Six On Saturday 28th July

Would it be rude of me to use the ‘R’ word given the extraordinary hot, dry weather searing through so much of Europe at the moment? Here in northern Spain – somewhat ironically – there has been no shortage of wet stuff falling from the sky; in fact, for weeks and weeks we wondered if it would ever stop. (For anyone tired of lugging watering cans now cursing me soundly, I’d like to point out we’ve also been living under mostly cloudy skies, grateful for the tiniest scraps of sunshine). It might be warm and incredibly humid rather than hot and dry,  but the upside is that the landscape is still lush and green and everything is growing like stink. Ten days away to attend the most beautiful West Sussex wedding was followed by another ten days trying to get the jungle-masquerading-as-a-garden back under some sort of control. Needless to say, we came home to delights and disasters so here are my six for today.

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I’ll start with the scene of devastation that greeted us in the polytunnel: every single tomato plant collapsed, brown and stinking, as a result of blight. It was no great surprise as blight is endemic in this area and this was our third and last attempt at growing a crop, a sort of  ‘do or die’ affair. Die it was, then. It’s a bit frustrating but I’ve filled the space with spare pepper and chilli plants and we ate what unblemished fruit there was. Forget chutney, green tomatoes cooked in olive oil with warming spices and finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar are truly delicious. Honestly.

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If nothing else, the Great Tomato Collapse had me tidying up the tunnel a bit; I staked the aubergines and peppers and gave them a good feed with comfrey tea, then turned my attention to encouraging some of the crazy ‘Melba’ melons upwards. . . and found some hidden treasures under all that foliage. Three fruits (so far) on five plants will hardly make the headlines but it’s a bit of fun. Everyone needs a little bit of frivolity in the garden, surely?

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So we have no tomatoes, no potatoes (there’s a two-year ban in place thanks to the Guatemalan potato moth) and the caterpillars have devastated the brassicas in our absence. 😦 Even so, I love this time of year in the veg patch; what is better than wandering around, trug in hand, foraging bits and pieces for dinner? We have more food than we know what to do with and although our veg wouldn’t win any prizes, they are fresh and wholesome and totally delicious. For me, this is what it’s all about!

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It’s good to see the hibiscus flowering again, they are such pretty things. We have several bushes – all of the common hybiscus syriacus variety –  and although they’ve been planted in daft places (such as the one in the background of my photo, struggling for light under the monster kiwi), they never fail to please. We have a couple of pink ones but my favourites are the whites with those waxy centres and astonishing ink blot of deepest pink dye.

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At the risk of sounding a bit tongue in cheek, Roger has been proudly admiring his nuts this week. In late winter, he lay a hazel hedge; it was quite a feat as the trees were really too tall but they have greened up into a thick, verdant hedge that has already housed several birds’ nests and is now flaunting clusters of large, frilly nuts. They are very beautiful,  looking more like a Kentish cob (well, a filbert really) than common hazel to me so we should be in for a treat if we can beat the wildlife to them later in the year.

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Finally, what a delight to return home to the gorgeous intensely blue abundance of agapanthus. These are ‘Northern Star,’ a hardy variety which flowered amazingly well in our former garden on a wet, windswept Welsh hillside but are ten times happier on our Spanish mountainside (mmm, also rather wet and windswept this year, it must be said). They were given to us on our son Sam’s 18th birthday so there was something lovely to come back from celebrating his wedding seven years later to find they had burst into their best ever show of blooms. Perhaps they knew? 🙂

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It’s time now to head across to join The Propagator   and find out what great things other gardeners have to share from their gardens this week. Happy gardening, all! 🙂

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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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Sensing Spring

Communicate: share or exchange information, news, or ideas.

Commune: share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone), especially on a spiritual level.

One of the blessings of our lifestyle here is having proper time to communicate with others; I love to keep in touch with a wide circle of family and friends, to catch up with what they are doing, to share their stories and thoughts as well as exchange little snippets and tales of what we are up to ourselves. In a rush, it’s so easy just to touch on the superficial, but with time and effort it’s possible to go beyond the facts – the who or what or when – and engage at a deeper level of interest, of sharing, celebrating or commiserating. What a wonderful gift to give someone, our full, unhindered, focused attention, listening with a quiet mind and open heart. It’s a precious thing indeed.

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I suppose it is about moving from ‘communication’ to ‘communing’ and the same is true of time spent in nature. To explore the world like a young child is not childish but childlike; there is a world of difference. As adults in the hustle and bustle of modern society, our auditory and visual senses are bombarded and overloaded, day in, day out; how often do we allow ourselves to indulge all our senses playfully, without bias or preconception, opening our hearts and minds to new experiences and possibilities? How would a child respond to the jewelled flutter of a butterfly, the delicate fragility of a robin’s egg, the scratchy wingbeat of a crow, the secrets hidden in a tulip’s cavern, the arcing iridescence of a rainbow? When we give ourselves permission to stop and listen and feel and smell and taste as if everything were a brand new shiny experience, then even the simplest or most mundane thing can seem like a minor miracle.

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So, when spring came bounding up the steps and hammered breathlessly on the door this week – ‘Come out and play! See what I’ve found!’  – I didn’t need asking twice. Senses engaged, I let myself be led by the hand. Budburst started here some time ago; the warm-up act of hazel, willow and birch is already in full verdant splendour, fluffing and puffing up the woodlands with streaks of brilliance like the joyful sweep of a child’s paintbrush. Lime. Chartreuse. Pea.

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Now the nuttery adds its voice: oak and chestnut and walnut leaves unfurling like uncurling fingers, arms akimbo, in a seam of coppery gold that echoes the iron-rich rocks below.

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In between, pooled like silver moonlight, a confection of graceful cherries whisper and shiver in delicate white. I am reminded of Housman’s celebrated lines: loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with bloom along the bough. Shropshire poetry, Shropshire roots, a Shropshire lass. Some things run very deep.

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It’s not all about trees, of course. Beneath the emerging canopy is a burgeoning, bustling, stretching busyness led by fern and foxglove, followed by a jostling crowd of others, some brash and extravagant, others quiet and diminutive.

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What a feast for the eye, all this shape and shade and shimmer, but try seeing it differently for a change . . . Is it a shepherd’s crook? A seahorse? A question mark?

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In this world of waking and stretching, of rising sap and soft, silky leaf-lets, of the rich mineral smell of moss and bark and boulder, I need no more than the green. The lush, fresh, newness of it all is enough to feed my soul. So many shades and tints, how could I name them all? More poetry springs to mind, this time from W.H Davies: I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.

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Ah, but I don’t get away with that one easily: just look at this frolicsome floral dance! Such a brazen parade of flirtatious fluttering and wiggling of petal and pollen, of saucy colour and come hither looks. Who could fail to fall under their seductive charms?

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There is so much that I can’t capture in photographs, so many moments where an image is not enough and words seem hopelessly inadequate: the melodious cadence of blackbird; the harmonious warbling of robin and blackcap; the shouting echo of songthrush; the twitter and curse of tit and wren; the chiffchaff and cuckoo calling their own names. How do I share the velvety buzz of the busy bumbles, the sulphuric flash of yellow butterflies, the dash and zip of sun-warmed lizards, the furry flit and whirr of a dusky bat? The shifting shapes of feathery clouds, the play of sunlight across the valley, the electric crackle of a retreating storm, the deep, ancient, fecund smell of the earth after rain?

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No matter: it’s about being in the moment, feeling, experiencing, living. Memories and records can wait. Stories can be shaped and shared later. This is communication at its very best. Thank you, spring – what a lovely chat we’ve had! What a wonderful time we’ve shared!

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Art and soul

I am happy to admit that I am a terrible artist. As a child, I was in awe of those television programmes where Tony Hart, armed with tins of paint and fat emulsion brushes, created a masterpiece on the wall in a few deft strokes. I desperately wanted to be that talented but after three years of high school reports which predictably stated, ‘She usually tries’ it came as a relief to myself and the art department staff when I could finally, blessedly drop the subject for good. That said, I love painting: even wide expanses of fresh plasterboard needing coat after coat of emulsion don’t faze me (good job since we’ve had plenty here over the last few months) but I am never so happy as when I can indulge my passion for colour and a little creativity. This week, then, has been a time of great painty pleasure.

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My first project was to make a name sign which eventually can be fixed to the house wall (ah yes, there’s another big painting job in the pipeline), using a lovely slab of slate that Roger had rescued from a tumbledown wall in our field. I wanted to make something that would reflect the feel of our home and our love of the outdoors; something simple, bright, colourful and fun where the name was legible but not dominating. The whole point of sharing this is that it shows you don’t need one jot of artistic skill in order to be artistic; purists may think my approach is cheating, but I prefer to see it as innovative! So, armed with a fortifying mug of tea, I went forth to create.

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My calligraphy skills being no better than my art ones, I did the obvious thing: found a font in our word-processing program, blew up the size then traced it carefully from the screen. Having no intention of painting anything freehand, I then got busy with an ancient stencil; a lot of messing with a simple box of children’s acrylic colours and far too much fun later, a sign emerged. A couple of coats of exterior varnish and it was all ready for business. Something from nothing once again!

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We reached  a great milestone this week in finally being able to move into the room upstairs. One of the knock-on effects is that all the spare bedroom furniture could be moved out of the kitchen/living area and everything rearranged a little. I decided it was time to brighten up some bits of old furniture, starting with a very basic pine shelf unit and a nesting table for what is now officially the guest bedroom. I set up a painting studio outside and, since I was using a universal primer, I threw in an old metal milk churn for good measure.

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While that all dried, I set about revamping another nesting table indoors. We have a large black halogen lamp which is brilliant to knit, crochet, sew and read under at night but it is such an ugly thing; I can’t do anything to pretty it up but I thought I could at least create a colourful table for it to sit on. My other motive for this little project was to try out chalk paints before committing to use them on our old linen chest of drawers which has been desperate for a new paint job for several years (decades, actually). Chalk paints really are the ‘in’ thing and I have to admit I’m not a lover of fads; I have quite happily and successfully painted furniture for many years with leftover bits of gloss paint and yes – truly – even emulsion. However, I’ve been really impressed and inspired by some beautiful pieces of furniture Adrienne has created with chalk paints so I decided to give them a go. Before starting, I did a fair bit of online research, read plenty of advice and then chose to ignore most of it. I didn’t opt for the designer brand that everyone raves about but instead bought a Spanish variety which was a lot kinder on my pocket and offered a good palette of luscious colours to choose from. I didn’t buy a special brush for the paint, just used an old one; neither did I invest in a special wax brush or even special wax as Roger informed me he had a tin of brushing wax in his Man Shed (honestly, that place is an emporium!).

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So how did it go? Well, the paint was a dream to use (I love the fact you don’t have to prime) and went such a long way; so far, in fact, that I changed my plan for the bedroom table and decided to chalk paint that, too, rather than use the eggshell satin I had lined up for it. The colour is absolutely gorgeous; it’s called ‘Mediterranean Blue’ and is a deep, dreamy cobalt, just beautiful.

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When it came to the waxing bit, I knew I could well be using completely the wrong stuff and I did have a minor panic when the (yellow) wax immediately took the colour down a few shades. I was also slightly concerned about how many articles I’d read about this part being very hard work. Well, it’s all relative, I suppose: to me, shifting several tonnes of gravel by hand is hard work. So is giving birth. Brushing a few coats of wax on and buffing it off again just seemed like a very pleasant wet afternoon’s activity, especially as the yellow effect disappeared with the wax and a lovely, lustrous shine surfaced. Job done.

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So now that I know what I’m doing, I’m all set to tackle the linen chest with some more of that lovely blue paint coupled with ivory. By the way, I won’t be distressing any of these chalk painted bits and pieces. I know we all have different opinions – which is to be celebrated – but as a country mouse born and bred,  I have never understood the fashion for filling rural homes with so-called shabby chic. In fact, it’s very much because the linen chest has been steadily distressing itself over many years that I feel the need to paint it again. Recognise that old stencil, by the way? Definitely time for a new look!

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I gave the shelf unit a couple of coats of eggshell ‘Eau de Nil’ to match our interior doors and it looks right at home tucked into the guest bedroom.

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Anyway, back to that milk churn. When we moved here, we found we had been left a house and several outbuildings full of furniture and miscellaneous items; most of it was broken down rubbish which the friendly chaps from the town hall kindly came and took away – it took them two trips in a very large van. Boy, did we have rubbish! The two milk churns, however, were something I wanted to hang on to as I had a cunning plan for them. I love the fact that they represent a little bit of the property’s history and I wanted them outside where they could be seen and enjoyed as big planters. Well, of course – if in doubt, add flowers! I could have left them as they were but something inside was whispering bright colours so I opted for ‘Summer Sky’ which seems somehow appropriate (or at least, it will be once the current run of crazy storms here has worn itself out). I think this will be the perfect eye-catching foil for flowers of any colour; just look at how scrumptious those beautiful deep magenta tulips look against that bright, bright blue.

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However, a nod to the colour wheel says orange and nasturtiums were the first to come to mind. I love nasturtiums and particularly the way they flourish here in the wild, hurling themselves down banks and verges in a brazen tumble of flaming glory in May and again in September. Last year they self-set amongst the sweet corn and climbing beans and as that patch is now under a poytunnel, little seedlings are popping up like mushrooms in the warmth.

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I’ve lifted three of them and transplanted them into a pot just the right size for nestling into the top of the churn in the hope of a bright and sunny waterfall against the blue; once they have finished it will be easy enough to replace them, maybe with a riot of geraniums. Whatever happens, the milk churn should bring a splash of summer colour and a smile or two to our less-than-pretty courtyard. Now for the second one. Blue again? Mmm, still thinking about that one.

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My final paint project and if nothing else, this one proves at least that I haven’t been on a complete bluefest all week! Here is another piece of ‘inherited’ furniture and let me say straight away that it’s dire. It’s wonky: last year I used it as a painting step and wobbled off it more times than I can remember. At some point in its history the seat has completely split in two and has been ‘mended’ supremely badly with a bizarre arrangement of staples. It is riddled with woodworm. In short, it’s a piece of junk which would best serve as morning sticks . . . so why have I rescued it from that fate and painted it?

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Well, the answer lies at the end of our woodland track, a ten minute walk from the house and one of my absolutely favourite places. We have a long term plan to make a two- person seat here; in fact, we even have the base from an old single futon put aside just for that purpose. The problem is, it’s a long way down the priority list and in the meantime, I really wanted somewhere I could perch and while away a little time, so the wonky stool seemed just perfect. I’ve used the paint we have for a garden seat in the orchard; it’s called ‘Olive’ and definitely veers towards the grey side of green which is fine as I didn’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb. A couple of coats and off I went up the lane with my stool tucked under my arm.

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One of the things I love about the woodland spot is that it’s like entering another world; turning into a different valley, the gentle murmurings of village life disappear and all that is left is the sound of a mountain stream tumbling to join the river, a cacophony of birdsong and the soft susurration of the wind through the trees. When the sun shines, the glade is flooded with soft light but I enjoy it in the rain, too, Why not? Armed with my trusty brolly, it’s the Asturian way. This is my ‘sitting place’, somewhere I can think and ponder, daydream and plan, mull and meditate; it’s a place that makes me open my eyes and mind to the small wonders around me; it’s a place that feeds my soul and makes my heart sing. It’s my little haven of mindfulness.

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It’s a place where I can just BE . . . but now I can do that in (wobbly) comfort. How wonderful is that? 🙂

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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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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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