my own adaptations as suits the occasion. For instance, I much prefer raisins to currants so I change the fruit ratios to reflect that; for years I’ve experimented with different varieties of apples from the garden but this year I’m using our pears; as for nuts, forget almonds – for us, it’s homegrown walnuts all the way. The beauty of Delia’s recipe (I think, anyway) is that the slow heating in a cool oven to prevent the apple fermenting means the suet melts and coats everything instead of sitting like nasty little fatty white maggots which I have always found unappetising. I never bother adding any brandy, either: this is not because I have anything against festive tipple, but I like my mincemeat to be child-friendly and also I think it’s a shame to overpower those lovely spicy, citrussy flavours with strong alcohol. I suppose the brandy would help as a preservative but no worries there – this stuff does not last long enough in our house to go off! In a week’s time we’ll be having a return walking match with Sam and Adrienne here, so I reckon a mince pie stop at the top of our mountain sounds like a grand plan.

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Breathing in the scent of the first jasmine flowers blooming by the door. Gorgeous.

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There are so many other things I could add: the song of a chiffchaff in the garden, the sweet smell of woodsmoke and luxurious warmth from our new stove, evenings spent cooking delicious meals together, the brilliance of a sunset, good news from a friend . . . give me experience over stuff any day. As for Cyber Monday? Don’t think I’ll bother, if that’s alright.