Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Olive Harvest

The sun is continuing to shine. In fact, it has only rained on us twice since we came here in mid-July, and only twice in the area in 7 months. Whilst we are loving the feel-good light levels every day, there is no snow at all on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada behind us (and only a sprinkling on the northern ski-slopes, I have been informed). This is currently a little worrying in terms of water availability next year. You never know, it may all change in January - and we have a stack of indoor jobs to do which we are saving for a rainy day!

Although we feel like we are in a perpetual summer, it does get dark here at about 6pm. It's easy to forget this when the day is so warm and feels like a UK June day. We have to make the most of the daylight for all those outdoor tasks. Some things can be left until after sunset, e.g. shopping trips can happen when the shops re-open after siesta (that is, the siesta we don't currently take because we are making the most of the daylight hours!)

Our first pile of compost is ready to use. We are giving some of the trees a little TLC: a bit of weeding under their canopy of branches, some organic fertiliser watered in, and finally, a lovely rich layer of mulch courtesy of the compost heap! There won't be enough mulch for everyone at first, some of them will have to be patient!

Weeded, fertilised, watered, mulched, muy contento! A beautiful pear tree.
The bashful banana. Mulched : check!

We have also planted a couple more trees: an algarrobo (carob) and a kaki (persimmon). 
Algarrobo (carob) tree

There isn't a photo of the persimmon as it's deciduous and just a load of twigs at this time of year.

We have cleared an area on the approach to the house and planted it up with a Polygala shrub and a pale yellow Lantana. They are both very popular plants and seen frequently locally. They like lots of sun and don't need too much water once established so should do very well in the area where they are planted - we hope! I do like a bit of purple contrasted with yellow going on!
Mister Sparrow is doing a bit of clearing. 

Job done. The lineup: Lantana and Polygala in the background. Osteospermum and succulents in the front row. More plants to follow!

When we are digging and clearing, we are finding lots of natural stones which we are using to retain the soil and help with the terracing. Wherever possible, it's much nicer to let the earth breathe, rather than cover it with concrete, so last weekend I had my first go at a drystone wall! It was a very absorbing and pleasing activity, and the wall doesn't move when you kick it! When I had finished it was quite dark and I had trouble finding all my tools to take back to the house. I have about twenty strawberry plants to plant on the lower level. It's quite a shady location: if the strawberries flounder, I'll have to move them to a brighter place.

Don't laugh! It's my first attempt at a dry stone wall

We are getting a few vegetables at the moment and it's great to put something on the table that is home grown.

All from the land: salad leaves, radish and miniature lemons
- plus a splash of our oil from last year

And there are a few crops in the pipeline......
Future peas (I wish)

Future broad beans (I wish)

It's interesting that, although we can physically grow plants at the moment, there doesn't seem to be much around in the way of pollinators. Some of our broad beans are flowering and there is not much insect life around. However, I did notice a honeybee on the broad beans yesterday, so maybe she will waggle her bum at her friends and tell them where there is a fountain of nectar: in the Sparrows' broad bean bed! So, if the crops don't do very well it may be due to lack of available pollinators rather than soil or temperature or moisture levels. Where would we be without our insects?

One day when we were working on the land, we heard some birds we hadn't heard before. There were about 5 or 6 of them running about on a level above us. When we went inside we got 'the book' out and found that they were red legged partridges. I have never seen a partridge in the wild before. Mark did say that if they had been in the pear tree he would have realised immediately that they were partridges! According to our Mediterranean bird book, they feast on cereals and grass seeds, and that must have been what they were doing, as there are some large clumps of grass that are going to seed in the location where we spotted them. However, I did go up and check they had not pecked at my broad bean plants, which they hadn't! They were certainly having a lovely little afternoon outing and they have returned at least once since.

The orange juice is back on tap as some of the oranges are now ripe and sweet enough to squeeze for juice.

some of the oranges have ripened

There are some beautiful weeds around, such as this majestic sunflower that appeared in the 'herb garden'. Luckily, I recognised the first leaves and thought: 'I recognise you, you're a sunflower!'. It has grown to approx 150 cms, which isn't bad for a December baby.

It's good to let the weeds grow! You never know what you might get coming up.

And Mark noticed a lovely climber on our land, Dutchman's pipe. It has subtle dark brown flowers shaped like an old-fashioned smokers' pipe (approx 2.5 cm long).

Dutchman's pipe - Aristolochia

Talking of weeds, what is that dreadful smell? Oh yes I remember, it's the nettle tea brewing away nicely for our guests, the cultivated plants.

Everywhere locally the olives are ripening and people are busy with their harvest. Last weekend, we walked down the track and there were lots of oil patches on the road: not oil from cars, but from olives squashed by tyres or feet treading on them. This last week, we have joined in the fun and harvested our own olives. The previous two years when we came over from the UK in January (for a break), 4 of us harvested as many olives as we could in a 2 to 3 day period, and then we took them to the mill. This year we have obviously had longer and we could be more thorough, which is just as well because the harvest has not been as good. Apparently, the poor olive harvest is true of all of Andalucia due to the hot dry summer we have had. In addition to this, we need to prune our trees to encourage future growth and olive yield. This task will mean a lot of work and we will  prioritise over the next few years to keep it manageable. 

We got the olives off the trees partly by hand-picking the ones we could reach, or combing with a rake or (last resort) bashing the upper branches with a stick. The olives fell to the ground onto nets previously placed below the tree. We also picked some off the ground that had fallen fairly recently. Mark did make the point that it's a good job we don't have rabbits on the land or else we might make a very unpleasant mistake!
Mark is tapping the olive tree in the hope it may part with its olives

Our oil for the next year!

Loading up the olive harvest

Today, we took the olives to a mill in nearby Lanjaron. We arrived there early, at 9.30am, but there were already 5 or 6 cars and two big lorries in the queue. When our turn came, Mark backed up the car to an iron grille. We emptied the sacks through the grille into a pit below where the olives were weighed: 116kgs, less than last year but more that the first year! We have a slip of paper which we will take back to the mill after Chrismas to get the oil. We expect to be given somewhere between 15 to 20 litres (6kgs of olives produces about 1 litre of oil). These olives will be milled together with all the other people's, so it won't be organic and not strictly 'our own'. Next year, we hope to arrange to have our olives milled individually to give us our own, organic oil from our own olives. However, we are satisfied with what we have managed so far. Tonight, I heard a very pleasing sound of a wine bottle being opened in the kitchen to celebrate the end of our hard work. A nice Ribera del Duero was breathing on the table, which for me beats a Rioja hands down any day!

As well as taking olives to the mill, we are curing some 'table olives'. We have a manzanilla olive tree on our land that produces superior fruits for curing, but both years that I have harvested these as black olives and their texture has been mushy and unpalatable. Next year I will harvest them green. So, we are now curing some of the olives that would have otherwise gone for oil, just a few saucepans full.

Preparing the olives for curing: one batch of dark ones and one batch of green

As the olives are pushed through the holes, four blades score the sides
We have a special tool given to us by a friend that either makes four cuts down the sides of the olives, or crushes them so that they split, according to preference.The olives are then soaked in water, followed by brine, until cured. It is very pleasing to see these jars of curing olives sitting in the kitchen.
Curing the olives

For a bit of a break from the olive harvest, one afternoon we went off to the tapas festival in town. A marquee had been set up in the main square. There was a programme of activities spanning four days and many of the shops were shut, although in true Spanish style, the music and dancing did not start until 10pm, way beyond the bedtime of an olive harvester! We arrived at about 3.30pm and were in time for the bingo. We bought our tapas and drinks tokens and exchanged them at the bar for fine wine, beer, migas and patatas a lo pobre, then bought our bingo cards. I got full house on the second game and won 50 Euros: hahaha. We didn't stay for a third game because I was worried I might win again. How embarrassing would that be? We had walked down to the tapas festival so we could have a glass of wine and I was so happy to have won 50 Euros, I could have skipped all the way back up the hill!

A rather large pumpkin! 

Warming up for bingo

Inside the tapas tent

Christmas market stalls outside the tapas tent

Outside the tapas tent, there was a Chistmas market, just to remind us it is December! 

With regards to our own seasonal preparations, the Christmas cake is baked and awaiting some home-made marzipan. Next year I will dry more of the grape harvest to make a larger quantity of sultanas as I have found the ones in the shops are either imported from South America or, if local, extremely expensive. I'm not suprised at the high price given the effort I went to in order to produce the small amount that we had. Whilst the Christmas cake was baking a couple of weeks ago, I had put two loaf cakes into the oven made with 'angels' hair pumpkin' and flavoured with aniseeds. 

Needless to say, the angels' hair cake tasted Heavenly!

Cake made with angel's hair pumpkin

Lisa and Towersey, our two lovely old-lady sisters

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Nettle tea anybody?

We have recently had two successive visits from family members and so have enjoyed the rest from physical work on the land and house and loved having company. Last Sunday we went to a seaside town called La Herradura and ate with our son in a 'chinguirito', a beach restaurant, whilst basking in temperatures in the 70s. We also took a lovely walk with him in the Taha valley, above where we live. There are more deciduous trees up there compared to where we live and the Autumn colour was spectacular.

Beautiful Taha Valley villages from the opposite side of the river

Busquistar, one of the Taha Valley villages

Whilst walking, we spotted some lovely plants growing in amongst the rocks, ? maybe Arisaema  ?

Arisaema  .... maybe...

It has not rained for a while and there is no guarantee that it will rain in the immediate future. Our alberca (irrigation water deposit) is currently very low and we are recycling domestic waste water to hydrate our precious plants.

Because it is cooler at night, there is some amount of dew that also provides moisture for the plants. This, and probably the cooler conditions, has resulted in a wave of weeds germinating. I love weeds and unless I can think of something better to grow in a space I am quite happy for weeds to fill the corners of the garden. At the moment, I am making a batch of nettle tea which will I will give as a treat to the cultivated plants in the next month or so.

Homegrown, organic and delicious!

Today, we planted a lime tree which was an early Christmas gift from our son when he was over. We have chosen the sunniest and most sheltered spot we can think of for it, as limes are more tender than oranges and lemons. One of our 3 piles of compost is ripe and ready so a bucketful was put to good use around the lime.

We live across the valley from the forestal defence helipad which deals with forest fires and there are restrictions on having a bonfire on your land to safeguard the countryside. If you want to have a bonfire here, it is only allowed between November and March and you must get a permit from the Town Hall, something which we have recently done. Now, in the mornings, rising plumes of smoke can be seen across the valley, both nearby and in the distance. We may add to the smoke signals in the next week or so.

Mark has started an intensive Spanish course which is 3 mornings a week, so I have had lots of time on my own in which to get up to mischief. A couple of weeks ago I went with one of our visitors into a grocer's in one of the back streets in town to enquire about the walnuts that were for sale, as some of the ones in the shops are from California. The lady said they were from her land, which turned out to be the area where we also live. In the conversation that followed, it transpired that she had previously owned our house and land before selling it to the person we bought it from! She still has a parcel of land higher above us which she visits at weekends. Her produce looked lovely so I expect to be making frequent trips back to her shop, particularly if she has grown some of it herself. The walnuts were delicious and truly the biggest I have ever seen. Talking of Spanish lessons, I am currently having weekly one to one lessons but I am shortly to join a group which will focus on learning about aspects of Spanish culture. That will allow Mark some mischief time!

The Christmas cake ingredients have been weighed up and it will be baked tomorrow. This year we have sourced some of the ingredients very locally: the orange and lemon rind are our own; the walnuts come from the woman's land above us; the eggs are from the hens of another woman who runs the fish shop; the marzipan will be made from our own almonds and either our neighbour's honey or our English honey from last year which we brought out here; the brandy will be Spanish, naturally. We would have had our own sultanas but I put them in an apple cake! We stopped at a house by the roadside today and bought a 'cabello de angel' (angels' hair) pumpkin. These pumpkins are used as cake ingredients to add moisture and texture. As the Christmas cake will take about 4 hours in the oven, we'll have some angels' hair cake cooking simultaneously!

Cabello de angel (angels' hair) pumpkin

Last Sunday morning we went to the car boot sale in town, which is held at a respectable 10 am to 2 pm (unlike the ridiculous 8 - 12 in the UK). There was a woman there selling alpaca cardigans from Peru and Mark has bought me one which he has put away for my Christmas present. But to top our preparations for Christmas, I have been to town and purchased a 'caganer'. Now I am not a religious person, but I do find the story of Christmas and the wider interpretation meaningful. The Spanish tend to have a Nativity scene rather than a Christmas tree, and in amongst the nativity characters it is traditional to have a caganer. He or she might well be round the back of the stable, but you never know, they might be right inside. You have to look and find them. And don't be fooled into thinking that the intent look on their face is one of reverence or that their lowly posture is in honour of Jesus, because the caganer is actually a person taking a dump. The figurine I bought came in a box which said 'pastor cagando', which means 'shitting shepherd'. It gives the Nativity scene a whole new edge! (I realise I have started my Christmas buying a little early but I was concerned the caganer would sell out!)

Here is the caganer. The photo is deliberately blurred (!) so you cannot recognise the culprit that is responsible for what has been left in the corner of the stable!

Our little cat Pepper is now fully recovered from the abscess, which initially made a hole in her skin about one centimetre across. True to what Manolo the vet said, it healed from the inside to the outside, and the hole has closed fully. Now the cone of shame is off and she has got her attitude back again!

There are forecasts of the temperatures dropping over the next few days. Right now, although it is windy, it is fairly warm and I cannot imagine scraping the ice off the car. Should it become overcast for a few days so that the solar energy store drops, we have  had our generator serviced and it is fully firing and at the ready if needed! We have lots of firewood and this evening we lit up one of the woodburners for the first time since last January. It was a magnet to our four cats!

At the remains of the Panjuila baths

Friday, 30 October 2015

That Autumn feeling

The nights and mornings are starting to get chilly. Although it is far from cold, the summer duvets have been put away to be replaced by the winter ones. Today I got my winter clothes out and put away most of the summer ones. I was quite disheartened to see how much useless 'stuff' there was in the boxes: clothes that are no longer needed in our new lives. But I was also delighted to rediscover some old favourites and to find that some of my clothes that have always been a bit tight now fit perfectly, including a pair of vintage Levis I bought off Ebay several years ago. I will hang on to the clothes that are now too baggy, just in case we fill out again once we settle more into the good life!

Although we are well into Autumn now, I love NOT waking up in a double glazed and centrally heated house.

What are we getting from the land at present? Quite a bit considering we've only just started! Pomegranate juice, tomatoes, green peppers, an aubergine is making a late appearance, oranges are almost there (still a little sour), French beans, lettuce, rocket, one or two last figs, apples, miniature lemons, fresh herbs, almonds and olive oil (of course), and a kind neighbour has given us some walnuts, avocados, persimmons and late grapes. There are also lots of young veg plants in the pipeline.  Some of our olives are beginning to fall and I have been picking these up as they will all add to the weight of the harvest we take to the mill in a month or two.

Last week we made some dulce de membrillo (quince paste) which is best served and eaten in Spain with Manchego cheese. We don't have a quince tree (yet) but there is one we pass on a local walk and many fruits had been lying on the ground unwanted for some time.

Dulce de membrillo - quince paste

We have had a little landscaping project on the go, to try and stabilise a bank that is being eroded. We have used the wood from old beams to try and stake and retain the soil and finished off by planting 2 new young olives at the edge of the terrace. If we manage to retain the soil long enough for the olive roots to get a hold this should help to bind the soil and stabilise the bank. 

This project has given Mark the perfect opportunity to christen the chainsaw and don his new PPE which was given to him as a leaving present from his last job.

We have had a fair amount of rainfall recently which has meant that we haven't needed to spend as much time watering. In the week, whilst we were at the garden centre, we saw a beautiful rainbow arcing across the valley. 

I have successfully rendered and repaired a crack in the wall on the balcony above our living room which had been causing water to drip in during heavy rain. I am going to finish the job by adding some decorative Andalucian tiles for extra waterproofing and they will also be very pleasing to look at.  I saw exactly the effect I want to achieve whilst out and about recently and took a photo so I had an idea of what materials to order. Now I realise I am setting up a bit of pressure for myself by blogging about doing something I haven't even done yet, but life is treating me so kindly at the moment that a little bit of positive stress should keep me nicely grounded! We brought out to Spain with us a super duper tile cutter so here goes!!! 

This is the effect I am after - hahahaha

Our poor cat Pepper has had a bit of a set-to recently. We returned from Granada one evening a couple of weeks ago and it was clear she had been in a fight (a very persistent semi-domesticated cat keeps hanging around). She was limping and appeared swollen and we were keeping an eye on things as we thought she just had a sprained shoulder. Unfortunately, she had developed an abscess which duly burst. The lovely vet has put her on antibiotics for 20 days and anti-inflammatory medication. We have to pack and bathe the wound daily with an iodine solution and apply a herbal cream. To top it all, she has to wear an Elizabethan collar, a.k.a. the cone of shame.

Poor Pepper

 She has been very good, considering she is quite a grumpy cat, and it is clear she is starting to feel better as we now have to chase her to put the cone back on after she has eaten!

Last weekend I returned to the UK for a family wedding. This meant that Mark took on the role of supervet single handedly. The wedding was a lovely occasion and it was good to see so many of my family. I realised from being away that I am well and truly beginning to consider our place in Spain as 'home'. So that I did not arrive at the wedding looking like a wild witch, I went to have my hair cut - my first appointment at a hairdresser's in Spain. I had to swat up a bit on vocabulary to use first and read that you specify the amount you want off in fingers. I asked him to cut off two fingers - well they must have been the fingers of a seasoned flamenco guitarist or an old workman because a lot came off. The friend who recommend the hairdresser said he has two rates, €20 for tourists and € 10 for locals, so my conversation with him whilst he was cutting was all about how we LIVE HERE and what we are up to now that we LIVE HERE. When he had finished I was reassured to see that he had not cut off two of my fingers. And then he asked me for €10. Great success! And what a bargain price for a wash cut and blowdry!

Last week we went to a garden open day at a cortijo at the bottom of our track. The couple whom it belongs to have renovated and transformed a ruin and 3 acres of land into a little paradise - and they even serve tea and cake in the garden! It was a lovely afternoon off for us and we got a bit of inspiration here and there for things we might like to do in the future. We were particularly impressed with the chicken house they had built and I am twitching and itching to make something of a similar design .But lets see how the tiling project goes first before I run away with myself!

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Jabalies and little cakes from nuns

Last week, Mark and I had some extra leisure time as some friends from the UK came to stay with us. It was so nice to relax with good friends and 'touch base' with people we know well and enjoy being with. We had a couple of lovely walks together in the mountains, went to see a flamenco show in Granada and generally had some nice chilling time. 

On the Saturday morning, there was audible commotion on our neighbours' adjoining land. It started with their dogs barking, the neighbours' raised voices and two sounds of gunshots. We went out soon after this as we intended to spend the afternoon sightseeing in Granada before seeing a flamenco show, so we didn't get time to ask the neighbours what was happening. 

Whilst spending the afternoon in Granada, we walked up from the Plaza Nueva to the Albaicin, where the flamenco was to take place later. On the way, we entered the grounds of a monastery that was open. In one corner was a door, Hobbit-sized, with a notice that read 'hay dulces artesanias' (hand-made goodies). Now it just happened that I had seen this on 'Jamie (Oliver) does Andalucia' when he called at a convent in Ronda. In order to get the goodies off the nuns, you had to ring the bell at the side of the door, which we did. A voice then spoke out of the wall (???) asking us to pull the little door open, which we also did. We were then confronted by a wooden alcove with empty shelves. A little voice from the other side of the alcove asked 'Si?', to which we enquired whether they had any 'dulces artesanias'. The wooden shelves then spun around and a selection of different cakes appeared. We made our choice, asked for 'embutidos de chocolate' (chocolate pastries) and the shelves promptly spun back again to the empty ones. We paid the money by placing it on the empty shelves and the shelves then revolved for a final time with our selection packaged up for us in a plastic bag!!! Of course all this time I had a firm stereotype in my head of an old nun dressed in a black and white habit, spending her days sitting the other side of the door! I was amused by the final bit of the conversation with her because by discussing amongst ourselves what pastries we should buy it was clear that we were English. The little voice asked us for the money in Spanish and then very clearly said 'Four - fifty!'. I'm not sure if the pastries were hand-made by the nuns or not; I am trying hard to do away with my vision of an army of nuns wearing cooking aprons and making cakes in a rustic kitchen! However, the chocolate pastries were gorgeous! Thank you, Jamie Oliver, for telling me about this custom!

The mystery of what had happened at our neighbours' was not clear until the next morning when we went out walking and asked him what had happened. He told us that four jabalies (wild boars) had been on his land and he had cornered and shot one. Although this may seem brutal, these animals are, to quote the author Chris Stewart, on the increase and do phenomenal damage to crops, trees and land. Another neighbour has taken the boar and it is no doubt being very well appreciated at the dinner table as I write!

Mark has a tomato glut going on. I say it is Mark's glut, as raw tomatoes are one of the few foods I cannot eat!

Yesterday, when Mark was in town, I got up to mischief and harvested a load of pomegranates with the intention of making juice. When they are very ripe the fruits split open to reveal the ruby red interior. I left the split fruits on the tree for the birds and insects to enjoy. 

Pomegranate prepared for juicing. The pith and membrane are very bitter, so the more you remove the less of a bitter aftertaste! 

Pomegranate juice. It took me 4 hours to produce 4 litres. 

Beautifully sweet pomegranate juice. As it was so labour-intensive to produce, we won't be necking it back from a tumbler. Wine glass amounts only! (The strawberry on the table was divided very carefully between us).

Chestnuts we collected on our mountain walk with friends. I may try to make chestnut soup.

Not ours! We do have an avocado but it hasn't fruited this year. These avocados were given to us by our kind neighbour. Bring on the guacamole!

Also a gift from our neighbour, a bowl of persimmons (kaki fruits). We have been eating them on our muesli for breakfast. They taste lovely.

Doin' the Sphinx.

After our lovely rest, we are now well back into the swing of ticking off a list of jobs, some one-off tasks to get our home straighter, and some seasonal things that we'll be repeating at some time in the future. 

The fruits and vegetables, including me and Mark, are continuing to do well under the beautiful Spanish sun. Here is a little resume of their progress....

The oranges are starting to turn orange!

The majestic purple aubergines, who had broken off the summer romance, have returned to flower and fruit. You teasers, you!

The stealthy green pointed peppers keep on giving.

Mark's tomato thicket.

The thirsty French beans. Banana leaf photo-bombing top left.

The secretive potatoes.

The eager broad-beans

.......and we brassicas deserve a mention!

The smouldering chillies: strong, silent types.

Also, not yet in the line-up and still awaiting their Equity cards are:  leeks, beetroot, lettuce, radish, spinach, carrots, peas, mangetout, strawberries and, last but not least, the shy onions! I do hope there is enough water to support all these: we are starting to recycle domestic water just in case!