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!:-)

Simple p-leisures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Braveheart thought he had it in the bag . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nature’s garden: Part 3

Yesterday as we rambled and scrambled up the dramatic and somewhat vertiginous gorge of the río Esva,  I promised myself that I would not obsess about the wild flowers and trees and I would definitely not feel the urge to write a blog post about them. Um, right. As you can see, my resolve didn’t last more than a few moments. Honestly, it’s like dangling an exquisite yarn in front of me: in the presence of so much colour and texture and downright gorgeousness, my willpower fades away like morning mist.

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So, as in the very best fairy tales and oration good things always come in threes, here is the final part of my ‘wild flowers and walking’ trilogy set in yet another contrasting landscape. This is a world of river and rockface, of high and dry light-flooded spaces and deep, damp, mossy places. Here the woodland scrambles to dizzy heights, clinging to the ragged rock strata in an astonishing festival of verdant celebration. Here the river, wide and clear, tumbles and rumbles over boulders, gouging its sinuous path out of the jagged landscape. Here sleek otters play, bibbed dippers bob, carefree sand martins wheel and spin in an exhibition of masterful aerobatics. Here, once again, nature has demonstrated its artistic prowess in sweeps of breath-taking floral artistry.

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Truly magical! 🙂

 

 

Nature’s garden: the sequel

I had no intention of making a series of wildflowers-and-walking posts but honestly, how could I not share another treasure chest of floral riches? In complete contrast to our coastal walk, this time we headed to the high mountains and ancient deciduous woodlands of southern Asturias: in short, serious bear country. Here lives the largest concentration of the rare Cantabrian brown bear (oso pardo) in Asturias and who could blame them?

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Roger and I last walked here in the autumn when the trees were all blazing in their flaming autumnal flamboyance; it was fascinating to return in such a different season, especially as the effect of altitude spun us backwards in time to enjoy an earlier taste of spring once again. The overwhelming star of the landscape for me, though, was the Spanish heath, swathes and swathes of gorgeous magenta draping the mountains like an opulent cloak above the greenery. Breathtaking.

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If only I could have captured the tumultuous sound of countless bees going about their business in those  purple bells. No wonder there were so many hives there, not scattered across the mountainsides higgeldy-piggeldy but organised behind electric fences or the protection of traditional stone walls circles. Bears and honey are a classic combination, after all!

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The extent of the forests is awe-inspiring, so stunning clothed in the bright greens of springtime. The oaks, however, were a little tardy with just the first hint of leaves unfurling; hung with filigree silver lichens, they made an ethereal contrast to the burgeoning glossy greens around them.

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There were flowers here, too; so many gentle splashes of colour and perfume to delight the senses. A softer palette to the coastal flowers, a pretty parade of graceful woodland beauties; once again, I was in awe of nature’s exquisite gardening prowess.

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¡Gracias, Asturias!

Nature’s garden

Walking between Puerto de Vega and Playa de Frejulfe, we were treated to a breathtakingly sumptuous array of wild flowers.

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Blankets of pastel pink thrift and snowy sea campion drifted across the clifftops and stitched between them were skeins and spots of so many other plants, creating a rich embroidery where even the mundane shone to full effect. What a wonderful floral fabric of colour and scent, texture and form and all set against that stunning blue-drenched backdrop of sky and sea.

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This is coastal Asturias it its best; we might not have the scope for a sweeping flower garden at home but who needs one when we have such natural beauty on our doorstep? 🙂

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