For my bedtime reading this week I’ve been dipping into Henry David Thoreau’s Walden again; I don’t find it an easy read – in fact, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t even really enjoy it that much. The man is incredibly wordy (which I appreciate might sound a bit rich coming from me 🙂 ) and I do find some of the passages a bit heavy going; however, amongst all his lexical flourishes and literary asides, there are complete gems in the form of his observations of the natural world. Whether it be the calling of owls in the night, the fighting of black and red ants, the colour and behaviour of the fish in Walden Pond or the description of ice formation and snowmelt, his prose is exquisite. It came as no surprise to learn that other eminent naturalists including John Muir were inspired by Thoreau’s acute and perceptive observations.
It might seem like something of a jump from Massachusetts in 1846 to Asturias in 2020 but I’ve found myself reflecting on my reading whilst engaged in several activities through the week. Thoreau reasoned that the simpler life humans choose to lead, the less they need money and fewer hours in paid employment means the freedom to spend time on other things, connecting with nature being top of the list. I went out to pick a small bowlful of nasturtium seeds with the intention of pickling them in spiced vinegar to make a substitue for capers. It’s the sort of job that should have taken no more then ten minutes given that we have nasturtiums trailing everywhere and the plants are literally dripping with fat seeds that are easily harvested. In the days when I was working and raising a family, it’s the kind of thing that would be done in a flash because there was always something else to be moving on to but the joy of a simpler, quieter life now is that I can take as much time as I like. I can idle or daydream ~ or both. In fact, what happened is that I found myself completely absorbed in the busyness of honey bees working their way systematically through the jungle of nasturtium flowers, their pollen baskets so full they looked to be wearing harem pants in spicy shades of saffron, cinnibar and paprika.
We used to keep bees so it would be easy to become blasé about this kind of thing, having watched them returning to the hive laden with a spectrum of different pollens many, many times. The truth is, though, I never cease to be fascinated by their selfless, focused activity and I’m perfectly happy to spend time watching them again through fresh eyes. Actually, I love to watch bumble bees, too; they are in many ways the better pollinators, given that there are more species of them, they will fly in cooler temperatures and are faster and more efficient gatherers using ‘buzz pollination’ (vibrations that literally shake the pollen out) which enables them to loosen tightly-packed pollen and saves them from having to crawl into the depths of every flower. The honey bee, though is a specialist, fastidiously visiting only one kind of flower on every trip and spreading the news of a plentiful harvest on her return to the hive which is what makes them such an asset to fruit orchards and the like. They’ve certainly done us proud in the nasturtiums!
It’s not just the plentiful seed harvest, either; the beauty ~ literally and metaphorically ~ of growing open-pollinated varieties is that every year we find a wider range of colours and patterns amongst the flowers, which are currently ablaze in a stunning display of painted fiery tones.
Moving from my reading in English to Spanish and I am currently translating a news report about Alfredo Ojanguren, an Asturian professor of zoology in Oviedo University, whose research has led him to believe that being a ‘natural paradise’ helps to protect places like Asturias from pandemics and plagues ~ a very pertinent issue just at the moment. He argues that valuable, carefully-preserved ecosystems and a wide biodiversity have much to offer in maintaining the health and well-being of humanity. He uses the metaphor of a hen that lays golden eggs: if we ask for one egg a day, through sustainable exploitation of natural resources including the tourism which beautiful areas attract, then a healthy balance can be maintained between the needs of human beings and the welfare of the planet. Take three eggs a day and the precious hen is overloaded; at that point, we are all in serious trouble.
It’s a fascinating article and I was particularly struck with Professor Ojanguren’s observation that ecosystems are crucially important at every level; it’s natural that we tend to focus on such fragile and prominent areas as the Amazon rainforest, but in the grand scheme of things, the tiniest areas are equally important and deserving of our attention and care. We may not co-exist with exotic species in our garden but the life that thrives in the wild margins of our vegetable patch is essential to the welfare of the environment.
Further afield, and the current phase of easing lockdown restrictions has granted us the freedom to travel anywhere within Asturias whilst the borders remain firmly closed to incomers. With paths and trails re-opened, we are free to enjoy the paraíso natural once more so this week we decided to take our bikes back to the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail); the route is shaped like a capital Y and having cycled up the right-hand path from the fork last year, this time we decided to take the left turn and explore some new countryside ~ 22 miles (35 kilometres) of it, in fact.
Now, I am happy to confess that on a bike I am something of a liability for several reasons. For a start, I am very easily distracted and have an alarming tendency to weave and wobble about the road or slam on my brakes without warning in order to stop and look at something that has captured my attention, creating mayhem for anyone behind me (usually Roger, of course); for this reason, it is safest for everyone if I ride along at the back. Also, if there is going to be a mechanical drama you can bet your bottom dollar it will be my bike at the centre of things. Flat tyres, stuck gears, a wedged chain . . . you name it, I’ve had it to a point that my beloved engineer now always carries at the very least a puncture repair kit, pump and spanner in his rucksack whenever we venture out on two wheels together. Should I mention my issues with wearing a helmet? No matter how much I try to tame and flatten my hair, it is so thick and chaotic that my helmet fights me every step of the way, sticking up in ridiculous fashion like a rocket on a launch pad or necessitating my chin strap to be tightened to such a point where swallowing and breathing become very uncomfortable. Thankfully, on the Senda del Oso a helmet is only mandatory for under-16s so I don’t have to wear it, but I carry it anyway just in case (of what, I’m not sure 🙂 ).
Last but not least, I am an incredibly slow cyclist ~ honestly, sleeping things can move faster ~ and I know this can be very frustrating for others; the point is, though, if Roger wants to do a speedy, athletic sort of jaunt he can go out on his own whenever he likes but on days like this, there is no rush. If it takes us all day to ride the trail, so be it; it’s about spending a happy time together in the fresh air, moving slowly through a wondrous landscape and drinking in the beauty and enjoyment of it all.
I love this place, there is everything here that I adore about Asturias: soaring mountains, a dramatic river gorge, vast swathes of broadleaf forest, lush green meadows, higgeldy-piggeldy villages, cowbells, birdsong and that infinite canvas of green on green. Oh, and barely another soul, either.
When we walked along the coastpath a couple of weeks ago, we knew that we had missed the floral fireworks of early May but my goodness, we more than made up for that on this bike ride. The wildflowers were truly stunning, the verges like rich tapestries of colourful wonders completely a-buzz with the attention of insects. A tiny ecosystem, a monumental treasure: what a privilege to be able to share it, how vital that we care for it.
Yes, Mr Thoreau, all good things truly are wild and free ~ but please let us never lose sight of their immeasurable worth.
Cordial: a sweet, fruit-flavoured drink. Originating from Middle English (‘belonging to the heart’), from medieval Latin cordialis, from Latin cor, cord- ‘heart’.
From time to time, I think it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of my life to see if there are things I could be doing better or differently, habits that could be dropped or new ideas pursued. Change is the only constant in life and I’m a firm believer in a little shake up now and again to keep things fresh and interesting. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about re-reading a favourite herbal and that inspired me to take a long, hard look at my current herb-growing status. Herbs have been a part of my gardening life for ever; in fact, if I were only allowed to grow a handful of plants, they would all be herbs. They are just have so many uses: culinary, medicinal, domestic, cosmetic, creative, aesthetic . . . and of course, many of them are fantastic for wildlife and suit the chaotic informal gardening style I prefer.
Poring over my book (plus another couple of treasured herbals I naturally felt the need to consult), I realised that I’ve been guilty of complacency since moving here; happy that at last I’m able to grow varieties that I’ve previously struggled with, I’ve lost sight of the characters that are missing from the cast or the understudies waiting patiently in the wings that I continue to ignore. Time to go forth and make an inventory. Yippee ~ I do love a list! First, the herbs we have growing here and use on a regular basis. The items marked with an asterisk are ones which grow better here than in our previous gardens.
Thyme (common and lemon)*
Mint (spearmint and apple mint)
Pot marigold (calendula)*
Well, that didn’t seem a bad list until I realised how many old favourites are missing. As soon as we are able to visit a nursery or seed supplier, then I need to start gathering some new stars.
Purple coneflower (echinacea)
Bergamot is one of my favourite plants and I’ve never been without it: how on earth have I let this happen? I struggled to grow lemon verbena until we lived in France where it revelled in the heat of a Mayennais summer and made the best lemonade ever; I think it will be happy here in the Spanish sunshine. I’ve always failed with sweet cicely and purple coneflower but it’s time to try again. I’m conscious of limited growing space and I don’t want any more pots to water so it’s going to be a case of balance, careful planning and sensible choices. In the past, I’ve gone overboard with growing as many different mints as I could lay my mitts on and a wealth of fancy-flavoured basils but really, there’s no need. Variety, yes. Overkill, no.
This led me on to a scrappy little list of plants I’ve tried to grow here and failed, or species I have no intention of ever growing again.
Bits and pieces
Cumin and anise ~ sowed seed, nothing happened.
Lady’s mantle (alchemilla mollis) ~ another great favourite, it just won’t grow here. 😦
Soapwort ~ sowed seeds three times with no luck . . . but now I think I might be there having been gifted a slip of root (thanks, Sonja!).
Lovage ~ I find the flavour too overpowering. Give me celery leaves any day.
Santolina, artemesia and rue ~ silver-leaved herbs I’ve grown in the past as foils for more colourful things but the truth is, I don’t actually like any of them.
Tansy ~ yuk! Sorry, I know it’s quite a pretty thing and is supposed to be a great fly repellent but I can’t stand the smell, to my nose it is pure Eau de Dog Mess. There’s just no need for that in the garden.
The jury is out on on catmint: what to do? It’s a herb I love, pretty and fuss-free, but the problem is the package that comes with it: the attention of cats hell-bent on hitting a feline high and trashing it in the process. We don’t have any cats ourselves but the neighbourhood boasts a raggle-taggle bunch of wanderers who drift through the garden and I’m not about to waste time and money feeding their drug-crazed habits. However . . . I have now discovered that it’s good at deterring flea beetle which is a real nuisance in the tunnel, so I’m wondering whether a couple of pots in there might be a plan. Would they be safe or am I courting trouble from desperate moggies trying to break in and steal a sneaky fix?
Finally, I turned to a list of herbs I should be making more use of. It’s interesting that most of them are considered to be weeds, which had me wondering a bit. At what point did plants that had been valued for thousands of years as food or for their therapeutic qualities fall from grace? Who decreed, ‘Thou shalt be a weed?’ Why have they become the target of derision and eradication when they have so much to offer? There is a wealth of goodness here and I believe they all have a certain beauty and charm, too ~ but that’s just me.
Passionflower – not ‘wild’ as such but one I know I could be using
I didn’t know that crushed red clover flowers are an excellent treatment for bites and stings (useful, since mozzie season is upon us) or that you can sprinkle daisies onto salads or turn honeysuckle blooms into a cough syrup. It’s time to get a grip and start giving these modest little plants the attention and kudos they deserve.
On which note, I’ve made a start and without wishing to big myself up too much, I’m actually feeling quite proud. Here is the woman who just a short time ago wouldn’t touch herbal teas with a barge pole yet last week I found myself on a foraging mission which resulted in (drumroll, please) . . . fennel and goosegrass tea. Yes, goosegrass ~ or cleavers, sticky grass, bedstraw, beggar lice, bur head, catch weed, cling rascal, sticky weed, sticky willy, sticky bob, stickybud, bobby buttons, robin-run-the-hedge, stickyjack, scratchweed, coach tongue or whatever else you wish to call it.
How was it? Well, the honest answer is it probably wins more prizes for the abundance of names it has than flavour but it was very palatable in an earthy sort of way and I enjoyed it (truly!) hot and cold. The important thing is, it’s a great natural system ‘cleanser’ and spring tonic; the tea was fine and I’d happily drink it again but that said, I’d pass on eating goosegrass as a pulp which I have seen recommended. Slowly, slowly . . . it’s early days yet. Don’t want to rush these things.
I have been trying out a few other new things herb-wise in the kitchen; having a forest of self-set dill, I used a pile of it to turn a couple of plump local trout into gravlax and I’m deliberately letting some plants go to seed so I can use the heads to make pickled gherkins ~ we’re growing a little Spanish pepinillo this year just for that purpose.
The extra mild winter has left us with more nasturtiums than we can shake a stick at so I’ve picked their crunchy green seeds to make ‘poor man’s capers’ and I’m also planning to experiment with nasturtium flower butter and leaf pesto, and maybe even stuffing the bigger leaves to make a version of dolmades, one of my favourite Greek dishes. Top of my list, though, with the weather hot and summery was to have a go at making a herb cordial.
Much as I enjoy experimenting with herbal teas, I felt slightly nervous at the idea of going one step further and attempting a cordial as we have something of a family history of disasters where homemade beverages are concerned. The most famous was Sam’s ginger beer, which started off innocently enough as one of those ‘plants’ in a jar that needs daily care and feeding ~ a bit like a hamster, but less smelly and more useful. The resultant ginger beer was decidedly good and an apparent all-round success . . . until a bottle of it exploded in spectacular fashion (think Grand Prix drivers and champagne here), spray-painting the entire kitchen and leaving several indelible works of abstract art spattered across the ceiling. Despite numerous coats of fresh paint, the marks were still there when we sold the house several years later; on reflection, maybe the hamster wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
My own disaster was slightly less dramatic but equally as alarming. I set out to make a batch of elderflower cordial, something I’d made previously without any problems. Ah, that summery smell of muscadet flowers and lemons wafting through the kitchen. Wonderful! I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I think probably it was a hectic weekend sandwiched between two busy weeks, the elderflowers were at their best and I was impatient to get on with it; the problem was, I had no citric acid to act as a preservative. No problem, I thought, having a clever little lightbulb moment: I’ll freeze it in ice cube trays then everyone can help themselves to a portion from the freezer as and when they want. Blimey, that’s brilliant, I hear you say!
Well, it very much wasn’t brilliant and if I hadn’t been such a fool rushing in and had stopped for just a couple of seconds to think about it scientifically, I’d have realised it was never, ever going to work. There are hundreds of websites out there happily reassuring unsuspecting souls that elderflower cordial freezes like a dream. Please trust me on this one, my friends ~ it doesn’t! For ‘dream’, read ‘nightmare.’ The sugar content is far too high so that in the same way a sorbet is always slightly soft, it will never freeze solid.
Instead of handy little ice cube-shaped blocks to be popped out into a glass, I ended up with a pile of tacky slush; what’s more, it was a pile of tacky slush with a mind of its own which inexplicably travelled throughout the entire freezer (and we’re talking a big family-sized chest job here), coating absolutely everything in a fine film of sticky gunk. How this happened, I will never know but some dark and mysterious forces were at work once the lid was down. The business of visiting the freezer for, say, a bag of chicken stock or a loaf of bread and ending up with hands covered in a persistent, sugary ectoplasm became very tiresome, very quickly. It took months to eradicate the stuff. Never again!
Anyway, I digress. It’s a given that things don’t always go right in life and that’s no reason to give up so, nothing daunted, I embarked on Project Herb Cordial, vowing that this time I would take time and do it properly. First, I considered a wealth of flavour combinations and tried them out as both hot and chilled teas, in the end plumping for lemon balm and rosemary which struck my tastebuds as a perfect pairing. Then, I researched zillions of recipes and methods ~ everything from adding sugar to a simple infusion to steeping piles of leaves, fruits and spices in a clay pot for several days to dancing round a cauldron in the garden under a full moon on the third Tuesday of the month. Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly with the last one but honestly, the more I read the more mind-boggling it became. Truly, how hard could this be?
In the end, I just decided to do my own thing: put a big bunch of lemon balm and a couple of rosemary sprigs in a pan of water, added the juice from two lemons plus the squeezed lemon halves, brought it up to the boil, switched off the heat and let the whole lot sit and infuse for a good hour or so. I strained the liquid through muslin into a milk pan, added the minimum amount of sugar I thought I could get away with (I don’t like sweet drinks), dissolved it in the liquid over heat and brought it back to the boil. We had saved a couple of screw-top glass bottles we were given after a race last year (it was a very yummy Asturian yogurt drink), so I stood them in the sink, filled them and covered the lids with boiling water to sterilise them, emptied them and, holding them in a tea towel, poured the hot cordial in and screwed the lids on tightly. Job done with the minimum of fuss, time, work and ingredients.
I’m happy to report two things. One, the cordial is utterly delicious and particularly refreshing diluted with sparkling mineral water over ice. Two, the bottles have sat in the fridge in a very well-behaved manner and the contents have so far managed to remain locked down inside them, except for the portions we’ve drunk, obviously. Actually, now that I’ve successfully grappled with my cordial demons, I really need to get on and make another batch; the question is, do I stick with the same formula or try a different herbal pairing or maybe even another method? To be honest, it would make a lot of sense to play safe . . . but then I do quite fancy that moonlit dance! 🙂
Water to draw, brushwood to cut, greens to pick – all in moments when morning showers let up.
I like a simple life. Well, of course I do; it would be very hypocritical of me, if not downright rude, to write a blog about something I didn’t believe in, practise and – most importantly – enjoy. In our modern society, perhaps the idea of spending our days fetching water, chopping wood and picking greens seems over-simplistic, naive or impossible but I think it’s a rather beautiful ideal for all that.
In recent weeks, as mankind has been grappling with the horrors of COVID- 19, I have been encouraged to read about many people who have discovered unexpected benefits from the situations they have found themselves in: couples and families enjoying their time spent together, parents and children finding home-schooling a deeply rewarding activity, people cooking and baking instead of buying ready-meals or takeaways, exploring their local areas whilst exercising outdoors, neighbours and strangers helping one another in a myriad different ways . . . so many people who say that when this is over, they will be making changes to their lifestyles that reflect the experience of doing things differently.
I’ve also read several criticisms of this viewpoint, arguing that it reflects a privileged middle-class mindset but I feel that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation that does everyone a disservice. Certainly, those talking about change appear to be people of all ages and from all walks of life, a real cross-section of society, in fact. Like so many aspects of life, perhaps it should all be about balance? No, of course not everyone can give up their job or home-educate their offspring and indeed many would prefer not to, anyway – but is there really anything wrong in people looking to change the values of society and the way it operates, to stand up for a society that is based more on human well-being and loving kindness than over-consumption and the constant drive to grow the economy?
One of the phenomena that I have been watching with great interest is the upsurge in gardening and I’m hopeful that it is something that will continue long after this terrible pandemic has gone. Now, obviously I’m biased because it’s something that I love to do (although I’ve always understood that it’s not for everyone) but I think the fact that so many people are now keen to grow their own food is a truly wonderful thing. I am happy to argue that the business of planting, harvesting and eating food – whether from a garden, allotment or window box – is one of the simplest yet fundamentally gratifying activities there is. Plant a seed, watch it grow, pick it and eat it. Perfectly simple and simply perfect.
I think over the years, gardening has in some ways been a victim of its own success and this has led to a polarised view of what it’s all about. Garden centres brimming over with a tantalising array of seasonal goodies give the impression that all you need to do is buy and plant a plethora of fashionable things and that’s the job done. Meanwhile, celebrity gardeners demonstrating complicated procedures in perfectly manicured plots can lead some to believe that gardening is a work-heavy, complex business which is beyond the reaches of most. Again, I think it’s all about balance. Yes, growing a garden will require a certain amount of time and energy if a decent harvest is going to be enjoyed but it can and should be a pleasure, not a chore. It certainly doesn’t need to be complicated, either; in fact, in many cases it’s as simple as reading the instructions on the back of a seed packet.
Now, I would never profess to being an expert gardener; actually, I wouldn’t want to be one as I think ‘experts’ have a habit of losing their capacity to learn or be open to new ideas which is something I would hate. However, I’ve had a lot of fun over the last few weeks swapping garden notes and ideas with loved ones, celebrating successes and commiserating over problems, giving out little snippets of advice based on experience and trying some new things that have been suggested to me. Here, then, for anyone who is interested is my pocket-sized guide to growing a garden. Simply. With smiles.
Grow what you enjoy eating
It might seem obvious but there is no point in growing foods that no-one in your household actually likes eating. When we moved here, the garden was a jungle of only turnip greens and mustard, both of which the previous owner professed to not liking! It’s easy to feel that certain things are ‘essentials’ in a garden but it’s important to remember that times and attitudes change and people have different tastes . . . and they are allowed to. You don’t need a garden that is stuffed with marrows, runner beans and rhubarb. If you like those things, that’s great – go ahead and grow them; if you don’t, then don’t! No matter how small or ‘low maintenance’ your patch is, it will take time, work and money and there is no sense in squandering such precious resources on producing food that isn’t going to float your boat. Going out into the garden to forage should always be a pleasure, a huge, tongue-tingling smiley delight full of anticipation and joy not a resigned sigh at facing the blackcurrants, beetroot, broad beans (or whatever) once again.
If you only have a small space, don’t grow bulk crops such as onions, potatoes and carrots which tend to be cheap and plentiful in the shops all year round. Small amounts of young ones, yes; a root of melting, fondant, buttery new potatoes, the sweet crunch of a baby carrot or the sharp zing of spring onions are divine. Otherwise, buy them in and grow more interesting things or those fruit and vegetables that are seldom great from the shops: The Sugar Hits (peas, sweetcorn, parsnips), The Wilters (broccoli, salad leaves, spinach), The Flaccid Flops (asparagus, runner beans) and The Downright Flavourless (lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and a whole host of other tasteless friends).
Be realistic . . .
Any garden space has the potential to be a beautiful and productive patch but all are limited to a degree by factors such as climate, aspect, light and soil. It is possible to try and grow plants that are unsuited to the site with a lot of application and hard work but at the end of the day, is it really worth it? Happy plants make for happy gardeners! Look at what’s growing locally and the chances are that whatever is looking healthy and abundant in a neighbouring patch will thrive in your own. Bear in mind also that things will go wrong! That’s all part and parcel of the gardening experience and needs to be accepted and embraced as such, which is why a sense of humour is the most important gardening tool. Take heart from the fact that no-one is immune; we have grown peas every summer for over 30 years and yet the overwintered crop, as well as the current first earlies we are harvesting now, have totally refused to climb up their supports. Pea plants come with curly tendrils to help them cling and climb but this lot seem determined to sprawl across the ground which makes picking the pods somewhat interesting!
Last year, I grew a vibrant patch of sunflowers from seed given to me by our grandchildren; once they’d finished flowering, I collected lots of seed from them, gave little packets of them away to help spread the love then planted a huge patch here a couple of weeks ago in the hope of another splash of summer colour. Ha ha! My precious seeds have been dug up and eaten by some wretched little pest (I suspect a small and furry rodent type) which then rudely left the husks scattered all over the soil. Ah well, that’s just the way it goes sometimes.
. . . but don’t be afraid to be bold
There is no rule that says you must be a sheep in your garden: you neither have to be run-of-the-mill traditional nor follow the fashionable flock. Raised beds? Not compulsory. Fancy slate plant labels? Not necessary. This year’s latest must-have designer flower or vegetable? Not needed. Why not try something different or have a go at doing things your way? If you want to grow purple carrots or trombone squash, go ahead and grow them. If you fancy planting cabbages by your front door, do it. Don’t be too precious about things, either. If you’re looking for a cut-and-come-again salad selection but can’t find what you’re after amongst those pricey packets, make your own by mixing seeds for lots of different leaves and herbs together. You’re allowed to! There are no set hard and fast rules about what a garden should look like so why not personalise your patch? It’s your space and as such, an extension and reflection of your home and your personality . . . and no-one has the right to start tut-tutting simply because there’s a gnome lurking among your lettuce. Really. They don’t.
One of the reasons I champion permaculture is the way in which it acknowledges – nay, celebrates! – the benefits of gardening in small spaces. It’s possible, and in many ways easier, to realise greater relative yields from smaller gardens than large, sprawling areas. The trick, though, is to fill it to bursting, cram it to the nth degree in every direction and let polyculture be your mantra!
The patch in the photo above is a steep triangle of somewhere between seven and eight square metres in area. Currently growing in it are a globe artichoke, rose, hyssop, thyme and lemon thyme all of which are permanent features. There are also onions, various types of lettuce, cucumbers, oca, flat-leaved parsley, dill, pansies, marigolds, nasturtiums, a sprinkling of buckwheat and a stray poppy (the only inedible!). I weeded between the onions in the early stages as they’re not keen on competition but for several weeks now the only input has been to harvest bits and pieces as and when we need them. Yes, there are weeds but they’re not bothering me or the plants. Why make work?
If this were our only vegetable patch, we wouldn’t have bothered with the onions; instead, I think a couple of heavy producers – perhaps a courgette and some chard – would have gone in along with a teepee or two of climbing beans; when you consider the vertical dimension too, you can grab yourself a couple of metres of sky to grow things in. Once the summer crops have gone, I’ll replace them with rainbow chard, various kales, rocket and landcress for a winter harvest. There will be far too many plants, of course . . . but between you and me, I think they quite enjoy jostling for elbow room.
It’s a personal thing but I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘separate’ vegetable patches, those utilitarian spaces with perfect right angles and plants regimented in precise rows, hidden away from view as if the sight of vegetables is a less than desirable thing. With each successive garden that we have created together, the boundaries between the ‘vegetable garden’ and ‘flower garden’ have become increasingly blurred so that they have pretty much disappeared and become one big gorgeous, chaotic (but very productive) space. Please grow herbs and some flowers, too. Everyone needs colour and spice in their life and mixing them through with the veggies enhances the whole garden and feeds the soul as well as the stomach. More than that, I firmly believe that something as simple as snipping a few chives or sprinkling marigold petals over a salad can be a deeply transformative act. I’m currently reading – for the umpteenth time – The Complete Book of Herbs by Lesley Bremness, a book I’ve had for over thirty years and have never tired of.
I’ve been inspired to explore new recipes using the herbs from our garden, including iced lemon balm and lavender tea which I find is the perfect sipping drink on hot days.
I do, however, have to disgree a tiny bit with Lesley when it comes to choosing flowers to incorporate in salads; she argues for a restricted palette of colours that go well together and are easy on the eye – sage and borage, for example. Mmm. The point is, I don’t garden like that so I’m afraid when it comes to floral art amongst the salad leaves, it’s rainbows all the way for me.
Love your garden. Love your soil. Love your worms. Make space for wildlife, even if it does mean something munching your sunflower seeds. The patch in the photos below is a couple of square metres we gave over to nature last year, a grotty former chicken run which was ugly beyond words. Beneath all that greenery is a concrete floor with several centimetres of rubble pile on top and covered with a pathetically thin layer of soil. Nothing seems too bothered by this inauspicious base layer. Last year, I scattered a box of ‘bee and butterfly’ seed and the space was filled with annual colour; this year the biennials and perennials have surfaced, with a supporting cast of wild incomers such as violets, charlock, knapweed and ‘three birds flying.’ The tiny pond – a former water trough – squirms with the wriggling and rummaging of newts and the fattest tadpoles I’ve ever seen. Birds drink and bathe in the water daily, and lizards sip daintily from the stone-lined edge. Frogs and toads lurk in the damp shade at its fringes. The piles of rotting logs, chopped brushwood and cut grass are home to slow-worms and grass snakes, whilst the growing greenery and flowers are literally teeming with insect life. Can you spot the grasshopper?
Enjoy it – the most important bit of all
Plant a comfy seat, grab a mug or glass of something then sit and watch your garden grow. There is nothing else to say! 🙂
We are now in the third week of lockdown in Spain as the country continues its fight against the Covid-19 virus. What a wonderful (if tentative) moment of hope when last week it became clear that Asturias had moved beyond the peak as the number of new cases began to fall; the government here instigated measures several days before the declaration of a national state of alarm and so the principality is running a little ahead of the national situation. Of course, there is a long, long way to go yet and as keyworkers continue in their tireless and heroic efforts to save lives, to keep us safe and to maintain essential supply chains, for most people daily reality remains being confined en casa. The media focus tends to fall on the experience of people living in urban areas, which is quite understandable: that is where the vast majority of the population lives, many of them confined to small apartments with a tiny balcony their only window on the world. I give thanks every day that we have a beautiful garden and a stunning view, open space and limitless fresh air where we can breathe deeply, stretch our limbs and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We are very blessed.
However, it was interesting and refreshing one day last week to see the local online press reporting on the experience of rural dwellers in what is known as Asturias vaciada – emptied Asturias. Like many parts of Spain, Asturias has experienced mass rural depopulation over the last few decades, leaving a countryside littered with empty houses, meagre settlements and an elderly population. Our village is no exception; of the 26 dwellings here, half are unoccupied and as a couple in our fifties we are very much at the younger end of the age range. Local councils are working hard to provide round-the-clock help and care for vulnerable people living in these isolated areas whose situation at first glance might seem deeply concerning . . . and yet, the newspaper report shared a fascinating insight by one interviewee who made three wise and salient observations about the experience and resilience of rural people in these difficult and uncertain times.
The first point they made was that living in such relatively empty rural areas, it can be many days before you cross a neighbour’s path. ‘Isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are part and parcel of everyday life and as such, come as no surprise or hardship. For us, this is absolutely true. Even if I go out on a run (not currently, obviously!) that takes me down to the village, I only pass one house closely and more often than not, I don’t see our neighbours who live there. In another direction, I can walk or run for over two miles before I come to the first occupied house. I have lost count of the number of times we have gone out from home or further afield and walked for many hours without seeing another soul. If we stay at home, we can go for several days without seeing anyone unless our postman Ricardo comes down the lane or Jairo comes up to check his cows. I’ve read a lot lately about how human beings are social creatures who crave company but I think that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation; I love Roger’s company, I enjoy communicating and spending time with others but I also delight in a bit of solitude and have always been completely comfortable on my own. If you are used to being alone, then loneliness is rarely an issue. If your daily routine isn’t built around contact and constant chatter, then silence is a pleasure, not a threat.
The second point made was that when people are used to producing their own food whether it be vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, meat, milk, eggs or whatever, when ‘normal’ life involves baking your own bread and making preserves, when meal planning starts with what you have at home, then there is no need to go to the shops regularly. The constraint of only being allowed to travel short distances to buy essential supplies doesn’t bring too many changes. Every occupied house in our village has a productive vegetable garden and fruit trees, and many have chickens, beehives and a pig. There are no doorstep supermarket deliveries but each week sees vans selling bread, frozen foods, cakes, fruit and vegetables and fresh fish arrive in the village – the drivers with hand on horn to announce their arrival – and this has continued through lockdown. We might live a long way from the nearest food shops and supermarket, we might be eating a lot of kale and squash and salad . . . but we are most definitely not going hungry.
Third, it was pointed out that if we spend our time caring for a few animals or tending a patch of land then our days are naturally filled with activities that are nurturing, absorbing and uplifting. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to the events or horrors of the wider world, just that our mental focus centres on a way of living that teaches us how to cope with the ups and downs of life, how to be pragmatic and optimistic and above all, keeps us grounded in the cycles and seasons of the natural world.
That final point resonated very strongly with me, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to regular readers; I make no secret of the fact that a close connection to nature is fundamental to my lifestyle and, most definitely, my wellbeing. Despite the worrying headlines and footage from around the world, and anxious thoughts about the safety of loved ones, if I can put my hands into the earth, sprinkle seeds, see the bright green fizz of new leaves unfurling, plunge my nose into flowers and hear the call of the cuckoo on the mountain, then I have hope and healing.
I love the idea of ‘listening to the land,’ an idea shared by Patrick Whitefield in The Earthcare Manual and Mary Reynolds in The Garden Awakening, two absorbing and inspiring books I have read and re-read in recent months. I particularly liked Patrick’s astute observation that if you ask someone to observe a garden or piece of ground they tend to reach for paper and pen and start to write notes or make sketches; on the other hand, asking them to close ther eyes and listen to the land leads to a stillness and focus and -ultimately – a much greater awareness of the feel of the place. This reminds me of the way in which the ancient druids used sensory deprivation as a powerful learning tool which heightened their awareness and creativity. With her love of Irish magic, Mary refers to the spirit of the land and both authors recognise the importance of acknowledging, recognising and honouring this quality in designing and caring for gardens. It’s a case of not asking, ‘What can wedo withthis land?’ but instead, ‘ How can we work with it?’ The two are often very different things! So, with this in mind, and given that we are at least allowed into the garden if not beyond, we have been spending our days working on some of the new projects I mentioned in an earlier post. (As these are ongoing activities, please bear in mind, some of the photos are several weeks old.)
First, our attempts to reduce the amount of ugly concrete. Having talked about a few possible ideas, we decided to start by removing a wide strip of concrete that runs from the yard to the field gate along the top of the vegetable patch; the path doesn’t need to be that wide and we hoped that by swapping the concrete for a planting area, we could capture a sense of the garden extending and flowing more naturally.
As with so many projects, making a start was the trickiest part as there’s no way of knowing whether it will be a success or not. Nothing for it, then, but to grab the sledgehammer and get stuck in . . .
Once Roger had made that start, things went pretty swimmingly although it never fails to astound me just how much rubble jobs like this create.
With the concrete lifted, the next job was to tackle the wall at the far end; as it holds the path up, it was important not to remove it. However, there was certainly scope for a radical overhaul as the wall had been cobbled together with bits of breeze block, bricks, metal mesh and a whole host of other rubbish in the unique style of ‘building’ we have become used to finding here. What was truly puzzling is that the area behind this dubious construction had been filled with flat stones just perfect for building a . . . wall!
I believe one of the best ways to listen to the land is to work with naturally occurring materials wherever possible and the local stone is no exception. Our house, barn and horreo were all originally built from the honey-coloured stone that is typical of the area and we have used it to build many terraces in the garden. The obvious thing to do here, then, was to remove the ‘rubble wall’ and replace it with a more attractive and far more appropriate dry stone one. With that done, and the ground dug over (and another huge pile of rubble dug out in the process) and a generous quantity of muck forked in, the new planting area was created. There’s no rush to plant it, though; I love the way that things spread and self-set so liberally here, so we’ll give nature free reign in the coming months and see what transpires.
Staying in the same area of the garden, and in the last couple of summers I have planted hanging baskets on the horreo, loving the idea of bright splashes of floral colour against that lovely stone. The results, I have to confess, have been a bit mixed; I’ve struggled to find plants that have been truly happy – even geraniums (pelargoniums) which grow like a weed here failed to really give it their best shot. Hanging baskets are not a common sight here and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for that, so it’s time for a radical rethink. I’ve ditched any thought of flowers (and let’s face it, we’re not exactly short of colour here) and I’m trying strawberries instead, using some of the spare plants we had in our bare-rooted bundle a few weeks ago. In place of my usual eucalyptus bark liner, I’ve gone for something completely different but definitely up my street: sheep’s wool. I have been meaning for months (um . . . years?) to sort out a huge bag of Manx Loaghton fleece, much of which is daggy and unspinnable, but which I’ve kept for just such an occasion. It was lovely time spent in the sunshine, putting aside a happy quantity of good stuff – there’s at least another teddy bear’s worth to be spun – and using the rest to make gorgeously deep, warm, soft basket linings. I then put a plant saucer in the base of each and filled the baskets to the top with our home-produced compost, before adding the plants. I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year- just as long as the birds don’t help themselves to the wool for nests in the meantime!
The orchard makeover a few weeks ago was quite a project but already we are reaping the benefits of all the hard work. With paths dug out and stone steps built in, we can now weave our way around the whole area and climb up and down the steep slope without slipping and sliding like we did before. It is wonderful to be able to wander around and see how quickly things have grown and changed in such a short time. Our newly-planted fruit trees have settled in and are bursting into leaf, whilst the more established ones are scenting the air with their delicate blossoms.
There are wildflowers everywhere and it is incredible how such a rough, stony, inaccesible and ugly corner has been transformed into a delightful carpet of colour, buzzing with life. We certainly listened to the land with this project and nature hasn’t disappointed.
Staying with fruit and it has been quite a steep learning curve for us finding out what will and won’t grow well here. There were peaches, apricots, figs and pears here when we arrived, all of which thrive (as long as the blossom isn’t blasted in spring storms). To those trees we have added apples, cherries, plums, more pears, an orange, a lemon and a plum, all of which grow well locally. Soft fruit hasn’t been such a success. There were summer raspberries here but they were the most tasteless things on earth and even the birds wouldn’t touch them; I replaced them with autumn varieties which I prefer anyway (I think they have a better flavour and they don’t need all that faffing about with wires and cages). Blimey, how they grew, I had raspberry canes everywhere . . . but not a single flower and therefore no fruit, because our winter simply isn’t cold enough to give them the kick they need. Thankfully, the wild strawberries are hugely reliable and grow literally everywhere on our patch so I’m hoping our bigger, cultivated varieties will do as well.
Since we moved here, two local farmers have planted fields of blueberry bushes so that suggested they might grow happily here; well, yes and no. One of our three bushes has died but we did get a sprinkling of berries last year so I think the jury is still out on that one. As a bit of a bonus, though, last summer a mystery physalis plant appeared from nowhere growing out of a wall near the polytunnel. It’s not something we’ve ever grown here but nature obviously decided to plant it on our behalf.
To be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten about it; it set a few fruits but they didn’t mature (and I still didn’t know whether it was a cape gooseberry or a tomatillo) and over winter, the whole plant had disappeared under a swathe of red deadnettle. What a lovely surprise, then, to be foraging last week – it’s amazing how much more attention I pay to things in this lockdown situation, every moment outside is so precious – and find a lovely little picking of sweet and tasty fruits! Roger felt a rich dark chocolate mousse would be just the thing to set them off, and so it was. Here’s another fruit to put on the planting list, then.
Something new we are trying is redcurrants; we’ve always grown them in the past and miss them in summer puddings and redcurrant jelly which is such a useful ingredient in cooking, but we’ve never had them here. We decided to plant the bush below a couple of cardoons at the field end of the vegetable patch but were a bit concerned about the site being too exposed to the prevailing wind. Listening to the land once again, it seemed the obvious thing to do was to plant a small hedge to give a little protection, and what better way of doing that than lifting tree seedlings from around our patch? Well, any excuse for a wander through the woods.
Woodland is an environment that never fails to lift my spirits but there is something particularly special about this time of year when the leaves burst their buds to reveal fresh, glossy, new growth and the birds herald the season in a joyful cacophony of song. I was supposed to be looking for potential seedlings but found my eyes distracted ever upwards.
Luckily, there was no shortage of tiny trees pushing up through the leaf litter and we had soon lifted a collection of mixed varieties, including birch, oak, willow and bay. What a lovely thing, to gather a little part of the woodland to enjoy in the garden; four weeks on, our new hedge is growing vigorously and the redcurrant bush is looking very happy, too.
Back to the confines of the garden and we have been busy this week looking ahead to this year’s new harvests, planting out summer brassicas and lettuce, potting on tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and squash, sowing beans and courgettes (and sweet peas! 🙂 ) and preparing a patch for the onion seedlings that are almost ready to transplant. There has been so much of the season to enjoy: the first resident swallow swooping through in the evening sunshine, the scurry of lizards everywhere, the busyness of flocks of goldfinches and serins flitting through the orchard, the warble of blackbirds ever earlier in the morning, the incessant bustle of bees and butterflies, the wriggle of fat tadpoles in our tiny pond, the sweep of a soft green haze through the woodlands, the pretty pink ruffles of the first roses and the heady scent of jasmine and freesias by the kitchen door.
My complete absorption in so much beauty and wonder in no way diminishes or trivialises the seriousness of the ongoing global situation; believe me, I am as anxious and concerned as the next person. It’s just that once more, I find great comfort in the continued cycle of the seasons, in the fact that nature goes on, spring happens, new life appears, the garden smiles with flowers and I smile with it. In fact, in these dark days I smile for the whole of humanity. A smile of kindness, a smile of love and a smile of hope. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your situation, I hope that you can smile with me, if only for a moment. 🙂
What a difference a couple of weeks can make. There I was in my last post writing about some of the lovely walks we’d been doing locally and now, following last Friday’s declaration by prime minister Pedro Sánchez of a national state of alarm in Spain, we are not allowed to walk any further than the garden.
I am not complaining. The response by the Spanish and Asturian governments to the coronavirus situation was swift, decisive and efficient, putting the welfare of people ahead of any political shenanigans; the 15-day ‘lockdown’ is designed to minimise contact between people whilst enabling key workers to do their vital jobs and essential industries to keep supply chains open. The sense of common purpose, solidarity and concern for each other’s welfare is immense.
We are very lucky. We don’t have to worry about going to work or the financial hardships of being laid off or of trying to care for dependants under difficult circumstances. We are not trapped in a city flat with small children. We are not living alone. We live in a very beautiful place and it is no hardship to keep ourselves to ourselves at home; we are allowed to leave (one of us at a time only) if we need essential goods from a supermarket or pharmacy, or to receive medical attention, but there is a good chance we won’t need to go anywhere.
Something that has become abundantly clear is that leading the kind of life we do normally – very simple, minimal consumption, close to self-sufficiency – in a sharing, caring community, makes us far more resilient than many others in a time of crisis. We don’t have to worry about food as we have a freezer and cupboards that are well-stocked (but not stockpiled!) with a wide range of ingredients, both bought and home-produced. We also have foods from the garden and orchard that are stored in the horreo or have been dried, bottled or made into preserves.
Even now, the traditional time of year for a hungry gap, we still have a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables and fruit from the garden and tunnel.
We buy fresh milk in bulk and freeze it as a matter of course, but always have a couple of cartons of UHT as a standby; if we end up having to drink black coffee, it will hardly be the end of the world. We make all our own bread using a sourdough starter so don’t have to worry about running out of fresh yeast, although we keep a packet of dried stuff to hand in case our starter decides to give up the ghost. In short, where food is concerned, we could survive a lockdown of many weeks and if that means eating a lot of squash and bean soup, then so be it.
Thankfully, we are both generally fit and healthy; we don’t require any regular medication and in fact, we have only used the medical services three times between us in the (nearly) four years we have lived here so the chances are we will not need to add to the considerable burden the health care systems are currently facing. We are used to reaching for natural remedies for minor discomforts and ailments and it’s wonderful what comfort can be found in honey, lemon, ginger, chillies, sage and a host of other herbs and flowers from the garden.
Given that it is nothing for us to go for a fortnight or more without getting in the car to travel anywhere, then staying at home bothers us not one jot. We don’t base our lives around clubs, restaurants, cinemas, shopping and the like so we don’t miss them. We are happiest pottering about on our patch and have no problems entertaining ourselves. We don’t live a life glued to television screens or smartphones (we have neither) but we are very grateful for the internet, particularly as we are in daily contact with our offspring, enjoying a lively discussion and comparison of the situation in Spain, Norway and the UK; video chatting to our grandchildren online is always great fun! We have no problems filling our time with other things: cooking, music, reading, writing, studying Spanish, playing games, chatting and laughing together. I am happy to watch the busyness of insects, the flutter of birds, the dashing of lizards. I love to contemplate the silk inside a petal or the subtle shifts of colour in a sunset. I never need asking twice to crack open a new ball of sock wool!
The only drawback of curtailed liberty for us is the fact that we can’t get out to walk or run; in a normal week, I usually run about 20 miles (32 km) and Roger notches up an almighty 100 miles (160 km) or more. Now we are not allowed to run on public roads and all the forthcoming races we had entered have quite rightly been cancelled. Yes, it is something we miss but again, we’re not complaining: how could we when other people are suffering in so many ways? It’s simply a case of adapting and finding alternatives and at least we can get outside, unlike so many others; there is much activity to be had through gardening, a mat and weights in the house and barn make a perfectly good home gym, and 140 lengths of the barn is one kilometre of running! We love the joyful camaraderie of the running community here so it’s no surprise that there is much sharing of ideas about how to keep fit en casa. Far from mourning running (ha ha, now who’d believe that?), I’m experimenting with other things such as some new cardio yoga routines and learning to zumba. The loveliest video clip I have seen this week is of a whole community in highrise apartments doing exercises together to music on their balconies. What a wonderfully uplifting sight.
Being able and willing to adapt to change is most definitely another consequence of living life as we do; if we have to manage without something, we simply find an alternative or change our habits without any fuss. It astounds me that faced with the rumour of shortages, the western world rushes out and fills shopping trolleys with, of all things, toilet paper! Holy crap, what is that all about? Yes, it’s something we use but if we run out, then we will switch to water and washable rags. It’s probably what we should be doing anyway and I suspect if it happened, we’d never swap back.
Reflecting on all these things I’ve noticed that the more we simplify things, the more we can do without and this seems to happen in an exponential way. Take, for instance, toiletries. It’s fair to say we started from a reasonably sane place as neither of us has ever been what you might call high maintenance; in fact, the list of grooming products and processes I’ve never tried (hair dye, leg wax, cleanse-tone-moisturise procedures, anti-wrinkle potions, spray tans, eyebrow threading, manicure, pedicure, massage, spa treatments . . . and zillions of other things, most of which I don’t even recognise!) far outweighs those I have. I haven’t worn perfume for twenty years and the last make up I applied was a slick of mascara for Sam and Adrienne’s wedding in July 2018. I might look like a greying, wrinkling 53 year-old but actually, that’s exactly what I am and I’m proud of it; I have no desire to try and look younger, but part of me suspects the bountiful fresh air, exercise, healthy diet and laughter that fill my days brings more to my life than any chemical-laden product ever could.
So, with this in mind, last year I set out to pare back the bought products we have and replace them with homemade ones: cue a fascinating foray into the world of soap-making. I love the fact that making my own toiletries gives me complete control over what goes into them; they might seem a bit rustic but at least they are as ‘natural’ as possible. Having played around with several soap recipes, I’ve come to the conclusion that I now only need to make one kind from a mix of coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, castor oil and shea butter; the beauty of this recipe is that it doubles as a solid shampoo so it’s all we need in the bathroom, and a couple of batches keep us going for a whole year.
Even better, now that I’ve found an affordable and reliable source of rye flour (well, two in fact), I’ve started to use that as shampoo so the soaps will go much further in the long run. I’m still making a herbal infusion by simmering a handful of herbs in water – sage and rosemary are my favourites, with a few cloves thrown in for a deeper, spicy note – but not adding apple cider vinegar any more as this is now a base for the shampoo, not a conditioning rinse. The infusion keeps in the fridge for a couple of weeks and actually doubles as a mouthwash that is great for the gums. I simply mix a dessertspoon of rye flour with some infusion to make a paste, then add more of the liquid to end up with a pretty runny consistency which is easier to work into my mop of very thick hair. It’s a simple routine in the shower: I wet my hair, work in the flour shampoo and leave while I wash myself, then rinse thoroughly. Job done. I can’t praise this mix enough, my hair is very soft, silky and shiny and easily lasts four or five days between washes. Kitchen cupboard shampoo. Brilliant.
On the same theme, I’ve just made another batch of solid hand lotion. This is far easier than soap as there’s no lye involved: I simply melt beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil and cocoa butter together in a bowl over simmering water on the woodstove and pour into moulds (I use an old silicon muffin mould). I store the spares in a tea tin I had as a gift and keep the current bar in an old Lush tin which is very portable. The lotion is really lovely, very silky and smooth and can be used on hands, feet, face, all over, in fact. Oh, and it makes a great lip balm, too. Now there’s a simplicity I love.
One of the changes we’ve made recently is to stop buying commercially-produced compost and to rely wholly on our home-produced compost instead. I’m very thrilled that we’ve successfully achieved a closed loop with this, recycling every scrap of biodegradable waste and putting it all back into the soil and food production. There is no doubting the benefit that using it as a mulch has brought, the soil is literally heaving with worms and life. In stark contrast to last year, our vegetable seedlings in trays and pots are growing strongly and healthily.
The downside, of course, is that it’s not sterile so all sorts of other things pop up too and we have to spend some time nipping the rogue seedlings out. It’s also quite chunky so this week Roger turned some scrap plastic mesh (part of one of our wonderful original fences here) and odds and ends of timber into a sieve. It’s not fine enough to separate out all the seeds but certainly keeps two of the biggest nuisances – squash seeds and peach stones – out of the mix. I’ve had a very happy time in the tunnel, sifting a mountain of compost into lovely, fine stuff, picking out any stones and returning the bigger organic lumps to the compost heap. As for the self-set squash that had already emerged, they’ve been potted up for the garden, and any that appear in the compost heap will be left to grow and trail as they love to do; the vast majority of our squash was grown like this last year, mixed up mongrels from open-pollinated varieties and they have been fabulous. We might never bother buying squash seed again.
Organising our lives to be as self-sufficient, sustainable, eco-friendly and plastic-free as possible takes time and can’t all be done at once for many reasons which can lead to a sense of frustration. At times it feels like we’ve stopped moving forward and then something comes along that gives me heart once again. One of the things I’ve found hard to get round here is the reliance in shops on single-use plastic bags for loose produce and the fact that there is no tare on the scales which would allow me to take my own bags or containers. Great news, then, to find that re-usable, washable mesh bags have suddenly become the fashion for fruit and vegetables but as they are very fine, I can use them for buying things like loose grains and spices, too. This is progress.
I was also delighted to find several outlets for the herbal teas produced by Pharmadus Botanicals, a family company from León. Much of what they sell- dried rosemary, mint, eucalyptus and the like – I can produce at home but I don’t grow green tea (yet!) and I’ve never been able to find a loose leaf variety here until now. The Spanish drink a lot of tea and tisanes, so there is a fantastic variety of types, flavours and mixes to choose from . . . but they tend to come in teabags on strings with a cardboard tab, individually wrapped in paper packets and stacked in a cardboard box which is then sealed in clear plastic. It’s a packaging nightmare and somewhere in the depths of it all is a meagre 30 grams of tea! So, this large leaf green tea is a great find: 50 grams of tea in a paper bag that is plastic-free and totally biodegrable (oh, and the same price as the highly-packaged stuff, too). I wish I could return them for a refill, but in the meantime those little bags are just perfect for storing my own dried herbal mixes. Cuppa, anyone?
Returning to the coronavirus and the latest predictions in Asturias are that the peak will occur during the first week of April; it’s likely, then, that the lockdown could be extended. That’s fine. Whatever it takes. In the meantime, I feel nothing but an overwhelming sense of gratitude, respect and admiration for those who are working in extreme circumstances for the welfare of us all and a deep sense of concern and empathy for everyone who is stricken and suffering, in whatever way. Finally, I have a profound sense of hope: hope that, once this is over, humanity can take a long, hard look at the chaos and rush of modern lifestyles and the fragile state of our beautiful planet and maybe – just maybe – reset some of the values that underpin all that we do. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to shift from me to we, from just in time to having more time, from stuff to smiles, from stress to simplicity, from shopping to sharing, from having to happiness? I believe so, and as a man once famously wrote, you might think I’m a dreamer . . . but I’m not the only one. 🙂
Four years ago this week, we walked out of a notary’s office in Luarca as the proud new owners of Casa Victorio, a rundown hovel and several outbuildings set in eight acres of Asturian mountain pasture and woodland. For us, it was the start of a new adventure and – in all honesty – a huge leap into the unknown. Unlike France, where we had lived previously, we weren’t very familiar with Spain or Spanish culture before moving here and the only Spanish we spoke had been snatched from a few weeks of basic evening classes. (My brain was so fried linguistically that I wrote Espagna on our change of address notifications, a word I’d completely made up by mixing Spanish and French. Of course, it should have been España. I’m glad to say my Spanish has improved hugely since then!) Our move could quite easily have been an unmitigated disaster. However, as with any major decision in our life, we had asked ourselves one question: what was the worse thing that could happen? This has always been our acid test and it’s far more encouraging and empowering than all those ‘what if . . ?’ worries. It’s so easy to let a multitude of unwarranted fears stop us from shrugging off the cosy stagnation of an existence in our comfort zone instead of grabbing the opportunity to do something different, to really live life to the full. I’m so glad we took the plunge. Our life here is wonderful; it is, as the locals would say, una vida muy rica, muy preciosa.
Why, then, have we recently been contemplating the idea of leaving and returning to the UK? What on earth were we thinking? Well, for starters, there’s Brexit. We are not naive; before coming here we carried out masses of research and did the sums many times over but sadly lacked a crystal ball to tell us what would happen in the UK referendum held just one month after we moved here in May 2016. I have never wanted to use my blog as a political platform and I have no intention of starting now but suffice to say, Brexit has brought us no joy and done us no favours; stripped of the privilege of EU citizenship, our future here is very uncertain and may be a reason to leave in a ‘jump before we’re possibly pushed’ sort of way. On reflection, though, it has actually become a reason to stay, to enjoy and honour that very privilege that allowed us to be here in the first place. There are about 1000 UK nationals living in Asturias, scattered through the principality with no obvious expat epicentre; certainly, we are the only Brits in the village but as such, we have been welcomed unreservedly by our Asturian neighbours. True, they probably find us a little ‘exotic’ and eccentric but as immigrants living in their community and country, we could not have been made more welcome. They are the friendliest and most open, honest, tolerant and generous people I have ever met. A walk or run in the locality is more an exercise in smiles, waves, greetings and conversation than anything else; one elderly chap who walks miles every morning always greets me with a hearty ‘¡Viva la inglesa!’ and gives me a high five. You cannot put a price on such moments. It’s all about cultural exchange, about friendship and acceptance and kindness and being downright human towards one another regardless of nationality, colour or creed. Why turn our backs on something so precious?
Far more important than the forces of shady political ideology is the climate crisis and here we have a conundrum: if we are truly committed to doing everything we can to leave a viable planet for our children and grandchildren (which we are), then isn’t it hypocritical to be living somewhere that necessitates foreign travel if we are to spend time with them? Surely a return to the UK where we could in theory draw a line under all future trips abroad is one of the greatest gestures we could make? Well maybe, but on reflection it’s not that straightforward because it’s not just about the travelling and any balanced judgement needs to be far more holistic. I’ve written about the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator before https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/; it’s a somewhat imperfect and basic tool but it is useful in giving an idea of how our carbon footprint measures up and revisiting it every few months can be helpful in tracking improvements. Currently, we are weighing in with 7.5 tonnes of carbon in the last twelve months: that’s 72% of (or 28% less than) the UK government’s 2020 target of 10.5 tonnes per household. I’m pretty pleased with that; obviously we’re not going to be complacent – there’s always room for improvement, after all – but the fact is, this measure includes a return flight to the UK. True, take that away and we’re down to 7.1 tonnes (68%) but my point is, it’s the rest of our lifestyle that makes the biggest impact on green living . . . and ironically, much of that is down to climate.
Winters here are mild; some mornings can be a bit chilly but on the whole we don’t need much heating in the house. Like all old buildings here, the thick stone walls are designed to retain warmth in colder weather and keep the house cool in summer (although it’s never so hot as to need air conditioning). When we renovated the house, insulation was a top priority and the upshot of that is that we can heat the whole house with a single wood-burning stove. We fitted a couple of electric radiators and a heated towel rail as back-up but apart from testing them when they were installed, we have never switched them on. There is no heating at all in our bedroom; we simply don’t need it. In the run of mild weather we’ve had since Christmas, on many days we have only lit the stove in the evening and that is ample time to warm the house through as well as cook dinner, heat water and dry or air washing if necessary. The logs come from our own wood and as such are what John Seymour described as the best form of solar heating. We burn no gas or oil; we do use electricity but our consumption is a fraction of the UK and Spanish household average (in our last bill, less than a third of the cost was consumption, the rest was standing charges, tax and the like). We could not easily live like this through a British winter.
Climate also plays a key role in our food provenance. We grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and every meal is based round what’s good in the garden. Other food we source as locally as possible and much of what we eat is produced in Asturias – which has a similar area to Wales but a third of the population – or other parts of Spain. The benign climate means we can grow sufficient vegetables all year round and there is no such thing as a ‘hungry gap’; how can there be when the autumn-planted peas are dripping with pods in February?!
The carbon footprint calculator also flags us up as lousy consumers. Our normal monthly expenditure is zero for new clothes and shoes (don’t need any), restaurant and takeaway meals (don’t want any) and pets (don’t have any). We spend a minimal amount on grooming products (mainly toothpaste) as I make most of our toiletries and the ingredients are pennies, and we never buy new gadgets, furniture or other household stuff unless something is totally broken and beyond repair . . . and we actually need to replace it. We live on a very low income but still save money each month because we simply don’t spend it. I’m not condoning travel but we usually drive to the UK rather than fly and even if we make two road trips like that a year, our annual mileage hovers around the average mark because when we’re here, we barely use the car at all. If we can reduce that to a single trip, our footprint will shrink even more. All in all, we can live the simplest of lives here, doing our best for the planet in as many ways as possible. Why leave in a hurry?
So, with the decision made to stay put we have turned our thoughts to a wave of exciting new projects which should help to improve our patch further and reduce our carbon footprint even more. Our starting point was the orchard which in many ways is an underused resource. I’m still reading and enjoying Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I particularly like his emphasis on a balance between ‘earth care’ and ‘people care’ and the need for places to work well for everyone and everything that inhabits them. Where the orchard is concerned, there is certainly more space for planting trees and possibilities for improving habitats for wildlife but also the chance to make it a more enjoyable and attractive space for ourselves. We started at the farmers’ co-op, choosing two locally grown bare-rooted trees, a greengage ‘Reina Claudia’ and cherry ‘Picota.’ (We plan to plant more citrus trees, too, but as they are all pot-grown there is no great rush). Planting two trees shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes but when Roger started to dig the second hole, an ominous clang of spade against metal suggested this wouldn’t be so easy. Buried in the bank was yet another metal bedstead. Good grief, is there no end to them?
Cue a whole afternoon of stripping the bank back to remove the offending article, then shoring it up with a stone wall to create a small planting terrace – far more work than anticipated but hopefully we will be blessed with a good crop of cherries after giving the tree all that love!
How lovely that the excavation work had to be paused briefly to relocate a fire salamander; what a vibrant reminder of the rich diversity of life with which we share this space and the responsibility we have towards caring for it.
The orchard is a peaceful spot with lovely views of the village and valley and delicious green shade under the walnut trees in summer but we seldom spend time there because the land is so steep and access is difficult. Roger dug several turf paths when we first moved here but they are constantly undermined by voles and the slopes are very slippery, especially if the grass is wet. Time, then, to really sort the access issue out once and for all by making more permanent paths and digging in flat stones to create steps.
One corner is a real mess to tackle, a pile of rocks on a steep slope smothered in brambles with no way through. I know brambles are brilliant for wildlife but as we leave huge tracts to scramble through the wood, we don’t feel too bad at knocking them back a bit in this area. Underneath, there is a honeysuckle binding the bank together and a smattering of wildflowers; our plan is to add more native flowers as well as a few cottage garden ones for colour, scent and insect food. The huge tree stumps and rotting logs can stay.
Last year, we decided to leave a large area of the orchard grass uncut and we were really thrilled with the resulting meadow. This year, we are going to extend that by leaving another bank uncut; it means less work and a better wildlife habitat – definitely a win-win. There’s a garden seat there that desperately needs a makeover . . . and that’s an important job as I suspect it will be much used this summer! 🙂
We have a tremendous crop of wild strawberries here every year but we’d never got round to planting larger varieties, mostly because it’s hard to find a spot where they would get plenty of sunshine without spreading like stink and being hammered by slugs and snails. The solution, we decided, was to lift them above ground so Roger has created a funky planter from bits of scrap timber and odds and ends of green and black paint; those tall legs remind me a bit of the tripods in War of the Worlds but I’m hoping the chances of fruit will be better than a million to one! It’s a great way to make use of vertical space and hopefully will keep the slimy ones away from the strawbs. We’ve filled it with bare-rooted plants and potted up the spares for hanging baskets. Mmm, get growing, you lovelies.
The ‘courtyard’ is a tricky area and how to turn it into a more attractive space has us scratching our heads for inspiration. There is a lotof concrete. It’s uneven, ugly and, in this humid climate, attracts a covering of moss which can be lethally slippery so we have to sweep it on a regular basis. It’s useful to be able to pull a vehicle into the space for loading and unloading but we never park the car there and really don’t need so much hard standing. We have a few ideas in the pipeline but whatever we do, it will be quite a task.
The wall area between the house and horreo is part of the courtyard problem; originally well-built from local stone, it has been ‘adapted’ by a previous owner (I’m being polite here, the actual word I would use to describe what they did is far ruder) by the addition of several horrendous concrete features, including a set of completely wonky steps and a totally unnecessary vent that always makes us think of a World War II pillbox. We’ve fiddled at the edges with paint and plants to try and soften the impact, but if we’re going to make it look truly lovely, we definitely need to do some more work.
The horreo itself needs a bit of TLC and at last we are planning to do something we’ve been talking about ever since we came here. The middle ‘layer’ between the stone shed and wooden granary is an area that is open to the fresh air but protected from wind and rain by high stone walls and shady in the summer. It would be the perfect place to sit and eat, either when it’s too wet to be outside or on those few very hot days in the summer when we’re seeking evening shade. There was an old kitchen table and chairs left here which we could install, we just need to do something about the floor which is decidedly dodgy and in places, more hole than wood.
Our list of things to do has over 30 items on it; we’ve prioritised them and made a start but I know from past experience we will add to it as quickly as we tick things off. Our plans range from fairly simple ideas such as extending the varieties of perennial vegetables and herbs we grow to demolishing and rebuilding the Garage From Hell, from siting a homemade nestbox for red squirrels to investigating solar power now that the so-called ‘sun tax’ has been abolished and our electricity provider is offering valuable help with installation and management of systems. There’s much to be done but we love to be busy and, most importantly, we love living here . . . so we’ll linger. A while longer living in paradise? That will be tough, then. 🙂
Often footsore, never Yet of the road I weary, Though long and steep and dreary, As it winds on for ever.
Having recently celebrated another year in my life’s journey, I’ve been giving some thought to what it feels like for me to be 53 (my goodness, that old?! 🙂 ). I know it’s a cliché but I certainly feel like the older I get, the less I know – yet the more I want to learn, experience and feel. By that, I don’t mean I have an urge to travel the world, gain more qualifications, chase adrenaline highs, break records or spend my time ticking a pile of items off a long and crazy bucket list. Quite the opposite, in fact; something I have come to realise more and more in recent years is that when life is lived simply and I allow myself to be open to all possibilities, even the smallest experiences can be of immense value. Life-changing, even. The path might not always be easy or clear, but anything that helps to keep me physically fit and active, gives my brain a good workout, encourages creativity, bolsters my sense of fun and helps me keep a sense of wonder is treasure indeed.
This was all brought home to me this week when we spent a day exploring a local walking route on the excuse that Sam and Adrienne are coming to stay with us in January. Our time with them is always golden (especially so now they live in Norway) and generally revolves around lots of good food and hiking so we like to have at least one new walk up our sleeve for when they visit. The Esva gorge is probably my favourite walk here and one I never tire of, so I was very excited to be following a different circular route that would bring us to it from a completely new direction. Starting in the village of Naraval, about half an hour’s drive from home, we climbed gently through green meadows in a quintessential Asturian landscape.
The next section came as something of a surprise, though, and was a reminder that the only constant in life is change; it had been billed as several kilometres of forest . . . but the trees had been harvested, the forest gone and in its place, a wide expanse of empty moorland. Mmm. Now I love a bit of woodland so disappointment was my first reaction but, on further reflection, I could see the positive side. It seems that the area is being left to regenerate naturally as part of a rural forestry project, rather than being planted with the ubiquitous eucalyptus, and the resulting dense undergrowth was thick with bird life. Is this rewilding in action?
At the same time, the open landscape gave us the chance to enjoy some spectacular views and – what still always come to me as a surprise in such a mountainous region – those vast expanses and sweeps of sky.
Several kilometres into our walk and we decided to perch on a rock and enjoy a flask of strong, Spanish coffee and some home made mince pies. Is it me, or does coffee take on a whole new delicious flavour at times like this, that nutty roasted aroma curling up out of the flask into the December air? The mince pies weren’t bad either; I’ve been playing about with my mincemeat recipe this year as I couldn’t find some key ingredients but I have to say cranberries for currants, butter for suet and walnuts for almonds have been great exchanges. The star, though, is the home made candied peel: why, oh why, have I ever bought pots of that sticky, gloopy stuff when it is child’s play to make and a hundred times more delicious? I’m definitely not too old to learn new tricks! Anyway, back to our walk and, suitably refreshed, we carried on until suddenly the top of the gorge appeared in front us. Looking across at the mountain opposite, we could see a path we have followed before, winding its way across the mountainside; when we are on it, it feels completely wild, a bit like a remote cliff edge hanging over a dizzying height – quite funny to see another path and houses above it, then!
It is almost impossible to capture the scale and beauty of this place in a photo, the gorge plummeting in a deep, steep-sided fissure, the rocky sides clothed in a blanket of trees, layer upon layer. My woodland at last! A little sunshine would have set the view alight but even without it, there were enough leaves to burnish the landscape with the metallic brights of late autumn.
We stood and watched a black kite wheeling gracefully above us on silent wings, its forked tail printing a perfect V against the sky. Below us, the tumbledown ruins of a stone cottage, the remains of a bread oven still visible in one dilapidated wall. Was it courage or madness to have built a home here, hauling and shaping and placing blocks of stone to create a shelter in such an eyrie?
Things really started to get interesting now as we began our descent following a path known as Las Vueltas del Gato (Cat Bends). This is an ancient drovers’ path, used by the vaqueiros to move their cattle from the valley bottom to the higher pastures for summer grazing in the practice of transhumance. I love paths like this with their deep sense of history and rural tradition, that faint whisper and echo of thousands of footsteps that have passed this way before. Two things are certain: the building of this path was an incredible feat of engineering and both man and beast that followed it must have been very sure-footed because blimey, that is one heck of a route!
It was like going down a steep rocky stream bed which felt near vertical in places (I exaggerate only slightly, I really was wishing I’d taken my trusty stick at this point) and made incredibly tight turns in tricky places. No question of not concentrating, we had to watch every step as we zigzagged down, making a point of stopping here and there to enjoy the view. It was an incredible descent – 170 metres’ drop in 500 metres of walking – and I have to admit, I was happy to be going down: the climb up would be something else!
The further down the path we travelled, the louder the sound of rushing water became until at last, we glimpsed the glassy green of a river between the trees. Well, rivers, actually. In front of us, the serene río Navelgas-Barcena and to our right, the busy, chattering río Naraval; they meet on a wide sweeping bend in a pool of deep, clear water, their union giving birth to the beautiful río Esva.
What a completely magical spot this is, I could quite happily sit here for hours just drinking in the peace and magic of the place. There was such a strong sense of nature in the raw, the sheer activity and power of fresh water on its ceaseless journey, deftly carving a sinuous pathway through the land. Here the mirrored silver of slower stretches, there the bright foamy babble over rocks; so much movement, so much energy, so much sound. The skeletal trees, too, told their own story, their gnarled trunks and branches cloaked in soft moss and spattered with starry lichen, the last leaves fluttering down around us like silent feathers. What a feast for the senses. What a perfect moment in life. Money could not buy this.
This was the lowest point of our walk so we decided it was a good place to eat our picnic lunch before beginning the long trek back. As the next section involved wading across the río Naraval, we thought it wiser not to risk soggy sandwiches (for the same reason, Roger was in charge of the camera – if anyone fell in, it would be me). The route directions said that it was usually possible to cross the river this way and thankfully it was, as the thought of having to climb back up Las Vueltas del Gato didn’t fill me with too much joy. This sort of carry on does, though; I mean, how often do we do daft things like this? and why don’t we do them more often? Just the simple sensation of forest floor beneath my bare feet, then rocks, then chilly water was enough to make me giggle with the sheer childlike exuberance of being alive. The boulders were slippery, the pools deep in places and the water moving at a fair old lick but I made it across without dropping my boots or falling in. Brilliant fun !
Feet dried, boots back on and toes tingling and warm again, we walked along the tree-lined banks of the río Navelgas-Barcena before turning upwards into a long climb. The path was certainly easier than those Cat Bends, rising steadily through a mixed forest and giving us glimpses across the valley to where we had been earlier.
At the top of a rise, we came to a four-way crossing and hit a bit of a snag; as an official walking route, the AS-287, the way had been marked pretty clearly so far but just as we really needed a sign, there was nothing apart from a couple of ambiguously placed yellow and white crosses to indicate where we shouldn’t go. Our map and directions (which had lost so much in translation they were almost like a third language) weren’t much help either, as both had suddenly become very vague. In the end, we plumped for what we hoped was the right turn (well, left in fact) and set off along several kilometres of gently climbing path which wound its way through a coniferous forest.
The trees had very much been planted for a harvest, their formal rows and grids so different from the wild tangle of the woodland below, but there is still a charm to stretches of forest like this, the sharp pine scent, soft carpet of needles and a wealth of spiralled cones.
The route we were following was supposed to be 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) in total and we were within a couple of kilometres from the road that would take us back to our starting point when we turned a corner to see this . . .
Now fallen trees and boulders are a fairly common occurrence here and we have found ourselves scrambling over or wriggling under such obstacles on numerous occasions. This, however, was more than just a fallen tree and the throaty growl of machinery beyond suggested that scrambling over would be pointless; there was a major forest harvest in full swing and the whole path had become completely impassable. Nothing for it but to retrace our steps and try to find an alternative route over the mountain and down to the road. At this point, I was thankful for several things: the fact that we hadn’t scoffed our whole picnic by the river but still had apples and water in our rucksacks; the fact that there were still a few hours of daylight left; the fact that my feet and legs felt like they could manage the extra miles that were now inevitable; mostly, the fact that we both have a good sense of direction and a good sense of humour – both would be needed in the next couple of hours! There’s a choice in this kind of situation, isn’t there? Either feel frustrated, cross or hopeless and turn it into some kind of drama or look on it as an adventure, part of life’s rich tapestry and deal with it . . . which is what we did. After all, we weren’t lost exactly, just not completely sure where we were and common sense told us there had to be another way down; there was, of course, it just added another six kilometres (3.7 miles) or so to our walk. Ah, well. Onward, my love.
We finally arrived back in the village of Naraval, crossing the river of the same name once again but using a modern road bridge this time – no need for bare feet here. The charming old stone bridge was still there, too, another ancient reminder of times gone by, when the pace of life was slower and bridges only needed to carry feet and hooves across the water. Time for us to head home and reflect on the adventure we’d had, such a precious and enriching experience in a very special landscape and so many miles without seeing another soul. It seemed that nature hadn’t quite finished with us, though: what a perfect ending to a wonderful day. 🙂
It’s not often we have a day of weather so terrible here that we can’t spend at least a good portion of it outside, but this week has thrown us more than one such to contend with. Thick sulking ribbons of cloud have streamed in from the coast, riding the kind of gusts that send confused crows skittering sideways across the bruised sky. The mountains melt away as the valley is enveloped in rain, each violent squall hammering out its persistent percussion on the roof and hurling raindrops at the windows like fistsful of pebbles.
I always think of these downpours as brutally cleansing; they are not gentle dampenings, soft refreshings or joyful waterings but storms that scour and scrub viciously at the landscape, cascading in curtains from gable ends, filling the river with a menacing voice and casting mirrored puddles in the iron-rich soil of the empty maize fields. In nooks and crannies around the windswept garden, the mounds of tumbled, jumbled leaves tell their own forlorn story.
Confined indoors, I’m happy to potter away at household chores for a while at least but, inevitably, the fidgeting begins once realisation dawns that there will be no outside activity in the fresh air I love and crave; I’ll always consider pulling on waterproofs and setting off through the woods with a brolly but when thunder rumbles its throaty complaints above and blasts of icy hail hammer down, even I have to admit defeat. To things woolly, then. I set a pile of Merino to simmer in a dyepot of dried French marigold flowers, worked a few more rounds of a Scrappy Sock, plied a skein of Jacobs on the spinning wheel. Fidget. Sigh. I balled a skein of walnut-dyed Merino and tussah silk and launched into a new project: this was more like it. I love this yarn, the subtle blend of soft, autumnal colours and silk running through in sleek twists and ripples.
No surprise that I’ve chickened out of lace knitting and opted for crochet instead, a simple narrow scarf using a picot trellis stitch. The yarn is beautifully elastic so should stretch cooperatively with blocking and, depending on yardage, I might work something a little more elaborate at each end. I realised this would the perfect project to tuck into my bag on our travels next week . . . which meant not getting too carried away with it now.
A quick digression into the world of books. Roger and I are both avid readers and English language books are like gold dust to us, being in short supply locally. Rummaging about in the dwindling pile we bought from UK charity shops earlier this year, I came across Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, something I’d picked up in a hurry, hoping the mention of half a million puffins on the front cover might make it readable. What a gem of a read it has turned out to be, a colourful mix of geography, geology, history, linguistics, culture, character, spirituality, wildlife and nature expertly woven into a rich tapestry of descriptive language. I don’t want to put it down. I don’t want to finish it.
So, in my ‘searching for something interesting to do with wool because it’s raining’ mode, a couple of totally unconnected passages from the book wormed their way into my consciousness. The first, a description of how the daughters of the Campbell family – the only resident household on the Shiant Islands at the end of the nineteenth century – spent the long, dark winters knitting woollen socks to sell or give away to welcome summer visitors. As shepherd’s daughters, I suspect there was nothing about wool they didn’t know, the entire act of processing fleece from sheep to sock coming as second nature. The second, an intriguing journey through language, the twists and turns and textures of Gaelic and Norse, as complex and changing and knotted as any cabled pattern, revealing that the Isle of Man had once been called Ellan Shiant, the Holy Isle. Well, I suddenly recalled that somehere – where? – I had some raw Manx Loaghtan fleece, that ancient and endangered breed of sheep from the Isle of Man, descended from primitive ancestors which once roamed the Scottish islands. Serendipity? Time to get down to the full sheep experience.
This Manx Loaghtan was my first (and to date, last!) experience of dealing with a whole, raw fleece and I’m not sure I made a very great job of it. The fleece itself was beautiful, a shearling cut with soft brown underwool and golden tips; the breeder suggested I spin straight from the fleece to preserve the integrity of the different colours and through various painful learning curves, I managed to spin enough wool to make a rather curious looking (but subsequently much-loved) knitted teddy bear for Ben. Through a process of elimination, I deduced that the remaining fleece must be lurking in the dark and mysterious depths of Roger’s Man Cave, so whilst hunting it out I cadged a few rusty nails from the cave dweller himself which are now steeping in a jar of vinegar and water to make an iron mordant for future dyeing projects. Back in the house with the fleece and it was time to sort, tease, card, make fluffy rolags and -panic stations!- start some long draw spinning.
Watch an expert spinning long draw and it is a thing of infinite grace and beauty, the fibre bundle pulled back to arm’s length then the twisted yarn, so fine and consistent, running quickly onto the bobbin in a steady, mesmerising ebb and flow. Watch me doing it and it’s like a Bear of Very Little Brain trying to win a world chess championship; honestly, I’m clueless. All fingers and thumbs, too, which, of course is a large part of the problem; as a dyed-in-the-wool (sorry!) short draw spinner, letting go of the pinch feels as unnatural as trying to write with my left hand. Forget that elegant elastic thread, mine is more like a stringy washing line of lumps and bumps achieved through much muttering and grinding of teeth and there really is only so much pull-pull-pull-break-curse-rejoin-repeat that I can handle at a time. It’s like learning to spin all over again and I suppose that I need to remember that I eventually moved on from those early days of frustration and lumpy ropes of yarn to being able to spin fine and consistent yarns from a range of fibres. I would love some proper tuition one day as I suspect part of the problem is sloppy rolag preparation and the fickle nature of my wonky wheel and much of it is my lack of technique, but in the end, it all comes down to perseverance and practice. Where the Manx Loaghtan is concerned, I hit on a compromise of shorter draw, less pinch and finally managed a bobbin of something.
In the murky depths of the fleece bag, I found something rather strange: a sort of grubby marshmallow of white fleece with a texture like mauled cottonwool mixed with badly mashed potato. It took me a while (and an inspirational mug of tea) to remember it had appeared as an unexplained extra with my gift wheel, stuffed in a clear plastic bag and simply labelled ‘Shetland.’
I’ve puzzled over what exactly it is: certainly not locks of raw fleece, very definitely processed somehow but to no state I recognise. Drum carded, perhaps? It gives the impression of being something that could be spun as it is if it weren’t for the fact that it is completely peppered with field detritus of the kind sheep are so expert in gathering – twigs, stems, dried grass, seeds of all shapes and sizes not to mention several insect life forms. Carding would at least give me the chance to remove some of this clingy rubbish so I made a couple of rolags, did a test spin on the wheel . . . and decided to abandon that idea and do something far more interesting with it. Braving the weather (see, I am prepared to suffer for my art even if it means death by giant hailstones), I ventured out to collect a pile of very soggy walnut leaves and start a dyepot brewing. I chopped the leaves, stuffed in the fleece whole, simmered it for a bit then left it to stand overnight. I love the unfolding magic of this colour transformation!
Mmm, what a delicious chestnut brown. My plan for Shetland Marshmallow Rescue Phase 2 is to spin it and ply it with the Manx Loaghtan for possibly another bear-themed creation. Meanwhile, I’ve skeined and washed the Jacobs, that most reliable and easiest of spinners’ fleece, and started a second in the hope of actually getting back to building a stash of ready-to-dye skeins. Note to self: try not to get sidetracked with new dyepot ideas for a while . . .
I’ve messed about with madder, this time producing a pinker shade than before, and had a great result on Merino from dried French marigolds and an alkali modifier. I’d thought to use this in an indigo vat to produce something green, but that yellow is so yummy I’m tempted to use it as it is – and heaven knows, I need a streak of brightness under these gloomy skies.
Dodging the weather, we’ve managed to harvest the last of the squash. Now here’s a bunch of self-set mongrels if ever I saw one, but I love those textures and colours, the nuanced shades of blue and green, the deep ridges and shallow freckles. Completely delicious in every sense of the word.
The polytunnel offers gardening for wimps in extreme weathers and although there isn’t a great deal to be done at this time of year, it was a joy to pick the last of the Scotch bonnet chillies. We only had two plants and they lagged behind the other varieties from the word go but have certainly made up for lost time. There were a few bonus cayenne chillies, too. Just look at those bold colours, the perfect antidote to grim, grey days.
No matter how dire the weather, when we roll into a second or – horror of horrors – third day of being stuck in the cave, I reach a point where it feels imperative to crawl out from under the bearskins and stretch my legs outside. Swathed from top to toe in waterproofs and clutching our battered old brolly against the snatching wind, I ventured up the lane and into the woods for a short wander. The air was fresh and invigorating, spiced with the scent of wet leaves and sweet woodsmoke, the landscape around me tousled and rearranged by the lashing it was taking. The path was littered with whippy branches from the teetering tops of eucalyptus, nature’s pruning at its most magnificent. I carried a few stems home, charmed by those chunky seedpods that always make me think of wooden buttons on a grandfatherly tweed jacket or aran cardigan.
There is much of the season in these branches, their gunmetal leaves an exact reflection of the skies, their windswept form an echo of the wind’s relentless energy. I’ve put them in a vase close to the stove so that their fortifying, herbal scent wafts sweetly around the kitchen and when they’ve had their day, I shall recycle them through my dyepot.
Eucalyptus is another natural substantive dye. No need for a mordant, simply add fibre. I might just have a handy skein of Jacobs about my person. Mmm, perfect. It seems every cloud really does have a silver lining. 🙂
What a beautiful day. After a week of wet and gloomy weather, it was the kind of golden day that makes my heart sing with the sheer joy of simply being alive. Such a pleasure and treat to be outdoors again, basking in the warmth and peace of a sunny Asturian autumn day. Bliss, in fact.
I love the way each week brings changes, small and subtle and understated, others banging and crashing in, all fanfares and fireworks. How did the autumn crocus, dotted and spotted through the meadow grass suddenly become great swathes, a tide of soft lilac rippling through the green?
They are things of great beauty, delicate faerie cups bearing saffron candles; I’m hoping the cows don’t return to trample them under hoof too soon.
The chestnut trees, ever the tardiest to green up in spring, don’t rush into autumn, either, but suddenly they are lit up in shining bronze and gold against the dusky eucalyptus.
I wasn’t the only one relishing the return of the sunshine. The garden bustled with butterflies – mostly red admirals, peacocks and fritillaries in their painted splendour – and a sudden outbreak of the biggest bumble bees I’ve ever seen. There were baby lizards everywhere, too, almost impossibly tiny but completely perfect and full of life and curiosity.
This was a day for activity in the garden, time to clear a space and start planting for next year. I can’t believe what a difference using green manure and keeping bare earth covered has made to the soil this year, so that a patch that formerly housed summer brassicas with white clover and yellow trefoil carpeted below yielded a deep, loamy, moist, warm, luscious area just crying out for planting. In went ‘Imperial Green’ broad beans and ‘Douce Provence’ peas; these will germinate in no time then sit quietly over winter ready to give an early crop next spring. I also put in a few small purple kale plants left over from the main planting weeks ago. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about them but they’ve soldiered on, rootbound in their section trays, unwatered and unloved – well, they really deserve every chance now and in my opinion, you can’t have too much kale in the garden.
Returning to green manure, and I’m beginning to wonder if I will really need the seed I have for next year since volunteers are popping up all over in a sort of self-perpetuating cycle. On the squash terraces, the winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares is going well; I love that fresh green muddle of bright grassy blades and ferny tendrilled vetch but hadn’t quite planned for the nasturtiums deciding to join in of their own accord. Mmm.
Eating an evening meal on my own is a very rare occurrence these days; planning, preparing and enjoying our main meal of the day together is a large part of our life and something that brings us great satisfaction, especially when most of the ingredients come from the garden. It felt a bit strange, with Roger away at a race, to be thinking about dinner just for myself. Cooking for one is not always easy; apart from missing the social side, I find it hard to work in tiny quantities and also to muster much enthusiasm – in the past, and especially when I was working, I tended to default to a jacket potato or mushroom omelette. Even worse, eggs on toast or cheese on toast. Or just toast. There’s such a difference between eating to live and living to eat, so with this in mind -and trying to avoid the lonely toast option as much as possible- I cooked a bit of buckwheat in the morning and left it to cool with a vague notion of turning it into some kind of salad. I’m a great fan of buckwheat, that humble little seed packed with phytonutrients; I far prefer it to its fashionable friend quinoa as it’s chunkier and more substantial somehow, with a pronounced nutty flavour. I’ve grown it for the first time this year and I have to admit I am completely under its spell: green manure, companion plant, weed suppressant, perfect food source for bees and a hoverfly attractant as well as being a handsome plant with pretty flowers . . . buckwheat really cuts the mustard. My only disappointment is that after conducting a bit of research, I discovered the variety I’m growing is no good for human consumption as it has a very bitter flavour. Shame.
Anyway, back to my salad plan. We still have a good selection of salad leaves and herbs in the garden, baby carrots and young Florence fennel, the occasional late courgette and although the aubergines have finally given up the ghost, the sweet peppers are still going strong in the tunnel. Possibilities, then.
As I pootled about the garden, though, I started to think that maybe this would be a golden opportunity to see if I could create something different, a recipe new to me that used as much home-grown produce as possible and gave me the chance to further explore the ingredients we buy in terms of economy and environmental impact (something I started investigating closely a few weeks ago). As the soft afternoon light played across the vegetable patch, my eye was constantly drawn to the bright fire of beetroot leaves; ah, here was a good place to start!
Roger is not a huge fan of beetroot but I love it and this year I’ve made successive sowings to keep me supplied for many months. I threw this last lot of mixed seed in as a random patch rather than formal rows and it’s bursting with plump baby beets; the leaves are a bit ropy but the roots are sweet and succulent. I usually grate them raw as a salad or roast them to eat hot or cold but this solitary supper called for something new, so I decided it was time to sit down for a mug of tea and a quick blast of sock knitting with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Well, obviously not the man himself but two of his books, River Cottage Veg Every Day and Much More Veg; we were given both as gifts and they are fantastic, much used and well thumbed. It’s handy to have a good supply of recipes that make vegetables the star of a dish; we’ve made many of them from both books, and often return to old favourites simply because they are just so delicious. Time for a bit of beetroot love, then.
I really liked the sound of Beetroot and Chard Stir Fry with Chilli, Ginger and Lime and quite fancied the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat, too; the problem for me was that even with my open-minded attitude to food, I felt Chinese meets Moroccan (or maybe Indian?) was definitely up there on the confusion cooking scale. In the end, Moroccan won the toss, not least because we didn’t have any lime but we did have a jar of preserved lemons just ready to eat. We’ve been making our own preserved lemons for years; it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, simply pouring salt into the split fruits and packing them into jars with extra lemon juice (although Roger has now branched out into slightly cheffier ideas which incorporate things like rosemary, too).
They are utterly divine (I could quite happily eat them straight from the jar which would be pretty disgraceful behaviour) and are such a fantastic ingredient to use. It’s a shame that unless we are lucky enough to be given some lemons, we do have to buy them as when we moved here, ours was the only house in the village without any citrus trees. Two lots of good news, though: first, Spanish lemons are superb quality, cheap and plentiful and we can buy them loose without any packaging; second, the lemon tree we planted three years ago is bearing fruit – not quite enough for a jar of preserved ones yet, but where there’s fruit and flowers, there’s hope.
One of the many things I like about Mr F-W’s cooking is that he encourages changes and swaps, seeing his recipes as starting points or guidelines rather than rigid prescriptions. For that I am truly thankful because I’m not sure he would have recognised his works of cheffery by the time I’d finished with them. First things first, the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat which I decided was crying out for the addition of walnuts . . . and what lovelier pastime on a sunny afternoon than doing a bit of outdoor food prep?
Next, a sally forth into the garden to source some veg: beetroot obviously, some yellow chard (the youngest, most tender stems), a small bulb of fennel as the row really needs thinning, a handful of purple kale, a green chilli, red and green sweet peppers and some fresh coriander and mint. Not a bad little haul (and yes, already looking like far more food than one person needs).
It’s true that for a meal like this, the preparation takes way longer than the actual cooking (and eating) but then, that’s part of the fun. I love the sensory pleasure of prepping ingredients, all those yummy colours, textures, scents and flavours mingling before the cooking proper has even begun. Using the wickedly sharp paring knife made by my cutler nephew Harry always reminds me of the joy and satisfaction of crafstmanship, of using fingers and thumbs to do more than just press buttons or touch screens. This is what I ended up with (excuse the onion being obliterated by sunlight in the photo, the late October light brings us a blast of rays straight through the kitchen window at around 6:30pm):
The only bought ingredients were garlic and green olives. It’s frustrating that we can’t grow garlic here given how well the allium family thrives but it doesn’t get the blast of winter it needs and rots in the ground; any that manages to grow doesn’t keep so we’ve stopped trying and buy Spanish stuff in loose bulbs instead. Olives are one of our store cupboard essentials, we use them in so many dishes. We can’t grow them here – the Asturian climate is not Mediterranean enough – but there are plenty of good Spanish varieties available and we buy them in large jars which we reuse for storage or making big preserves. Other bought ingredients I used to cook the meal were olive oil (Spanish, bought in five litre bottles to reduce packaging), sea salt (Spanish, bought in large containers), cumin and peppercorns (both large packs bought during a UK trip as we’ve failed to find anything other than small packs here . . . and cumin just won’t grow in the tunnel, despite my best efforts) and a squeeze of lemon juice (see note about lemons above).
With all the prep done, cooking the meal took literally minutes. I heated some olive oil in a frying pan and stir fried the garlic, chilli, onion and beetroot with coriander seed (saved from the garden) and cumin for a couple of minutes, added the peppers and fennel and cooked for another couple of minutes, then stirred in the olives and preserved lemons to heat through. After seasoning with sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, I scattered the greens over the top and covered the lot with a lid to let the leaves steam gently. Meanwhile, in another frying pan, I dry toasted more coriander seed, cumin seed and the chopped walnuts from earlier then stirred in the previously cooked buckwheat; I added a glug of olive oil to loosen everything, heated until piping hot then finished with a squeeze of lemon juice and scattered the chopped fresh coriander and mint over the top. Job done. Fast food indeed!
Having tasted the veg, it transpired that the little green chilli was a bit on the lip-tingling, ear-steaming side so I added a dollop of cooling Greek-style yogurt (bought stuff sadly, I discovered the hard way that the house is too cool for making my own without The Beast lit) and headed outside for an al fresco supper. The dish was totally delicious and very substantial; needless to say, I had made far too much so there was enough left over for lunch the next day (it turned out to be great cold, too). It was lovely to reflect on the fact that we can create interesting, nutritious and tasty meals based on what’s good in the garden and that more and more, our awareness of what we buy is leading to a focus on local / Spanish ingredients with reduced food miles and packaging. As the sun sank, treating me to another of those beautiful light shows across the sky, and the first tiny bats came out to play in the twilight, I also had to admit that when it comes to a solitary supper, there really is no excuse for toast! 🙂
I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.
The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.
There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.
We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.
Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.
In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.
Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.
Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.
We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.
Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.
The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.
It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.
Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.
This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.
Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.
There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!
Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.
So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.
I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!
I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.
This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.
Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.
I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.
Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .
I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂