The more of less

 “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. ” 

The Dalai Lama

I think that ‘less is more’ is likely to be our motto for life this year. Take this blog, for example. I love blogging but this is the first post I have written for almost a month: less writing means more living. With the house renovation practically done, we can spend less time indoors and more time outside where we both prefer to be. Fewer planned visits to the UK will mean more time to explore Spain, both near and far. Fewer trips to source building materials or cart rubbish away means more time to simply ‘be’ at home, enjoying the beauty of this special place in which we live.

Living simply, however, doesn’t mean living lazily, and the first few weeks of the new year have seen us busy in so many ways. It has been wonderful to finally turn our attention to the lengthy list of outdoor projects that has been waiting in the wings for so long and – up until this week – the weather has been warm and dry and fully conducive to getting out there. One of the very first jobs I did when we moved here was remove hundreds of plastic bottles that had been tied to the fence at the end of the vegetable patch: goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago now! At long last, we have replaced the fence, taking in a couple of metres of field for extra planting space as we went. I suppose we should be thankful that there were no bedsteads involved this time but it was the usual mess of metal props, mesh and netting knitted together with endless strands of barbed wire, all on an impossibly steep slope.

There is much to do at this end of the garden, including tidying up the neglected horreo, but it’s amazing how a new fence has already changed the outlook and smartened things up. I’m planning to plant globe artichokes raised from seed inside the fence; if they grow half as well as our current plant, they should make a handsome hedge of silvery blue-green fronds. Beats plastic bottles in my book!

Our farmer friend Jairo delivered a huge trailerload of muck so we spent a couple of afternoons shifting it by hand to make a goodly pile in both vegetable patches, where it will rot down over summer into a pile of gorgeousness ready for spreading in autumn. Combined with homemade compost it is a rich, natural feed for our soil, the very stuff of gardening dreams. We’ve been hauling logs, too; how incredible that even in the depths of January, we are still putting more into the log shed than we are burning. I like that. The seating area on the courtyard is one of our most-used places, a favourite ‘room’ where we love to take a coffee break, eat meals or sit and watch the sunset. We’ve managed this far with the ugly and horrendously uneven concrete surface but at last plans are afoot for a serious makeover: a stone surround filled with building rubble to level everything, then covered in some huge stylish slates we saved from the old roof. Blimey, we won’t know ourselves!

Freed from the huge burden of house renovation carpentry, Roger has been enjoying himself with some more interesting projects. Having had to admit that our trusty old blue bench is literally on its last legs and really only held together by the paint, we decided it was time to replace it before there was a nasty accident (I hate the idea of our lovely old neighbour toppling off a rotten seat as he stops to catch his breath there). The old bench has been moved to a little-used corner (it’s still safe for one person if you know exactly where to place your behind!) and meanwhile, Roger has fashioned a new version from the wooden base of a single futon we have had for 25 years. With a lick of that Peacock Blue, it’s just the job . . . now all we need is the sunshine back. (To the left of the wall, you can see the river raging down the valley in full spate after 24 hours of torrential rain.)

Bits of planks left over from making the stairs have been fashioned into smooth, circular pot stands; these are just perfect for our ‘stove to table’ approach to cooking and are a welcome replacement for our disgracefully shoddy table mats. Treated with a food-safe oil, I’ve found they also make nifty little chopping boards.

Now, let me tell you about that rather lovely paring knife . . . a recent and rare indulgence I’m happy to own up to. It was made by my nephew Harry https://www.facebook.com/GoughCutlery/ who, for several years, has been perfecting the art of creating bespoke cutlery and believe me, what he doesn’t know about metallurgy isn’t worth knowing. I fell in love with this beautifully-crafted creation of stainless steel and recycled laburnum (fond memories of our hedges in Wales which had been planted with laburnum for tool handles), its size, shape and weight are just right for me and it is so sharp I swear you could slice air with it. There is something so satisfying using a piece of equipment like this that has been handmade with such care and attention, the application of an ancient art to modern living. Looked after properly and sharpened on a leather strop, it will probably last us for ever. Thank you, Harry!

So, after two months of virtual drought which has seen me watering pots and troughs to keep everything alive, nature is paying her debt with more water than we know what to do with. No problem, the garden was greatly in need and I have had plenty of indoor things to keep me busy. As cloth food storage bags and cotton hankies have been such a roaring success, I have sewn more of both. I finally dug out my dyeing equipment and dyed a skein of laceweight Merino for a gift; I’d forgotten just how much fun and how satisfying the dyeing process is.

Having sorted through my treasures in the attic, I am resolved to spinning far more this year as there is still quite a stash of fleece up there waiting to become socks (or other woolly delights). I’ve knitted a new pair of socks for Roger – having made them for practically everyone else last year, I thought it was about time! – and crocheted an intricate bohemian scarf as a birthday present. Gift wrap is such an environmental nightmare that I prefer to use brown paper which can at least be recycled or composted but it is a bit – well – brown. I flirted with the idea of printing with acrylic paint to jazz it up a bit but in the end I decided scrap yarn and old buttons were more my thing.

On the subject of scrap yarn, I’ve already made a patchwork blanket from leftovers but still seem to have oodles of colourful possibility left. I’m having a ball turning the more neutral colours into tiny finger puppets for little fingers; my Christmas gift to Ben, William and Evan is the promise of a regular parcel of ‘Puppet Post’ throughout the year. They are great fun but so fiddly! I’m enjoying evenings in front of the fire, rippling away at the ‘Cottage’ crochet blanket I bought with a birthday voucher last year but when it’s finished, there will be yet more spare wool . . . so inevitably, another patchwork event is on the cards. This time, solid three-round granny squares which take only four grams of yarn each which means I can use the tiniest scraps; this is the perfect pick up / put down project which will be good to take on my travels, too. It really has to be the most clueless of all my blanket projects so far: I have no idea what shape or size it will be as I have no idea how many squares I will end up with. Random or planned colour pattern? Joining? Border? No rush.

We kept free-range hens for over twenty years and I have to confess to missing a few about the place, I love their comic antics and, of course, the bounty of fresh, free-range eggs. We are lucky to have a regular supply from our neighbours but when they don’t have a surplus, I have started buying them from https://pazodevilane.com/en/, a Galician company whose philosophy I love.

The hens range freely in pastures just as ours did; their eggs are deep brown and speckled with tough shells and huge golden yolks and are some of the best we’ve ever eaten. They come ungraded (but with a minimum weight) in a sturdy cardboard box which is designed to be re-used; every year, the company asks customers to send ideas for their use and for every idea submitted, a tree is planted. This is definitely my kind of thing so I’m hoping that turning a box into a soap mould will be worthy of a new tree for future hens to scratch under.

The soap in question was actually my first attempt at solid shampoo using locally-sourced ingredients plus some goodies from https://www.thesoapery.co.uk/ : olive, coconut, castor and avocado oils, shea butter, tea tree and lavender essential oils. It was fascinating to observe a different set of ingredients undergoing the saponification process; the resultant bars are silky and herbal and hardening nicely . . . and when fully cured, I have just the box to store them in!

Less complicated than soap, I’ve also made solid hand lotion bars by melting the beeswax I purified before Christmas with coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter. Warmed gently between my hands, the bar melts into a rich, unctuous cream which feels and smells wonderful and can double as a lip balm. I’ve put one in an old Lush tin to carry in my handbag, and an empty gift tea tin is perfect for storing the rest until needed.

Eucalyptus forests and their processing factories are a hot environmental issue here and understandably so. The bright side for us, however, is a ready supply of leaves, bark and wood which we can put to good use in many ways.

What a simple pleasure it was to wander through our dripping woodland under my brolly this week to pick a handful of glaucous leaves, spicy scented and sparkling with raindrops. Using a recipe from James Wong’s Grow Your Own Drugs, I heated the leaves gently in almond oil with pine resin, cinnamon and cloves – mmm, the house smelt wonderful.

This would make a splendid winter bath oil, if only we had a bath! No problem, it’s just as good stirred into a basin of hot washing water, sprinkled onto a hanky or a steaming bowl as a decongestant or used as a body and massage oil, lovely on aching muscles after a hard run. It is so deliciously aromatic that I’m also tempted to try it in a batch of soap . . .

Second only to the ubiquitous eucalyptus, kiwis are another vigorous import whose exuberance rewards us with several month’s worth (and what feels like several tonnes) of fruit. Late February generally sees the end of our fresh supply so this week I’ve been experimenting with drying them to keep as a healthy snack; I’m thinking they would be particularly good to carry on long walks. Without a dehydrator or the desire to run an electric oven on low for several hours, it’s a game of chance played out on top of The Beast but so far, so good. Now it’s just a case of beating the blackbirds to the remaining fruit.

As part of our continuing efforts towards zero waste, this year I’ve decided to do things differently where recycling is concerned. We normally store our recycling in the underhouse barn then, every few weeks, load it into the car and deposit it as part of a trip out to do other things. No more. This year, I’m taking personal responsibility for carrying it weekly down to the village recycling point which is half a mile from home. There are three reasons behind my decision. First, Roger has spent several hours clearing the junk (yet another pile belonging to the former owner plus our own post-renovation stuff) from under the house, creating a clean, wide-open, useful space; it just no longer seems right to be met at the door by a mountain of recycling. Second, it’s a nice little jaunt in the fresh air which rings the changes from running and yoga, gives me the chance to chat with neighbours and provides a decent workout pulling myself back up the cruelly steep hill home. Third – and most important – by dealing with our recycling in amounts that I can comfortably carry, I’m hoping to shift the focus from collecting to connecting, from mindlessness to mindfulness. Recycling is fine but reducing is better and I’m on a mission to look for more ways where we can do just that. How gratifying that the very first week suggested a possibility . . .

Doing the recycling . . . spot my red coat between the bins!

Bundling up the plastic waste ready for my Recycling Ramble, I quickly realised what a lot of yogurt we eat. It’s little wonder that with such an abundance of lush pastureland, Asturias produces dairy foods of the highest quality and we are only too happy to indulge in thick and creamy local Greek-style yogurt on an almost daily basis . . . but I only had to look at the pile of plastic packaging to realise Something Had To Be Done. Cue my first ever go at making yogurt, not without a certain sense of trepidation because if I am totally honest, I expected to produce an unpleasantly runny, acidic substance that neither of us would really like. Well, nothing ventured and all that.

The process was ridiculously simple: after scalding the modest pile of equipment with boiling water, I warmed fresh whole milk to body temperature, poured it into a kilner jar, stirred in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt (not our usual one as there was no indication that it contained live cultures so I opted for one of those ‘probiotic’ thingies instead), covered the jar in a pile of towels and snuggled it up next to The Beast overnight.

Wow, but how I smiled next morning to find a jar full of thick, sublime deliciousness!

Shameless in my quest for the true Greek-style effect, I turned the lot into a colander lined with a clean tea towel and let some of the whey drain off; oh my goodness, I could die happy eating this stuff, it is so thick and fresh and clean and mild and divinely yummy.

I shall keep a bit back for a new starter which means no more plastic pots and lids, just one extra milk bottle per shop and homemade yogurt for ever. Happy, happy day. By the way, the whey didn’t go to waste, either; it’s a good food with many uses, so Roger whacked it into his spelt and seed sourdough, making a scrumptious loaf to accompany squash and chilli soup served with chestnut croutons for our dinner. Not a shred of recycling (just composting) in that homegrown, home-cooked little lot, just great wealth and pleasure from living simply with less . . . and for us, that’s what it’s all about! 🙂

Sunshine and soap

Sunshine is such a precious gift and never more so than at this time of year. We often celebrate with a special meal on the day of the winter solstice, or else ‘midwinter’ three days later, the point at which it is possible to tell that the sun has begun its journey north once more; as that coincided with Christmas Eve this year, we decided to have our feast on Nochebuena in the local way. For me, it is a deeply meaningful celebration, an acknowledgement of the way in which sunlight is essential to all life and the key to our very being. The worst of winter is ahead but after that, spring will come once more.

Although the shorter days see the natural world slowing down here after summer’s frantic activity, things are far from dormant. The garden still jingles with birdlife: blackbirds and blackcaps already staking their claim to the kiwis; robins bobbing across the mulched bare earth in search of skinny pink worms; chaffinches and great tits call in simple cadences whilst long-tailed tits chatter sociably through their acrobatics. I love the quiet charm of tiny green warblers, the cheekiness of wrens, the bravado of goldfinches and bluster of bullfinches who, even though they are stealing buds from the peach trees, are forgiven purely for their vibrant beauty. Above us, ravens croak and cough in high places, raptors soar and swoop on spiral trajectories and the silent, spectral heron stalks the river bank below. There is a pageant of colour and show in the floral world, too. No need for poinsettias here.

Lizards are basking in sunny spots, moles are making merry in the loamy earth and where ditches hold water they are gelled with frogspawn. We were woken by the persistent barking of a huge dog fox in the meadow behind the house and watched him through an open window, silvered in moonlight, as his confident call reverberated around the valley. Pure magic. As if the sun itself is honouring the season, we have been treated to a week of spectacular sunsets; I have watched mesmerised as clouds have mingled and morphed and colours bled and changed and deepened in a transient canvas of sheer artistry. No need for tinsel and fairy lights, either.

With Christmas Day free from distraction, we took a flask of coffee and headed out to walk along a path which circles the mountain opposite. It is a walk I love, following the curving contours of the mountain and enjoying stunning views of the sunlit valley below and distant peaks fading into hazy blues.

What sheer delight to feel the warmth of that sun! We walked long stretches without speaking, not because we had nothing to say to one another but simply because the silence was so profound; no sound of man or machine, not so much as a cat’s paw of wind in the trees . . . so perfectly quiet we could hear the flutter of butterflies passing on their drowsy wings. The air was suffused with the aromatic spicy scents of sun-warmed pine and eucalyptus; I often wonder if our distinct lack of colds and winter bugs has anything to do with this daily dose of nature’s own aromatherapy?

At one point along the ridge it is possible to look across and see our little white house nestled in the meadows below sweeps of forest. What always strikes me about this view is just how high the mountain stretches away from us and how wild and untamed the countryside becomes just minutes from our door. We are so blessed to live in such a place.

This warm, dry, settled weather seemed just perfect for taking my first tentative steps into the world of soap making. It’s something I’ve often thought of doing but have backed away from because I know that lye is nasty stuff. That said, we no longer have small children or pets to worry about and I am a grown up after all, so the time had come to give it a go. Projects like this always excite me; like dyeing wool, making soap is a fascinating mix of science and art and leaves me pondering its intriguing history. How did someone discover that running rainwater through wood ash and mixing the resulting lye with fat could make something so useful? My intention was to use ingredients we had to hand to make a very basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soap, one that would give me an idea of how the process works without involving any fancy stuff; my thinking was that if it wasn’t very good, I could at least use it for laundry. To that end, I chose to use olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and sweet almond oil with lemon essential oil for a subtle fragrance and antibacterial qualities; no colourants whatsoever.

Soap making requires distilled water. Our water comes into the house directly from a mountain spring so it is free of the chemicals found in mains water, very soft and mineral-rich . . . and that is a problem. Minerals in the water can affect how the lye behaves and can also cause ‘dreaded orange spots’ to appear as the soap cures. As the idea of buying plastic bottles of distilled water somehow seemed to go against the whole ethos of my project, I decided to make my own. I floated a heatproof glass bowl in a stockpot of water, brought it to the boil, inverted the lid and piled it with ice. Within half an hour, my bowl was full of distilled water . . . and as we have a plentiful supply of free water and free heat when The Beast is lit, this is a very sustainable method – and adds to the fun, too!

Having gathered everything I needed, I decided to set up my chemistry lab outside; I always prefer to do things outdoors when I can anyway and it made sense not to be creating unpleasant fumes in the house if it wasn’t necessary. Working in long sleeves, gloves, goggles and mask isn’t the most comfortable of situations but from my experiences in activities like dyeing and beekeeping I recognise the good sense in a disciplined approach to safety – better to feel slightly encumbered than suffer a chemical burn or lose an eye.

Unfortunately, at this point my trusty Technical Support Manager discovered that the adaptor plug I needed for our long extension had blown a fuse and we had no replacement to hand; this meant I couldn’t use the hand blender outside so a change of plan was needed – cue carting most of that stuff back up fourteen steps to the kitchen! I could still mix the lye and water outside, however, and this I did; I didn’t see any fumes given off but the rapid appearance of condensation on the bowl certainly suggested an energetic exothermic reaction was well under way. While the lye cooled, I mixed the oils together and heated them gently to melt the coconut oil.

Then for the exciting bit, starting the saponification process. I slowly stirred the lye into the oils then got busy with the hand blender. At first, the mixture looked like a thin pancake batter but within moments had thickened to a light ‘trace’ – leaving a faint trail like a whisked sponge mixture.

This indicated that the water and oils had emulsified: the point of no return. I added the essential oil and blended a little bit more until the batter was thick and creamy, then poured it into silicone moulds; covered and left in the warmth of the kitchen, I needed to leave them for them for at least 24 hours to set . . . oh, the anticipation!

The moment of truth. I’m not sure whether I was nervous, excited or both but the soaps felt firm enough, so I took a deep breath and carefully turned them out of their moulds.

Amazing! I mean, obviously I knew I was trying to make soap and having read a couple of books and watched zillions of video clips, I was hopeful it would work . . . but isn’t it a lovely thing to try something so new and different, to watch a fascinating process unfold right in front of your eyes? The soaps looked and smelt like creamy lemon panna cotta, almost good enough to eat, and I was desperate to dive in and have a good wash! We could use them now but they are better if cured and will last longer in the shower that way. I’ve put them on an airy shelf in the airing cupboard (yes, we have one in the bathroom at last . . . also, we have a bathroom :-)) where they can stay for the next four to six weeks. I’m turning them daily and watching for changes in their texture and appearance; if the dreaded orange spots appear, we can still use them but I might have to rethink my distilled water plan for future projects. So far, so good.

Encouraged by my initial success, I’m now eagerly awaiting a parcel of new and more exciting ingredients so I can have a go at making solid shampoo bars. In the meantime, I’m wandering around the garden, lanes and woodland wondering what natural resources I might be able to use in creating my own toiletries.

What a wonderful excuse for being outside, filling my lungs with fresh mountain air, turning my face to the sun, drinking in the views and feeling such overwhelming joy at being alive. January might be looming, but my heart and soul are singing with soap and sunshine. Happy New Year, one and all!:-)