Changing rhythms

It’s sunset time of year once again and the evening sun, sliding ever southwards along the horizon, sinks below the western horizon in a flamboyant flourish of stunning colourplay. So transient, so mesmerising, so beautiful. I am happy to simply stand and watch.

It makes my heart sing every time and what a contrast that is to my previous life, when this time of year always brought with it a certain sense of foreboding. I knew that once the half term break was behind us, I would be travelling to and from work in the dark until February; apart from weekends and the chaotically crammed Christmas ‘holiday’ (I use the term loosely), I wouldn’t see our windswept Welsh smallholding in the light for the best part of four months. For someone who craves ~ no, needs ~ daylight and fresh air and outdoor activity like she needs food and drink, it was a sobering and somewhat depressing thought. The rest of autumn would practically pass me by.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I’ve always thought the way we are programmed to behave at this time of year is a serious flaw in modern society. The light is failing, the temperature falling and the weather generally deteriorating as we turn the circle of the year into the dark months. Everything in nature responds by slowing down and settling into a time of rest or dormancy . . . everything, that is, except human beings doings who hurtle around at the same speed, grubbing about in the dark and foul weather and building themselves up to the frenzied consumerfest that is Christmas. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s natural. Yes, of course society needs to function and people need an income; I’m not advocating hibernation, but when do we ever allow ourselves to rest properly, to recharge, to reflect and to reconnect with the natural rhythms of life?

Fo me, being able to buck the busy trend is one of the greatest advantages and privileges of the simple lifestyle we have chosen and the difference it has made to our health and well-being is considerable. Don’t get me wrong, we are still busy ~ of course we are! ~ but it’s busyness on our terms now and there’s something immensely liberating about that. I might no longer have the status or income of a professional role, but sitting outside and processing our final harvest of peppers in the October sunshine, surrounded by the flit of butterflies and a robin’s song, was a hundred times more satisfying and meaningful in my book.

We have the freedom and permission to live according to the light, the temperature, the weather and the ways in which our bodies respond to those factors. I am naturally going to bed earlier and waking later than I did two months ago and it feels right, not lazy. The garden is still heaving with food but it has changed subtly over the last few weeks so that what we are eating now suits the season and our hunger more appropriately than the summer harvest. It’s time for different textures and flavours, for something a little starchier perhaps, but still with the freshness and zing and colour that keeps the vegetable patch and kitchen very much at the heart of things for us. Better still, we have the time to wander and pick (in the light), to prepare and share and savour. Butternut squash with garlic, onion, tomato, mustard greens, leeks and warming whole spices baked under a savoury oaty crumble topping and served with green peppers, courgettes, celery and New Zealand spinach (lightly cooked in olive oil) with fennel seed – now there is a seasonal meal to enjoy!

I have written before about how early autumn usually brings me a burst of energy and this year has been no exception apart from the fact that it has prodded me into activity rather than creativity. I have to admit that, in recent months, where any commitment to exercise is concerned (over and above working in the garden and wandering about the woods), I have been a bit lackadaisical. Actually, I’ve been a sloth. There have been several factors at play which have seen me dabbling at things rather than truly engaging: a plodding run here, a bit of half-hearted yoga there, neither with any great enthusiasm. I have revisited some different things such as tai chi, but gave up after a couple of dire sessions reminded me why I hadn’t persisted before; I honestly don’t think my brain is wired correctly for it, all sense of right and left desert me in the middle of Waving Hands In Clouds (or whatever). I’ve even been wild swimming a couple of times ~ which is pretty much unheard of ~ but it’s far too cold for that kind of malarkey now.

So, with my new-found hike in energy levels I’ve felt motivated to get a grip and get moving once again . . . but this time, very much in tune with what my body is telling me rather than what I feel I should be doing and that has brought me full circle back to yoga. I love my ‘studio’ in the horreo, there is something wonderful about passing under the squash balcony into that private, airy space. I dug out some of my old books and tried to develop a new practice which ultimately led to me signing up for a 30-day Yoga With Adriene programme called True. No matter how many different styles of yoga I try or teachers I follow, I always come back to Adriene and her vibrant yoga community; she is a slightly crazy Texan lady who promotes home yoga practice and dedication brilliantly with the help of her canine companion, Benji. Formal, stuffy yoga this ain’t ~ certainly, I’ve never had a teacher issuing the instruction ‘try not to not behead your dog’ whilst moving into a posture, but I love the fun, light-hearted element of these videos; surely this is how life should be? The yoga is fabulous (man, did I ache by Day 4!) but the emphasis is on practice rather than perfection, on exploration and curiosity, on self-awareness and, above all, self-compassion . . . and that truly suits my mood of the moment. I’ve flirted with this programme before, dipping in and out inconsistently, but this time I’m doing it properly with a commitment to turn up on my mat every day for 30 consecutive days. I’m loving it. Completely.

My happy yoga space.

Health has certainly been at the forefront of many people’s minds through this strange year and I feel more and more a growing need to take as much responsibility for my own fitness and well-being, both physical and mental, as I can. Certainly, that is something that has become easier at many levels following our lifestyle shift. Having lived since my early twenties with a chronic lung disorder that leaves me susceptible to serious chest infections and pleurisy, a GP told me several years ago that the best thing I could do for myself was walk away from teaching. How right he was! Apart from being removed from bug-ridden classrooms and the inevitable stresses and strains of the job, I now have far more time to dedicate to keeping myself well; sometimes it’s so easy to forget that there is nothing selfish about self-care. Those dark winter months are not quite so depressing if I can get outside during the day or sleep as much as I need and still have plenty of time for exercise.

A brisk climb on an October afternoon works wonders for body and soul.

Diet, of course, plays a huge part and in this I find myself shifting in new directions. It is being widely reported now that the way forward for humans (and the planet) is to adopt a more plant-based diet whilst making food choices that support local, small-scale, sustainable and regenerative agricultural and horticultural practices. We have been moving that way for some time now and meat provenance, in particular, has been central to our concerns. I’m a flexitarian; I am not a vegetarian or vegan ~ and I’m not suggesting that anyone should be ~ but I find myself eating less and less meat, not from any particular stance but simply because I just don’t really fancy it much these days. I love fruit and veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, and good quality eggs and dairy products from happy hens and happy cows; I also love the fact that vegetarian cooking has become so exciting in recent years. The squash crumble I described above is a delicious and filling vegetarian dish; quite honestly, there is no reason to miss the meat. I’m toying with the idea of trying a few meat-free weeks to see what it feels like; it will certainly cause a few logistical issues in the kitchen (I wouldn’t dream of expecting Roger to join me in this adventure) but then, what’s life without a challenge? 🙂

Where alcohol is concerned, I’m easily pleased: give me a half-decent red wine and occasional glass of celebratory bubbles and I’m a happy bunny. I don’t want to give it up as I think the old adage ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ holds much wisdom and there should be some pleasures in life! There’s even some research which suggests moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers but that, of course, is open to much debate. I am, however, making a conscious effort to reduce my wine consumption, both in order to benefit my health and the environment; I’m very proud of how we have reduced our waste to such a low level over the last couple of years but the sound of glass shattering in the recycling bin still seems very wrong to me somehow. (As an aside, is there a valid reason why wine, beer and spirit bottles couldn’t be returned and re-used like milk bottles?) Hopefully in the long term, this will be a win-win situation. Cheers to that!

Sticking with drinks and my tea habit has undergone a seismic shift, too. (At this point, I realise that people who know me well are probably starting to wonder if I’ve suffered a serious blow to the head . . . or indeed, if it is actually me writing this 🙂 ) Having cancelled trips to the UK three times this year on account of the coronavirus situation, I recently ran out of the lovely, loose-leaf Assam tea I always bring back with me; yes, for the first time in my adult life, I became totally tealess (Roger doesn’t drink tea so this was a solitary crisis). Now there was a time when this would have seemed like a disaster too terrible to contemplate ~ which probably shows how spoilt I’ve been ~ but I’ve taken the whole situation completely and calmly in my stride. In part, this is because I’ve been steadily moving towards drinking more herbal teas, experimenting with various flavour combinations straight from the garden or hedgerows. Despite the fact that I can pick fresh herbs all year round here, I’ve been inspired by The Greener Dream blog to create my own tea mixes by air-drying a variety of herbs and storing them in jars; if nothing else, it makes things much easier if Roger is on kettle duty ~ it’s kind enough to have a cuppa made for me without expecting him to go out and forage, too! Lemon balm, lavender and thyme is still my favourite brew and that jar just hums with the scent of summer. Lovely.

It’s not goodbye to black tea, though. Earlier this year I wrote about a Spanish company called Pharmadus Botanicals which produces a range of organic herbal teas in biodegradable packaging and, much as I’m not a fan, I was trying to enjoy the green tea from their range.

Well, imagine my joy to discover a couple of weeks ago that they now sell an organic, loose-leaf, black tea, too. Honestly, I would have jumped up and down shouting very loudly with joy if it hadn’t been for that dratted mask inhibiting my ability to breathe and speak, yet alone shout (and possibly because, all things considered, grannies should probably behave themselves in supermarkets). Anyway, the tea is rather pricey so I am limiting myself to a maximum of two cups a day but blimey, this is some wonderful stuff! It is completely different to any black tea I’ve ever tasted, having a slightly herbal flavour that I can’t quite pin down ~ liquorice root, maybe? The strangest thing is that I’m naturally drinking it without milk because that just feels right and the first steaming mug of the morning is a very lovely thing. It has also inspired me to make my own masala chai spice mix as I’m very partial to a warming evening cup during the darker months. I wasn’t really too bothered about any classic or authentic mix so simply went for what felt good: whole cardamon pods, cloves and black peppercorns ground using a pestle and mortar then mixed with ready-ground cinnamon, mace and ginger. I keep the jar by the kettle and add a pinch or two to a pot of the black tea. Mmm, delicious.

Finally, back to a little wildcrafting and a foraging mission in the woods to find some birch leaves, having discovered that they can be used to make a simple shampoo. Obviously, this won’t be news to my Scandinavian friends but I’d never heard of it before and was eager to try. As with so many of my bright, shiny, new discoveries, I’d made it at a wholly inappropriate time of year, given that both silver birch and downy birch are the first trees here to shed their leaves.

Well, what the heck? I went anyway, thinking that at the very least I might pick up a few more fallen eucalyptus branches (I did) and get to kick up the crunchy leaves and generally enjoy the season. What I’d forgotten is that in this mild climate, things never completely shut down; yes, the mature trees are definitely having an autumn but they are underplanted with literally hundreds of youngsters, still very much growing and in the green.

Knowing that birch readily weeps sap, I picked only a couple of leaves from each tree and soon had enough for my experiment. The idea is ridiculously simple: put the leaves in a jar of cold water, steep for 30 minutes then use as a shampoo. I love the fact that the shifts and changes in my life have brought me to this point of utter simplicity and ease. I don’t go to a hairdresser, I don’t dye my hair (never have), neither do I style it or slap any products on it; in modern terms, I’m seriously undergroomed but since I’m not aware of other people gawping or pointing and laughing when I venture out anywhere, I can’t look too much of a wild-haired freak for all this low-maintenance approach. No processing, no packaging, no synthetic colours, perfumes or other nasties: just a handful of leaves from the wood and water from the spring, both of which are returned to the earth after use. The question, of course, is does it work? Yes, it most definitely does, leaving my thick mop clean, shiny, soft and smelling faintly of summer. Thank you, nature. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

I think that everything else is working, too. Certainly, I already feel leaner, fitter and stronger. I’m sleeping well, and feel quietly calm and very happy – I’m doing a lot of smiling! My energy levels are high but not frantically buzzing; in fact, I feel completely in step with the rhythm of the season, making the most of the daylight hours but happy to embrace the dark as a natural and welcome balance. That’s after I’ve enjoyed the sunset, of course. 🙂

Slow and smooth

Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.

William Shakespeare, Othello (Act I, Scene iii)

I’ve written before about how one of the biggest bonuses of living our simple life here is the time we have to indulge in and enjoy exercise in a way we never have before. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not – and never have been – the sporty type, but I am a fidget and I like to be active and on the move. I find it sad, frustrating and very ironic that in our modern world, there has never been such a wealth of research and information about the benefits of lifelong exercise nor so many activities and pieces of kit to choose from (although I suspect much of the latter has more to do with marketing than movement) . . . and yet, the hustle and bustle and rush of life leaves so little time to spend on what must be one of the very best things we can do for ourselves. Human bodies are designed to move. A lot. We are not made to sit on our backsides, stuff snacks or stare at screens. We’re better than that – aren’t we? Trust me, I am not preaching: in the years when I was raising a family and working full-time, exercise came at the bottom of the pile, especially as I’ve never been very good at turning out in the evenings or making much effort when I’m tired. For six months of the year, I travelled to and from work in the dark which made walking or running impossible during the week and living in very rural places always meant a drive to leisure centres. I managed to go to netball club for a while and a few terms of salsa classes, otherwise it was down to manic activity in the garden at weekends plus a walk if we could find the time.

What a difference having time has mades to my outlook and attitude; it is the most precious of commodities. If someone had told me ten years ago that early 2020 would see me pulling on screaming pink trainers to run three or four times a week in the Asturian mountains, I’d have stared at them in total disbelief. Yeah, right. Yet here I am, doing just that. I don’t particularly like running and I’m not very good at it but I appreciate and respect the benefits it brings to me physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. I’ve come to realise that no matter how much I don’t want to make the effort to get out there and do it, I always, always feel better when I have.

One thing I have learned in my time here is to pick and choose races very carefully; it’s a balance between having a goal, something that makes me stick at training without putting myself under the kind of pressure that leaves me resenting the whole running scene. I’ve found out the hard way that some races here are really for elite athletes and the fast times and tight cut-offs make things very tough for me; I’m far happier when I can relax near the back of a pack with like-minded people who aren’t fast or flashing a lot of fancy kit, just there to do it because they can . . . and, most importantly, to enjoy it.

Salinas 6k beach run last May and my feet barely moving . . . playing to the camera instead of focusing on a sprint finish. 🙂

Of course, there’s no harm in setting personal challenges but it’s been a steep learning curve in understanding how to handle the fallout when things don’t go according to plan. Last September, I set out to try and finally run a 10k race in under an hour. For ten weeks, I trained harder than I ever had before: I ran five times a week without fail; I did training sessions I’d never done previously – interval training, tempo runs, hill repeats; I did one 12+k run a week in the hope that it would make 10k seem easier. On the big day, I ran the race two and a half minutes faster than I had the year before, despite thundery weather, blistering heat and a stiff onshore breeze. I missed my target by seven seconds. I was devastated. What I should have done, of course, is smile at all the positives, dust myself off and get back to it; in reality, I went into an almighty self-indulgent sulk, hid my training shoes and refused to run for the next two months! Well, let’s face it, I’d put in all that effort for nothing and I don’t like running anyway, so what was the point? Sulk, sulk, sulk. 😦

Ribadesella is a spectacular place to run . . .
. . . but try as I might, that sub-60 minute 10k still eluded me.

Then in November, I went to support Roger when he ran for Wales in the British Masters Cross Country competition at Aintree and something inside me changed (for the better, I’m glad to say). Watching the hundreds of athletes wearing their national vests with pride, powering round 10k of grass and mud in a bitterly cold wind not only left me feeling inspired – as it always does – but thoroughly ashamed, too. Many of those runners were much older than me (in fact, plenty of them were older than my parents) and yet there they were, giving it their all in a wonderful spirit and atmosphere of enthusiasm, friendship and movement. I had absolutely no excuse to be so peevish; it was time to give myself a good boot up the backside. Home again, and I ran in the Castrillon 8k in December, a fantastic local community event with a slap-up feast afterwards. I didn’t ‘train’ for it, just ran when I felt like it; I didn’t set a time challenge, just went with the flow – which was pretty tricky in high winds and stormy weather; it was tough, but I found myself smiling all the way round just from the sheer joy of being out there doing something slightly mad and under no pressure at all. It was lovely to exchange a few words with fellow runners, high five the children along the route and even acknowledge the traditional Asturian band piping me over the finish line. That’s how it should be.

Castrillon 8k: no pressure, no expectations and a lot of fun . . . even though the weather was dire!

I’ve entered a couple of similar races in the next few weeks purely for the fun of being involved in local community events with no personal challenges involved. One of them is a 10k race in a beautiful coastal spot, running from a village out to a lighthouse and back. I’m not even thinking about that sub-hour time because I’ve come to realise it really, really doesn’t matter; I might never crack it but so what? My life won’t change either way but ultimately surely it’s better to be a slow, smiling plodder – hopefully for years to come – than an inert couch potato?

I love yoga and usually try to do at least a couple of practices a week, more if I’m not doing much running. On some days I do my own sequence either in the house with gentle background music or, in warm weather, in the barn with the relaxing sound of birdsong and gentle village murmurings for company. At other times, I like to follow a yoga class video; there is a wealth of yogic treasure available online and it’s a great way to work with a range of teachers, try different styles and really mix and match practices. The only time I have ever attended proper yoga classes was during the two years we lived in France and those sessions benefited me hugely in three ways. First, it was a good way to socialise and meet new people (I was the only ‘foreigner’ in the class) in a relaxed and friendly environment where I could chat without being under any obligation to speak too much. Second – not surprisingly – it taught me much about yoga, and in particular the importance of breath and seeing the practice as holistic, not the hurried set of stretches I’d squeezed in between marking books and cooking dinner in a previous life. Third (and of most relevance here), it did wonders for my French, in particular my ability to listen and understand. I have an A-level in French but I studied at a time when the emphasis was on reading and writing and conversation was something of an afterthought. The chance to spend a couple of hours a week truly concentrating on spoken French was wonderful, especially as our teacher, Sophie, insisted we did much of the practice with eyes shut, so I couldn’t just watch and copy my class mates. Even now, seven years on, I still sometimes hear her soothing voice reminding us all to ‘Ne pas crispez les orteils!’

It was during one such moment recently, whilst mentally checking in with my orteils, that I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. How it’s taken me so long to have this thought I do not know, but at least I got there in the end: why not look for yoga videos in Spanish? In France I could cycle to my class, here it would involve driving a fair distance and I don’t particularly want to commit to that but there is no reason why I couldn’t have a Spanish ‘class’ at home and – in the name of supreme efficiency aka laziness – I could kill two birds with one stone by combining my Spanish study with yoga sessions. Splendid.

One of the beauties of yoga is that the names of the postures in Sanskrit serve as an international language for the yoga community, in the same way Latin is used the world over for identifying living organisms. It doesn’t matter what individuals with different mother tongues call a particular posture such as the one I know as ‘Mountain Pose’, we would all recognise it as tadasana. This makes following a yoga class in a foreign language slightly easier, because at the very least I can pick out the posture names when Sanskrit is used. However, in the name of really developing my language, it’s fun to learn the Spanish names, too, and I was really thrilled to chance upon a helpful website which literally spells them all out. I was also quite chuffed to find I’d made a correct guess at ‘Downward Facing Dog’ being perro hacia abajo. I’m just very grateful that I don’t have to say it aloud, though, as my attempts at training my tongue to trill that rr have proved futile. This means my oh-so-Anglo-Saxon pronunciation ditches the dog and renders a translation of ‘Downward Facing But’ . . . and to the English ear, there’s far too much inuenndo and word play to be had with that one!

Although I recognise the advantages of attending a yoga class and working under the guidance of an experienced teacher, the great thing about a video class is that I can watch it beforehand to familiarise myself with the sequence and flow of postures and hopefully not find myself left trailing too far behind during the practice. Strangely enough, I actually felt slightly nervous when I tried the first video – ridiculous really, but a good sign that I’m challenging myself once again to shift out of my comfort zone and engage body and brain in something new and fulfilling. Standing at the top of my mat in tadasana, eyes closed, toes flat, spread and relaxed (merci, Sophie!) I heard the words ‘Tomamos unos instantes preparando nos mentalmente para la práctica‘ and understood completely, without any need for translation, reflection or even much conscious thought. It was like a happy sort of homecoming. Namaste.

Where healthy living fashions are concerned I must confess I’ve never been a fan of smoothies; I love fresh fruit and vegetables and eat copious amounts of both every day but I much prefer them as they come rather than whizzed up into a drink. Several years ago when I was still working, I was completely mystified by the ‘must have a Nutribullet for Christmas’ craze that swept through the staffroom. I couldn’t quite get my head round spending a large sum of money on what seemed to be a glorified blender and filling it full of bought kale, frozen blueberries and a host of ‘superfood’ boost products to create a gloop and call it breakfast. Definitely not my cup of tea. However, after a recent couple of debilitating weeks and feeling an urgent need to top up my mineral and vitamin levels, I decided perhaps the idea of a smoothie wasn’t so bad after all as long as, in line with my general attitude to life, I could keep it simple. The internet literally buzzes with smoothie recipes but in the end I just did my own thing . . . wandered into the garden and picked a handful of kale and a few kiwis.

That’s it. No bananas or avocados (we don’t buy either here, they are imported and pricey), no plant-based milks or oils, no fruit juices, no yogurt, no seeds or spices, no protein powders, no honey (I don’t have a sweet tooth, the kiwis are plenty sweet enough for me). The kale is fabulous stuff, an heirloom variety called ‘Cottagers’ which I planted for the first time last year. It’s an old cross between kale and brussels sprouts which was then re-crossed with purple sprouting broccoli, of such interest in Victorian times that it even caught Charles Darwin’s eye. It has easily outperformed all the other varieties I’m growing here but being the daydreamer that I am, I failed to realise it is perennial so perhaps didn’t plant it in the most sensible of places. No worries, here’s to five years at least of healthy green gorgeousness!

Where the kiwis are concerned we are still picking them and there are plenty more to come; I usually eat the whole thing, furry skin and all (I’m too idle to do the ‘boiled egg’ thing with a teaspoon and anyway, it’s a good source of fibre), but in the interests of a reasonably smooth smoothie I did peel them just this once. Into the food processor they went with a dash of cold water to loosen the mixture up and that was that. The verdict? Well, it was very green and I have to admit, very tasty. Yes folks, I actually enjoyed it. Enough to want to repeat the experience, in fact, this time with a handful of fresh mint thrown in for good measure. I even found myself thinking a splash of apple juice would be a good addition, perhaps some grated root ginger, squeeze of lemon juice, few leaves of lemon balm. Mmm, slippery smoothie slope, maybe? ¡salud! 🙂

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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Bridging the gap

Spring is almost officially here and we have just eaten the final picking of leeks and the very last cabbage from the garden. It feels a bit sad in a way but we’ve been harvesting leeks since last September so they really have done us proud.

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There is still a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and small pickings of mizuna, pak choi and komatsuna fresh from the patch and we still have plenty of squash and beans in storage. We have been using fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, chervil and coriander all winter and now the vigorous new growth on parsley, spearmint and chives offers additional delicious flavourings.

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That said, we are teetering on the edge of that ‘hungry gap’ when there will be very little to be had from the garden; if we want a wide diversity of veg in our diet, we have to buy a few now. The next crops won’t be too long; there are flowers on the autumn-planted broad beans and peas, and the second plantings are through the ground. In the polytunnel, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce are leafing up nicely and the first taste of radish is on its  way.

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The bottom line, though, is that it would be good to be gapless.

We were much later getting our polytunnel organised and up than planned (and we’ve had nothing but problems with it since . . . mmm, that’s another story) but next spring, it will be key to bridging the gap. There are many things that can be planted in autumn to give crops all winter or an early spring harvest and we intend to exploit that situation to the full. At the moment, there are a few bits and pieces in the ground but much of the space is either empty or housing the staging, currently heaving under trays and pots of emerging seedlings – our food (and flowers) of the future!

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The plan is to remove the staging when it’s done its job and plant the whole space with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons plus a few other bits and bobs; we’re also planting everything but tomatoes outdoors and it will be an interesting experiment to compare both lots over the summer. Now I have to admit that I love a good dig – or at least, a good rummage around in soil with my fork. It’s a simple thing, the joy of physical activity combined with that wonderful earthy smell, the sight of worms, that feeling of preparation and expectation . . . but I know there are arguments against it and I’m interested to try a bit of ‘no-dig’ gardening. Roger isn’t at all convinced of the benefits and we have enjoyed some lively discussions on the subject but I’m wondering if the tunnel might just provide an opportunity to have a go this year? To that end, I hauled what felt like several tonnes of homemade compost into the tunnel and dumped it on all the bare areas; there’s plenty of excess to spread around once the trestles have gone. It’s a deep layer of lovely, worm-riddled, crumbly gorgeousness so my idea is not to dig it in but leave it as ta thick mulch, plant directly and observe with interest.

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Back to that gap and another strategy this year is to alter the planting times of some crops; it takes a while to understand a new climate and we are still in the early stages here. This time last year, we had trays of leek plants several centimetres high but we haven’t even planted them yet this year. The truth is, we don’t need to be eating them in September when the patch is still heaving with other veg, so by pushing them back a bit with any luck we will be able to harvest them until the end of March at least. Parsnips have always been a huge winter staple for us; they are notoriously tricky to germinate but we have never had a problem, fresh seed saved from our plants and sowed with freezing fingers in cold, waterlogged February soil always yielding more than enough to feed our family of five all winter. They grow like stink here, too – enormous great roots which do several meals for two of us – but oh my goodness, the trouble we’ve had getting them started.

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Last year, we had to plant three times before anything germinated and then the harvest was not quite as big or prolonged as we would have liked. This year, we’ve started them off in the tunnel, the seeds planted in little cones of newspaper filled with compost (I had great fun making those cones, like folding tiny piping bags . . . very therapeutic!); fingers crossed for a successful germination and then we simply pop the cones into the ground outside and look forward to a winter feast of those delicious beauties.

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On the subject of adjusting to a different climate, we have been catching the tail end of the wintry weather sweeping across more northerly parts; we aren’t suffering from frosts or snow but the temperature has been pegged back and there is a certain amount of gardeners’ frustration at play. Patience, patience! That said, the signs of spring are all around, not least the delicate beauty of peach and apricot blossom.

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This is a timely reminder that the new season’s harvest is on its way and we still have a mass of fruit in the freezer from last year’s glut. No problem, I have been pulling them out in batches, stewing them lightly in their own juices on top of the woodstove and eating them for breakfast. I don’t know about other people, but sometimes when reflecting on our attempts to live a simpler, greener, more sustainable life I find myself focusing on how much we aren’t doing; it’s human nature, I suppose, but occasionally it’s good to stand back and look at the positives, too.  So, here is my breakfast: peaches picked and preserved from our trees, organic oats bought in a paper bag which will be shredded onto the compost heap, and walnuts from our woodland, stored in their shells and cracked as needed. No hint of chemicals, no plastic wrapping in sight, zero waste. (Not to mention it’s a delicious and nutritious combination to start the day!)

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One ‘gap’ we really can’t risk is that of logs; we rely on a steady supply to feed the stove and that means planning ahead. This winter we have been burning the old roof timbers, ‘recycling’ them into heat – the stove heats the entire house – as well as hot water and a hob and oven for cooking. During the autumn, we have cut the remaining timbers and stacked them to dry; this week, Roger has moved them all into the shed for storage and turned his thoughts to logs for 2020!

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We are blessed with several acres of woodland, a mix of mostly eucalyptus (planted by the former owner as a cash crop), chestnut, birch, oak, willow and holly. There is much shrubby undergrowth including Spanish heath and gorse and a wealth of wild flowers, too (there are carpets of sweet violets everywhere at present). It is a beautiful wild tangle of growth and a haven for wildlife – wild boar and deer are regular visitors and there is a tremendous population of birds. Our attitude to logging is to take just enough for our needs through careful ‘management’ rather than greed; fallen trees are always the first port of call. The chestnuts can be coppiced rather than felled – this is typical local practice – and that is what Roger has been doing, cutting selected trunks and hauling them home with the tractor to split and season.

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There’s no waste here, either: the sweet-smelling sawdust is a great addition to the compost heap and I’ve been happily sweeping it up and spreading it across the top of our greatly reduced pile.

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So . . . here’s to another year of logs and compost and  – if we play our cards right – no hungry gap at all next spring. Happy equinox, everyone! 🙂

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To be or not to bee wrap

‘Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful.’  Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

 
I have just finished reading a book about minimalist living. Whilst being an interesting and thought-provoking read, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by some of the ideas being suggested. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own interpretation and opinion but for me, the whole essence of minimalism is about getting rid of excess, living with only what we need and no more so that what is left – whether in terms of space or time – can be used for happier, non-material things and appreciating the beauty of life and the world around us (as per the opening quotation). Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong?

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For instance, there was a lot of time spent on the idea of de-cluttering which seemed to focus far more on organising existing ‘stuff’ rather than reducing the overall amount of possessions; I found it a bit ironic being advised to go out and buy large plastic boxes so I can store things under the bed. There is nothing under our bed at present because, quite simply, there is nothing to go under the bed (and if there were, I’d be seriously questioning whether we really needed it). When it came to getting rid of things, there was also far too much ‘throw it away’ for my tastes: whatever happened to re-use and re-cycle? Well, I’m happy to agree to disagree with the author on a few things but when it came to a discussion of decorating, I felt completely lost at the suggestion of a simple black and white scheme for everything. Now admittedly, we have painted all the walls of our little mountain house white in order to maximise light as the windows are very small . . . but there is colour in everything else. I am happy to embrace a simpler lifestyle but I didn’t realise it extended to removing an excess of colour! I love colour, it brings so much joy and happiness into my world and the idea of eliminating it is out of the question. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s been high on my agenda this week.

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Last year, I decided to brighten up an old garden seat we’d had for many years; we had kept it as natural wood, oiling it every year to keep it waterproof, but the poor thing was really looking its age. I painted it with the dregs of paint left over from a previous project and we placed it in one of our sunniest patches. It has become one of our favourite places, a natural spot to gravitate towards, mug of coffee in hand. Unfortunately it had gone to look weather-beaten again and having no ‘petrol’ paint left, this week I opted for a brighter ‘peacock’ instead and spent a happy couple of hours in the sunshine giving it another facelift.

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I also finished making the crochet patchwork granny square blanket, something I started last year to use up a pile of  yarn left over from other projects. It’s been great fun creating something useful from a crazy mishmash of colours and clashes, although in theory I suppose I could have put the yarn into storage under the bed or thrown it away. 🙂 Instead, it will be a blanket of many uses, including padding out that seat or throwing in the back of the car for picnics.

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We are edging ever closer to being able to move the spare bedroom furniture out of the kitchen and upstairs. We won’t be able to sort our kitchen/living area out properly until then but in the meantime I dug out our old cotton bunting, washed and ironed it (quite something for me!) and we hung it from the beams. A visiting neighbour was very taken with it and asked if we had been celebrating a birthday to which I had to honestly answer no, it was just me being a bit frivolous and girlie and the bunting was a permanent thing.

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He said he thought that was wonderful because it meant we were celebrating our non-birthdays every day and that was surely a great thing to do? What a lovely way of looking at life! Black and white? I don’t think so!

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One of my goals this year is to try and get as close to zero waste as possible. The amount of waste that goes out for the rubbish collection is already relatively small – one small bag per fortnight, rarely full; we recycle everything we can, compost biodegradable waste and re-use things wherever possible as second nature. The composting in particular is a huge success here; as gardeners, we have had compost heaps for 30 years but have never had such a fast working one. It’s like some sort of magical bottomless pit of gorgeous, crumbly compost. I turned it and emptied it in the autumn, digging out enough to mulch the entire vegetable patch. This week, I’ve turned it again, piling it onto the terraces where the squash and sweetcorn are to be planted (they are such greedy feeders), top dressing all our pots and troughs and hauling buckets and buckets up to the polytunnel. I love this sort of activity, definitely not work in my book. What a thing of wonder compost is . . . and all from waste and worms!

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For us, the biggest issue to tackle is plastic waste, and in particular, food wrapping – something of a hot topic at the moment. Luckily,  a huge proportion of our food here comes package-free . . .

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. . . but we are not self-sufficient so inevitably we have to buy from other places and that’s where the problem starts. Even buying fresh meat and fish loose over the counter, there seems to be no getting away from the plastic it is subsequently wrapped in and which cannot be hygienically recycled. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m working on it and in the meantime, I’ve had a go at making some bee wraps which should at least help to eliminate home-produced cling film waste. Waxed cloth is not a new idea but it has become popular in recent years as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable food wraps. There are some really beautiful products on the market but they tend to be a bit pricey so, encouraged by many helpful websites, I decided to have a go at making my own; driven in from the garden by Storm Gisela a couple of days ago, I decided the moment had arrived!

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The theory is a simple one: soak cotton cloth in melted beeswax, pine resin and jojoba oil to create a waterproof, flexible, washable food wrap. The fabric I used was good quality 100% cotton left over from a baby quilt project (I think it came from Hobbycraft). Beeswax is easily obtainable in a block that can be grated or as small perles, but I had some beekeeper’s waste – a sheet of wax foundation that had shattered – so it seemed the right thing to use. There are various methods for making bee wraps; as the stove was stoked up and the oven hot, I decided to use that rather than the ironing method. I opted for mixing the cold ingredients and spreading them across the fabric as this seemed to be less wasteful and also I know from making lip balm and hand cream that cleaning bowls and utensils that have been around melted beeswax is the very devil!

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It would have been nice to cut the fabric with pinking shears but I don’t have any so straight edges had to suffice; I was working on the theory (correct, as it turned out) that such a tight weave was unlikely to fray after waxing. I chopped the fabric into various shapes and sizes and made a start with the largest square (30cm x 30cm), laying it on a large baking tray covered in parchment paper.

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I popped the tray into the hot oven and the mixture took only moments to melt. I then removed it, used a paintbrush to spread the melted mixture around, making sure it went right to the edges of the fabric, then put it back into the oven for another couple of minutes.

Mmm. What can I say? It did work in as much as I ended up with a sheet of waxed fabric but . . . for some reason, the resin pooled in places and left rather unattractive yellow splodges – no mention of this little problem on any of the websites. I turned the second piece right side down on the parchment which did at least mean the resin wasn’t quite so obvious but I really wasn’t very happy with this method. I honestly wished I’d used the pre-melting approach instead, so for the smaller pieces I piled the mixture on to the parchment next to the fabric, melted it then brushed over. You can see the difference that made in the photo below.

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The upshot of my little wrap making experiment is that I certainly won’t use this method again but will melt everything together first; the good news is that I will definitely be making some more because although aesthetically they aren’t the greatest, they work. They have a strange texture but smell pleasantly and subtly of beeswax and there is something very satisfying about moulding them around the top of a food container with just the warmth from my hands (yes, I’m a simple soul!). I’m interested to see which sizes we use the most in the coming weeks and then I shall make a second batch.

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To me, these little ideas are the epitome of the simple life we live here. I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, but drops add up. It’s another tiny step towards zero waste and steps add up, too. It’s not about grand gestures or dramatic dogma, strict colour schemes or savvy storage systems. It’s about living peacefully, kindly and mindfully every day, taking little steps one at a time to tread more gently on the earth. That’s a life worth living, surely? 🙂

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Gardening: go on, give it a go!

If this post inspires just one person to plant one seed, then I shall be over the moon – and if it’s you, please leave a comment and let me know. You will have made my year! 🙂

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Bright beauty: I’m not the only thing in the garden to have turned my face to the sun this week.

For us, gardening is not so much a pastime as a way of life. We spend time in the garden every day and when that means all day, I’m a very happy bunny! We have moved several times over the years (this is our tenth home together) and when it comes to looking for somewhere to live, the garden has always been the most important ‘room’ in the house. To me, growing food and flowers seems such a fundamentally human thing to do; we are lucky to have a good-sized garden, but great things are possible even in the tiniest of spaces. It’s amazing how much can be grown in a pot alone – and what a simple but wonderful pleasure it is to raise a few fresh herbs to liven up your meals or a show of spring bulbs to brighten your day.

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Marjoram and thyme grown in pots: we have been picking these all winter.

Now I realise there are many, many people who don’t like gardening and I understand that: I feel exactly the same way about shopping! However, I often wonder if in some cases the reluctance to garden is down to misconceptions about what it’s really like?

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What is a weed? In the end, it’s all a matter of opinion.

Gardening is hard work: it doesn’t have to be, it’s as much or little work as you make it. You don’t have to create a manicured, weed-free, bowling green lawn, neatly clipped hedges and straight-edged borders full of prize dahlias or show-stopping onions . . . if time is short or enthusiasm low, keep it simple. Smile at ‘weeds’, plant a few bulbs, sprinkle a few seeds then sit back and watch them grow.

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Poke a pea into the ground and let nature do the rest (actually, this one is self-set – even better.).

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Golden pak choi: there will be no more meals for us from this plant but instead of pulling it out I shall leave it to flower –  lazy gardening, but it’s a great nectar source for insects and will set seed I can collect and plant again.

Gardening is expensive: if you go out and buy every piece of garden equipment or large pots of ‘seasonal interest’ plants from garden centres, then it will cost a pretty penny  . . . but it isn’t necessary to do those things. You only need a handful of basic tools and they don’t have to be top of the range or brand new. I have been using the same hoe and rake for 30 years and before that they were my grandfather’s, so who knows how old they are? (It’s not a case of that old ‘three new heads and five new handles’ joke either – they are the originals!) They work and that’s all that matters.

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Still going strong after all these years . . . a bit like the gardeners, really.

Plants are pricey but small plants are cheaper and they soon grow into big ones; car boot or village hall sales are great places to pick up bargains, and friendly gardeners are usually generous with handing out spares or cuttings. Seeds are relatively cheap and the the no-frills ranges offer great value for money with very little waste. I am a lazy gardener who loves to let seeds self-set around the garden; if I don’t like where they are, it’s easy enough to move them or compost them . . . otherwise as far as I’m concerned, they are plants for free and no work. Perfect.

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Annoying weeds or wonder seeds? Californian poppy and mizuna, self-set in cracked concrete: a splash of colour and a taste of salad leaves to come in my book.

Gardening is difficult: there are so many sources of advice and information about gardening that it can be pretty overwhelming, even for experienced gardeners. If you are planning to grow a camellia in a waterlogged frost-pocket of alkaline soil, you probably won’t get an easy run, but what I call basic, down-to-earth gardening isn’t hard and the best way to find out is to do it. Don’t worry about making mistakes; that’s what life is about and how we learn. So much of gardening is simple common sense: if the ground is still cold, wait a little longer before you sow seeds; if it’s very dry, water it; if plants grow tall and floppy, tie them up or support them with something; if you don’t like runner beans, don’t grow them; if your strawberries are ripe, eat them!

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Komastuna – an easy-peasy winter green. Sow, pick, eat.

Gardening is boring: when I was a teenager I’d have certainly given this one the thumbs up, but as soon as I had my own garden, my attitude changed completely. If you make a garden that is yours, a true reflection of your character, tastes and interests, then it will never, ever be boring. I have always been fascinated by nature so for me, the garden is full of wonders: the soil structure and its myriad life, the germination of a seed, the pattern on a leaf or colours in a flower, the busyness of insects and birds, the sweetness of a baby carrot . . . I love a garden of higgeldy-piggeldy chaos, vegetables grown in strangely-shaped patches with flowers sprawling between, teeming with colour and life. How could that ever be boring?

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Borage is one of my favourite plants. It pops up everywhere, flowers here all the year round and is a great source of nectar for honey bees.

Make your garden your own: if you want gladioli or purple cauliflowers or gnomes with fishing rods, have them. If you want to grow vegetables on full show in your front garden, go ahead – break a few rules and conventions, you’re allowed to. Include things that are fun and make you smile; choose things that make you glad to be outdoors and alive. Whatever you do, don’t forget a seat or hammock: gardens should never be all about work so make time and space to rest and play. Put the kettle on, pull a cork, sit back and relax . . . but please don’t be bored!

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It’s not all work: make time for tea (or your preferred tipple).

 

So, back to our little corner of Planet Earth. One of the greatest things about living in Asturias is that the climate is very mild and gentle, which means the ground is never too wet or cold to work – even in January.

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Celandines in the sunshine and lambs in the valley . . . there’s a hint of something special in the air!

It has been lovely to spend so much time outside this week doing jobs around the garden and reflecting on why it is such a huge part of our life. There are many different reasons why people like to garden, all of them equally valid and important; here is my personal list . . .

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I love the garden in all seasons.

Given the choice, I would always opt for being out of doors. I love to be out in the fresh air, come rain or shine  – for me, it beats being shut in a building or vehicle any day – and ‘things to do’ in the garden give me just the excuse I need. The benefits of fresh air and a daily dose of daylight have been well-catalogued and seem like a good bet in trying to take responsibility for my own health and well-being.

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I don’t need asking twice to be outside, especially when the sun is shining.

There’s exercise, too: admittedly, you don’t burn too many calories pruning the roses, but digging and forking, pushing heavy wheelbarrows, lugging watering cans and the like are a great physical workout. Then there are the footsteps; I’ve often thought it would be interesting to wear a pedometer during a day in the garden . . . I suspect I cover many miles. Totally immersed in nature, surrounded by the beauty of our garden, hands in the earth growing vegetables and nose in the flowers – what a wonderful way to spend my time!

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Simple beauty.

Growing our own food removes us as far as possible from the huge chain of events and processes which is the scary beast of world food production. It keeps everything very simple and (quite literally) down to earth. We know where our carrots came from, how they were grown and what has been done to produce them because we’ve done it all ourselves. We know exactly what we are eating . . .  and that is a great thing.

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Fresh new growth on rainbow chard planted last summer.

We garden organically. This is not from any particular political, ethical or moral viewpoint or because we follow any philosophical or fashionable trends but because to us, it makes perfect sense. If we truly are what we eat, then we prefer our food to be as natural, nourishing and toxin-free as possible. Our lettuces might be a bit slug-nibbled but they have not been sprayed with anything or washed in bleach. Our parsnips might be funny shapes and our cabbages different sizes but they have been grown in soil enriched only with well-rotted manure and home-produced compost. What’s more, they’re delicious!

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It’s not a perfect cabbage . . . but it’s not bad, either.

We have no problem with ‘Five a Day’ either; even at this time of year, we can choose a variety of fruit and vegetables to enjoy and the great thing is that they are all truly seasonal. The garden might not look much in the middle of winter but we are currently eating leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, squash, spinach, pak choi, komatsuna, Florence fennel, mizuna, kiwi, pears, walnuts and a range of herbs.  I would far rather go slithering about in mud to pick a few fresher-than-fresh leeks from the garden than pull a packet of green beans that have been grown halfway across the world from the fridge. Measuring food footsteps rather than food miles is a wonderful way to live and it beats shopping (remember, I’m not a fan)! It’s the same with flowers: why buy imported roses when a simple posy of seasonal flowers, leaves or even coloured twigs can be gathered from our patch to enjoy indoors?

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The January patch doesn’t look pretty . . . but there is still more veg than we can eat.

Our choice to garden organically and the methods we use (or choose not to use) are closely tied up with our great respect for and appreciation of the environment. We have always seen ourselves as stewards rather than owners, simply passing through and sharing our space with an amazing host of flora and fauna in (we hope) a balanced ecosystem. Even if we live here for the rest of our lives, it will be a mere blink of the eye in the history of the land so for us, it’s important to care for all that we have.

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This week we have been removing a fence of rusty wire and laying a row of hazels behind to make a hedge: not only will it look much better but it will also be a valuable habitat and food source for wildlife.

Something we have noticed over the last year is how much the bird population in the garden has increased from when we first moved here. In one morning, I noted down the following list (these were birds that were physically in the garden – if I’d included the ones I saw or heard in the surrounding fields, hedges and woodland or flying over, the list of species would be much longer): robin, wren, blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, pied wagtail, redwing, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, chaffinch, goldfinch, bullfinch, greater spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, house sparrow, dunnock, serin. Now I know there are probably many people who could produce a much longer list from their garden but the point is that we don’t feed the birds in winter here: there is an abundance of natural food available all winter and I’ve yet to see wild bird food for sale anywhere. The birds are not coming in to visit tables or feed stations but of their own volition; we’re not sure what has made the difference, but we are very, very happy about it. I waste so much time leaning on my fork and watching their antics, even if that does include the bullfinches expertly stripping the peach trees of their buds!

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Pecking order: the kiwi vine is still dripping with fruit and several species of our feathered visitors are tucking in.

In the same way, I have been truly thrilled to see far more frogs and toads around the place – I’m currently wondering how to persuade a couple to take up residence in the polytunnel, they are such great slug-slurpers. We have a healthy population of lizards who have been happy to take up residence in the dry stone walls we have built for terraces. Last year I watched a very modest little one crunch its way through a relatively enormous snail shell and scoff the meaty meal inside in a matter of moments. A complete hero as far as I’m concerned . . . time to build a few more walls, I think.

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Insects are also very welcome visitors who have been much in evidence this week.

Our garden is not a place of work or endless list of chores that need doing; it is not only where we grow our food and flowers. We use it just as much – if not more – as a place of rest and relaxation. We cook and eat our meals outside whenever we can; we wander about simply enjoying what’s there; we sit with a mug of coffee or glass of wine, chatting, laughing, relaxing . . . it’s such a lovely place to just be, and that’s what makes it so precious. Go on, try it! 🙂

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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! 🙂