Green and gold

The Autumn Equinox has passed, the days are shortening and most of the swallows have departed but in every other sense, it still feels very much like summer here. We bask in exquisite days of green and gold beneath flawless cerulean skies, blanketed in a delectable warmth and seasoned with the buzz and flutter of a myriad insects.

There is still a potent atmosphere of growth and busyness, as if nature is having a long, last workout and stretch before the season truly shifts. A good soaking of warm rain has freshened the faded landscape, restoring it to intense shades of verdant green in a single, sweeping brushstroke. My goodness, how the green stuff is growing once again.

The passion flower has known no bounds this year, shamelessly threading itself along the whole fence, then scrambling to the very top of a peach tree and tumbling down in a fountain of floral Catherine wheels.

I’ve warned it that I really must cut it back this autumn and try to instil at least a modicum of control, but with a nonchalant shrug of its shoulders, it’s simply decided to start a new game. What can I say?

Along another fence line, a new beauty has appeared. This was one of those neglected little supermarket bargain buys, not much more than a stick on a root when I planted it last year. The poor thing was completely swamped by the poppy hedge for many months and quite honestly, I’d forgotten it was there so what a fine surprise to find an outburst of velvety blooms this week. Another surprise is the colour. I swear it was supposed to be magenta. Oh, well.

The squash plants need no lessons in how to exert their authority; they totally refuse to stay politely on their terraces and tumble down the hillside in a relentless tide, joined in the rush by several hoodlums we didn’t even plant.

Unlike previous years, though, when the plants have all died back simultaneously and the harvest has been a concentrated day of furious activity, this year they are ripening a few at a time in gentle waves. The first few are curing in the sunshine on the horreo balcony but there are still many, many more to come.

Having let the self-setters do their own thing as well as planting seeds from a mongrel we grew and ate last year, I am fascinated by the sheer range of shapes, colours, sizes and textures that have emerged from the mix so far.

We did, of course, plant several official varieties, just to be sure of a fail safe supply: ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Speckled Hound’, ‘Speckled Pup’ and a couple of Hubbards. What has really captured my imagination, however, are the characteristics being flaunted by those of lesser pedigree: we’ve never grown a variety here with that classic Turk’s Turban belly button, so where on earth did it spring from? The magic of open pollination is completely spellbinding.

Bewitching, too, is the play of light through the trees. Walking through the woods, I sense just the merest sigh of autumn, the faintest whisper of things to come.

The verges and wild patches are still a vibrant embroidery of wild flowers, each dainty head spun with a filigree of spider silk.

Ah, ’tis time to stop wandering and settle down to a more serious business. The ‘eco’ day I planned in my previous post proved to be every bit as revealing and inspiring as I had hoped, leaving me with much food for thought and a wealth of new ideas to put into practice. Let me start with a tough one: life without tea or coffee is a challenge! However, I can see that reducing my consumption even a small bit each day would make a difference to electricity usage, food miles and also possibly my health. I’m persevering with trying to drink more herbal concoctions, lemon balm and lavender being my favourite so far with fragrant apple mint (of which we have several acres) a close second.

Now, as part of the effort to make fuller use of our produce, I am drying Japanese quince to use in a herbal tea blend over winter. We have three large bushes close to the house, covered in striking, bee-filled flowers for many months and now literally dripping with golden, aromatic fruits; I like to put a couple in the fruit bowl to scent the house with their tantalising perfume but using them for tea is a whole new escapade.

Actually, making full use of our produce has been quite a theme for the week let alone a single day. It’s so easy at a time of ample harvest not to pick as much as we can because the amounts seem overwhelming or there’s a limit on how much we can preserve. After last year’s disappointing walnut harvest, this year we have collected buckets and buckets of them and there are still several trees’ worth to come. Dried on trays in the sunshine, they will keep for the next year in the horreo and will play a major role in our diet.

To us, figs are such a luxury food and I am happy to tuck into piles of fresh ones, either with yogurt and walnuts for my breakfast or as a snack; no need to try and do clever culinary things with them, they are perfect just as they come. They keep for such a short time, though, and we have such an enormous crop this year that we have been experimenting with drying them to keep and use later. A wet day saw us light The Beast for the first time since spring so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get preserving. I’d like to say at this point, it might have been wet outside but it certainly wasn’t cold so the house was like a sauna; talk about sweltering and suffering for our art!

Anyway, we set whole and half figs to dry on racks above the hob, slices of pear (another bumper crop) to dry in the warming drawer and boiled up a huge vat of peach jam, as well as cooking dinner and baking bread. How I love that stove! I’ve never quite understood how I can be a glutton for fresh figs but can’t bear them dried (it’s something to do with Fig Roll biscuits, I think) so I wasn’t sure about this idea; what a revelation, then, to find myself tucking into something akin to soft, fruity toffees. Sublime. The problem is, I’m eating them now which wasn’t really the point. We need another wet day, pronto.

Backtracking to pears, we have put plenty into storage in the cool and dark of the underhouse barn to be eaten whole and those dried slices turned out to be totally delicious. Trying a different strategy, we’ve also bottled some in mulled cider, one of the top local products in Asturias; as Roger had been given a bottle in a post-race goody bag, it seemed perfect for the job. These are not meant to be sweet treats but rather served as accompaniments to savoury dishes and foods like cheese; I can already see them being a great base for a dish in a tapas meal. It all went so well, Roger decided to do a second batch, this time in mulled red wine; well, you have to do these things, don’t you?

Looking further afield, I have been making plans for using some wild foods, too. The coming weeks should see a proliferation of parasol mushrooms in our meadows and as the cows have been and gone on their regular circuit of the valley, we should be able to get in there and pick some without them being trampled. They are supposed to make excellent eating so I’ve been studying recipes to try. At the same time, I’ve been researching ways in which we can use chestnuts, a huge harvest that is desperately underused. Obviously, they have a wide range of culinary applications but I’m interested in the Italian tradition of making them into flour; they don’t contain gluten so they are no good for bread flour, but are perfect for flat breads (which we love) and pasta. A walk into the woods told me they’re not quite ready but very close . . .

One of the many things I did on my ‘eco’ day was spend some time leafing through our cook books, not in a random way but with the intention of finding and listing new recipes that we can try with the foods I know we will be harvesting through the coming months. I love the idea of baked fennel agrodolce and kale with oats; why not have a go at making a walnut dukka or beetroot kimchi? The garden is still so full of food: aubergines, courgettes, peppers, French beans, kale, summer cabbage, chard, beetroot and salad crops.

Waiting in the wings are Florence fennel, autumn carrots, more chard, more beetroot, more beans, parsnips, leeks, winter cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory and broccoli, along with those things in store – squash, onions, podding beans and chillies. I need to plant some overwintering crops in the polytunnel but it is still full to the rafters.

Having spent time riffling through our food cupboards to check on countries of origin and packaging, I realised more than ever that what we must do is persist with a totally holistic approach. How badly do we need a plastic package of prunes from Chile? What can we use instead? Figs, pears, kiwis . . ? How on earth did we manage to buy a packet of white beans – one of the biggest products of Asturias – that had come from Argentina? Why don’t we grow more of our own, enough to last all year? Why don’t we pay more attention when we’re shopping?! I think the message to self is clear: every meal, every dish, every mouthful we can produce here reduces our consumption in a positive way so we must, must, must make the most of everything we have.

This will mean very careful planning for the garden next year; there is plenty of time to organise that, but in the meantime the spaces that open up need some loving care and – bottom line – a good feed. I don’t want to go the whole Masanonbu Fukuoka hog and leave the ground untouched, mostly because we are still battling oxalis and I welcome any opportunity to knock it back. Where spaces have begun to appear such as the climbing bean and cucumber patches, green manure (whether sown deliberately or naturally-occurring clovers and trefoil that I left to spread) has done a wonderful job in suppressing weeds and creating a soil beneath that is to die for, such a rich, friable loam.

I’ve lifted the plants, extracted those infuriating oxalis seeds, relocated a few pansies and then left the green stuff to wilt on the surface. In a while, I’ll tickle it in with a fork, throw on a pile of muck and let winter and the worms do the rest.

In other places, I will leave patches of crimson clover in the hope it goes through the winter and provides an early nectar source whilst on the squash terraces I plan to broadcast a mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares as a winter green manure. I love the fact that even through the quietest months, the garden will be far from bare and thoroughly nourished for next year’s planting.

So what else did I learn? Well, the whole business of heating a bucket of water in the sunshine for my shower has already led to a complete change to my body washing approach. I took the bucket into our shower cubicle and had a ‘scoop and slosh’ wash which worked brilliantly and felt lovely: solar heated water free from a mountain spring – just perfect. This got me thinking that, apart from days where I’ve had a very hard, hot run, I am filthy dirty from gardening or I need to wash my hair (which I only do every four days or so anyway), there is really no need for me to shower; a good old-fashioned stand up all-over wash using just a couple of litres of hot water in the basin will suffice. . . and in the cooler months, that water can be heated on The Beast. I will be clean and I will not smell nasty but it will certainly reduce my carbon footprint and our electricity bill. Modern living sucks us into so many activities that are really not necessary. Having regular showers or baths is a habit – like so many others – I developed to satisfy the demands of my working life. How refreshing to step away from it now. 🙂

My shower bucket warming in the September sunshine.

Assessing our progress on the environmentally friendly personal hygiene front, I decided we aren’t doing too badly in general. I need to make a new batch of soap and, having made and tested several different varieties in the last few months, I have come down to a single recipe of olive, castor, coconut and avocado oils enriched with shea butter and scented with tea tree, rosemary and lavender essential oils which works well as a solid shampoo and soap. We don’t need anything else. I’d like to try rye flour as a shampoo if I can find a supplier here where we can buy bulk quantities; it’s not easy to find, is only sold in small volumes and is relatively expensive – none of which would matter if we weren’t feeding a sourdough starter, I just worry about running out as we shop so infrequently. It’s one to work on, as is tracking down bamboo toothbrushes with firmer bristles; I like the ones we have now but Roger finds them too soft. No surprise, I came out of my ‘eco’ day with a very long to-do list.

When it comes to leisure pursuits, I treasure the simplicity of my old wooden spinning wheel that needs nothing more than a little mechanical effort on my part in order to work and I am enjoying my evening spinning moments so very much. With a large box of natural white fleece to be spun, you would think I would leave my two coloured batches until later to alleviate the boredom of white, white and yet more white. Well, no. A coil of commercially dyed Merino left over from a project some years ago caught my eye and that was it; I couldn’t help myself, there was something of the season about those luscious colours.

Merino is the finest fleece in the world, beautifully soft and silky, lofty and warm. Not much good for socks that have to do some work but this is not all about socks; there is enough here for gloves, mittens, a hat, or to be used as an accent yarn in something bigger. Ah, the pure pleasure of seeing those colours twist around each other on the bobbin . . .

. . . and then plied into the finished yarn in gorgeous ripples of berry shades. Yum.

So, on to the white stuff now? Um, not exactly because what else should I have lurking in that box but a pile of ‘rescue’ fleece that had been thrown into an inexhaustible dyepot a couple of years ago in my frantic efforts to use up a purple and turquoise mix that just would not disappear. Poor unloved thing. I owed it some attention.

This is Kent Romney, my number one choice for sock yarn: soft enough to hug next to the skin but strong enough to wear in boots, fairly dense but elastic, medium staple so easy-peasy to spin – in brief, an all-round good egg. The slight problem with this batch is as a result of the dye session chaos, I took my eye off it for a while and it felted ever so slightly. Well, I spun it anyway; it won’t make socks but has turned out to be the perfect yarn for a little bag project (and I know a small person with a passion for purple). The beauty of this for me was having to card lovely, fluffy rolags, something I haven’t done for a while. I’m a simple soul but things like this just make me so happy.

So yes, now I’m on the white and settling into some really serious skeins for dyeing and sock knitting, starting with more Kent Romney blended with kid mohair, which adds as much strength as nylon does in commercial yarns and also an antibacterial quality for healthy toes. It’s a gentle thing to be doing, sitting outside in the evening light, treadling and drawing and watching the bobbin gradually fill. At the same time, I’ve found the loveliest and most peaceful of pastimes: collecting skies. Those colours . . . if only I could spin clouds.

Who needs television? 🙂

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!:-)