Sunday, 30 August 2015

On a high!

Last Sunday afternoon, after the heat had subsided, we found ourselves driving up to one of the mountain villages, Pampaneira in the Poquiera valley, for a walk. There is a lovely track which goes up from Pampaneira, through a village called Bubión and onwards up to Capileira. Capileira stands at 1400 metres and is the second highest village in mainland Spain. It is my personal favourite of the mountain villages. It sits below Mulacén, which is the highest mountain of the Iberian Peninsula. The air is crisp and clean up there, even on the warmest of days. For about 6 months of the year, snow is visible on the mountain peaks above and this melts in Summer to form the spring waters which we love to drink.

In the foreground Pampaneira, Bubion and Capileira visble above.

The place is popular with tourists either on day trips or walkers holidaying in the mountains. In my opinion, Capileira oozes character and charm is immaculate. The tourist shops sell both local and Moroccan products but not a single kiss-me-quick hat in sight! Being at a much higher altitude, the vegetation in the Poqueira villages is a little different from where we live (at 650 metres).  There are no orange trees, almonds or olive trees to be seen.Walking up through the broadleaf woodland, there was a feeling of late summer in the air. Ripe apples and elderberries, ripening walnuts and advancing chestnuts were hanging from trees.

Chestnuts were traditionally used as beams to support the roofs of houses in the area, and still are used sometimes although cost and availability are often prohibitive.

As the evening was drawing in by the time we reached Capileira, there was only time for a swift beer in one of the bars before heading back down again through Bubión to Pampaneira. In Bubión there was a bit of a fiesta getting underway in the main square with stalls and the ubiquitous pop-up bar! In Pampaneira we filled our containers with water for the week from a spring in the village. By this time it was dark. We bought some local dessert wine from one of the shops and then had to drive home the long way round through our local village, as the shorter mountain path is unlit and only a single track, so reversing up to enable cars to pass would be dangerous without daylight. What a lovely evening, topped off with a glass of the delicious dessert wine! The 'red' wine  we bought is called vino oscuro (not tinto) and is more brown than dark red, not quite the flavour of a sherry, bordering onto the flavour of a country damson wine.

Some local wine is also being sold at the moment in the supermarket in town. Whilst shopping there last week, I found myself staring at a Coke bottle and thinking what a strange colour the Coke was, only to realise there was a stack of pop bottles being reused and filled with young wine produced on the mountain range which faces our house. At €3 for 2 litres, we've gotta get some of that, but I couldn't manage to carry it that day.

Our project this week has been to build and move the compost heap further away from the house. We are proud to have achieved this mainly by recycling materials (wood, screws, poles) that have been left over on the property from previous projects. The 'heap' has three receptacles, each measuring one cubic metre, and we are on the way to filling these from the materials we have moved. Two of the receptacles will be used to turn the pile regularly, and the third is for ripe humus, of which there was already quite a bit at the bottom of the existing heap. Hot and dusty work but very satisfying, we hope to have a good quick turnover if we can maintain heat and humidity within each 'mountain'. A quick turnover should hopefully overcome the space limitations as it will quickly be returned to the soil, although if composting takes longer than we are estimating, we could always add extra compartments. Uncle Bob (Flowerdew) would be very proud indeed. What a pretty pot pourri the purple figs, fallen pink bougainvillea flowers, oranges and green fig leaves made! The local honeybees have discovered that it is a good place for them to take up moisture and are not too keen on having a pile of organic waste dumped upon them at least once a day! The working compost heap is an important investment, for sure.

The vegetables we started off (a little late) are looking promising. There are three or four aubergines on their way and they are visibly bigger every day. The red peppers are starting to flower and there is a cluster of flower heads at the base of each of our courgette plants. There are also some tomato fruits setting. Maybe an Autumn ratatouille could be on the menu if there is still enough heat and light in the fading summer for the vegetables to ripen?

The figs are continuing to provide for us. The drying has been a bit hit and miss, either too dry and a bit hard or too moist and starting to go mouldy. However, as the very dry ones work well in recipes, I am planning to make a figgy pudding instead of a Christmas pudding this year. We have found a very nice smooth brandy in the shops which will complement the recipe. Ironically, its called 'Soberano'.

Whilst moving the compost to its new home, we found a palm tree sitting under the old waste pile, a Phoenix canariensis. Small, swamped and deprived of light it has been 'hanging in there' waiting to be discovered. That little fella will be staying in his place and incorporated into the design of the area. He may find himself a little lonely in the future, as all his bigger uncles are dying from attack by a beetle which gets under the bark. But he's too young to have bark yet so he'll be safe for a while.

This little chappie has earned his place in the garden.
 (I am not referring to Mark, I mean the Phoenix canariensis in the foreground!)

Although we are living out of town and in the countryside, we are not without good internet links. Using Chromecast, a much-appreciated birthday present from one of our sons, we have been streaming the World Athletics Championships this week. Initially, we needed to move the TV to get a good signal, but we have invested in a signal booster so the TV can go back in the place of our choice. What a lovely way to spend siesta, watching world class athletics!

Two days ago, stage 7 of the Vuelta a España (national bicycle race) passed through the edge of our village before turning off up to the higher mountain villages. Of course it would have been a shame not to go and see the posse of cyclists whizz past. So we drove to the village, parked up and then walked to the other side of town where it was to happen. There was a nice atmosphere building which we had time to savour to its full because I had looked at the timing of the journey on a British website which is an hour behind Spain - so we had arrived an hour too early!

Once the two or three groups of cyclists had passed, plus a few stragglers, we went into a bar in town and over a refreshing beer watched their ascent up into the higher mountain villages on Spanish TV. Coincidentally, their day's cycling ended in Capileira, the very village we had walked up to five days previously.

We have our next week's project planned. It is to finish the bulk of the almond harvest and dry them for storage (for our consumption) or selling if there is any surplus. The forecast is for wall-to-wall sunshine all week (in fact, we haven't seen a drop of rain in the 6 weeks we have been out here) so they should dry off nicely.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Trailer Trials and Tribulations


We are delighted at the overwhelming quantity of figs that are raining down on the land. There appear to be at least 3 different varieties: one is a very deep purple and has a beautifully pungent aroma, another is very fleshy and pale green and visibly ripens within hours, the other type is a firmer green fig which is yet to ripen but is my favourite of them all, judging by last year's fruit.


The first batch we sun-dried were a bit hard and over dry. We are aiming to keep them as moist as possible but not too moist that they become mouldy. We have therefore dried a second batch and put them in jars a little earlier. The very dry ones will not go to waste. In the week we made a Moroccan casserole dish which called for dried apricots. We didn't have this ingredient so instead added some of the figs. It worked very well!
Blackberries on porridge - and Mister Sparrow has managed to find a few more oranges on the land that are not over-ripe
The blackberries have been ripe for a couple of weeks now. There are some on our land. They are small, but perfectly formed, the sweetest blackberries I have ever tasted and not a maggot between them.

The two demijohns of wine have been racked off into clean demijohns and will stand now until the finings are added to clear them before bottling. We had a sneak taster when siphoning and they are very dry, which hopefully means the sugar is now turned to alcohol (this sounds like a Pils advert).

As there are still many bunches of grapes we are going to see if we can dry some to make sultanas. The grapes have quite substantial pips in. Rather than remove them at the beginning and be swimming in grape juice, I have decided to half dry them and then will attempt to manually extract the pips by cutting them in half at this stage. We'll see!

Quality almonds drying off in the sun
The almonds are ripening and beginning to fall. The trees are ripening at different rates, which appears to depend mainly on their location, the ones in the hottest and driest areas falling first. We are well on top of identifying any bitter trees and will deal with them in due course. We are being very careful that none of these make their way into our store. It doesn't hurt to eat the odd one or two, but the bitter ones do contain traces of cyanide, so would be harmful if consumed in large doses. Commercially-grown almonds are all heat-treated to remove the toxins from any rogue bitter almonds. We want to take very seriously the quality of the food we produce and eat. The whole of our almond harvest will consist of sweet nuts and they will be raw because there will be no need for them to be heated.

I am feeling more relaxed about irrigation. In fact, whilst holding a spray nozzle attached to a hose pipe in my Cath Kidston gardening-gloved hand, I felt like an Alvin Stardust lookalike. Our current project, now that irrigation is under control, is to move the compost heap along the terrace away from the house. For this one I think I will be in gloves and suited and booted should any wildlife be disturbed in the process.

Talking of wildlife, Bobby our youngest male cat, found a centipede in the living room a couple of nights ago. When I say centipede, I mean it was big - at least 6 inches long, and moving fast. I think it may have been a scolopendra  but it did not have full markings and scolopendrae grow longer than this, so may have been a younger one? If it was a scolopendra, these centipedes can give a nasty bite. Needless to say, owing to its potential to behave outrageously, the centipede was escorted from the building. Bobby has also spotted the odd gecko in the house. I love these little fellas but as we currently have mosquito net on all the windows, we are not getting as many in the house as previously. But the wildlife event of the week has got to have been the one metre long snake that Mark caught sliding out of our toolshed (sadly I missed it). Mark couldn't quite see if Señor Serpiente was smiling or not, but we are hoping he may have dispatched and devoured Residente Rodent.

I am a very naughty boy

Now that the cats are going out, there has been a bit of boundary definition going on, led by our two fifteen year-old sisters, who are the key players. Yesterday morning Lisa was feeling a bit sorry for herself and obviously had some sort of sprain on her shoulder following a set-to with an alien mog. She laid low upstairs all day and we had to take up rations of food and water but by the end of the day she had managed to shuffle downstairs in her dressing gown and slippers and is almost back on form today.

 Mark and I are now starting to take a bit of time off from physical work at the weekends. Last weekend we had a lovely evening walk uphill from our house once the heat had subsided a little. There are lots of lovely walks both locally and in neighbouring areas and we look forward to these once the summer starts drawing to an end.

Last Friday evening, there was a flamenco festival in town, held on a temporary stage which had been set up in the playground of a college. It consisted of four acts, one of them having a very energetic and vibrant dancer. It is very difficult to understand what the performers are singing about apart from the odd word, but it was clear from the passionate expressions on the performers' faces that the songs were either yearning for a love that wasn't to be or had been cheated on! There was tremendous feeling in all of the performances and the two guitarists that accompanied them were breathtaking. At various points in the performance, the crowd took the cue to shout 'Olé' and applaud. Mark and I did not recognise these cues but they were obvious to the Spanish spectators, so we kept well quiet until we were sure we could safely join in. How lovely to be sitting out in the open air at 11pm wearing only thin cotton clothing and not the restrictions of fleeces, scarves and the like! The next day was a fiesta day and all the shops were shut. There was to be an eighties night in the main square in town and a 'pop-up bar' (there seems to be a lot of these) was being set up. There were posters in the square showing pictures of Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson wearing his eighties gear. In true Spanish style, things were not to get going until 10.30 pm! As We are both early-to-bed, early-to-rise people, we sadly had to give it a miss. However, I did stir from my sleep at about 2am to hear sounds of 'Thriller' drifting through the valley, which was rather eerie!

The towbar experience
The last time I blogged we were on the cusp of taking our car for a technical inspection following having a towbar fitted. This inspection is necessary in Spain before you can legally pull a trailer, and once it has been carried out your vehicle documentation is marked and stamped accordingly. Our first visit to the ITV (MOT) station was futile as the full chassis number of our vehicle did not appear on the paperwork the mechanic had prepared in conjunction with the manufacturer, and a vital letter 'R' had been omitted. Also we did not have the handbook to the trailer with all the spec in it, which the inspecting station requires and keeps. So this involved two trips back to the mechanic whilst he obtained new documentation from the manufacturer of the towbar. He was very apologetic and kind enough to speak slowly so that I can understand everything he says!  Our second trip back to the ITV (it's pronounced 'ee - tay - ooo- bay')station was also futile, because the number on the sticker of the towbar did not match the number on the manufacturer's documentation. The clerk said he would phone us in two days' time. As he hadn't phoned, we paid a third futile visit, but there's nothing wrong in showing your face when you want an outcome! The next day, I received a phone call asking me to come for a further technical inspection. To cut a long story short after 3 visits to the mechanic, 4 to the ITV station and approximately 8 hours of our time invested, we now have a legalised towbar! It is very difficult to get to the bottom of exactly what went on to resolve the situation because conversation was fast and contained lots of technical jargon. I'm not sure if I would have understood a similar situation in England although I may have felt more compelled in asking more questions! However, from previous experience, we realise that bureaucracy must take its course.

In actual fact, we don't really care exactly what happened because now, with stamped documentation safely tucked under our belt, we can drive forward with our projects, quite literally, pulling our trusty trailer behind us!

I really don't care about anything.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Summer wine.

I am getting bored and mischievous
Things are ticking over quite nicely. There are quite a few vines growing here and there on the land. All white grapes, they taste beautiful and a number of them had ripened and were starting to over-ripen. It seemed a shame for them to go only to the bees, birds and wasps so we have set about making some wine.

I used to make wine in the 1980s and it was good to have half an idea of what I was doing this time round. We bought some equipment out with us, although in reality, we sold the majority of it in a car boot sale many years ago. The stuff we had left was probably the things we didn't manage to sell!

We managed to fill about 6 large pans with grapes,
all in all

We started by collecting as many bunches of ripe grapes that we could find and that we thought would be sufficient to fill a demijohn with fluid. As they are white grapes the skins and pips are taken off immediately after pressing. So once washed and drained, we started to push them through a sieve. La methode traditionelle soon came to an end when the juicer made an appearance out of a kitchen cupboard. This was a little faster and a little more thorough, although we did press the debris from the juicer through some muslin at the end of the process. It was a very messy afternoon, a bit like the first time we extracted honey! But after going through the process we knew exactly what we were doing and were able to repeat the process 2 days later, when we made a second batch. Mark had brought out some beer brewing equipment so we were able  to take the specific gravity and calculate how much sugar to add in order to (hopefully) achieve an 11% wine. Apparently, if you can achieve over 10% the level of alcohol kills off a lot of the rogue yeasts and bacteria. We don't have any Campden tablets (and it doesn't look like we will get any in town), which would kill off the activity of the micro-organisms, just a bit of sterilising solution and two sachets of wine yeast I never got round to using when I had good intentions of making a brew a couple of years ago!

One of the difficulties I always experienced with winemaking in the UK was achieving an adequate temperature to get the yeast fizzing. Not so in this neck of the woods. There was a bit of volcanic activity the first night and once this had subsided we had some lovely busy wine bubbling away in the bedroom. I was so thrilled I positioned the demijohns and angled the fermentation locks so I could lift my head with minimal effort from the pillow to inspect them from afar. A very pleasing process indeed!


We now have a trailer bar fitted to our car. We dropped the car off early last Thursday, market day, with the idea that we would go round town and pick up the car at 2pm when the garage closes for the 3 hour siesta. So we had our coffee and churros, went round the market (about 3 times) and across the bridge to the garden centre, whilst waiting for the call to say the car was ready.
Unfortunately, the electrics on our car were complicado and when we presented ourselves to the garage shortly before siesta, they informed us it would be ready after siesta. I must say it was a long walk back in the heat up the wibbly wobbly road to the house, as we had been galavanting around town all morning and hadn't left much fuel in our own tanks! When we walked down to collect the car later we were delighted with the smart new tow bar. However, we cannot pull the trailer yet. We have to take the car for an inspection at the ITV (MOT) centre and get the paperwork to say the fitting of the towbar is a pukka job before we can legally pull the trailer!

Last night we let the cats out for the first time. For the past few days Bobby has been so bored, he has been treating the living room like a gymnasium, leaping from one piece of furniture to another. Now he is a free man. I have never seen him (or any of them for that matter) pant before.  A mixture of being overheated and excited, I think. Mark has fitted the cat door and has made a proper reet bo job of it. And, now we can have the door open, yay! I do hope the cats are savvy enough to adapt to living in the countryside and we are looking forward to their offerings of wildlife very shortly, which will probably make us pant!

The plant nursery is filling fast and some of the seedlings have grown enough to be moved to their final planting position: peppers, tomatoes and aubergines.
The aubergines have produced one flowerhead each with more coming.
Red peppers are in

Portulaca (moss rose) - loves full sun - one of the plants we treated ourselves to at the garden centre - it cost all of one Euro

The growing seasons are obviously 'out of synch' with the UK and we are getting our heads around what can be sown /planted and when. We are being guided by which plant plugs are going on sale in the shops. However, there will be a lot more to come on the gardening front in future blogs!

So now I am going off to get together all the documents we need for the trailer bar vehicle inspection over the other side of town, for our 11 o'clock appointment!

Monday, 3 August 2015

Rome wasn't built in a day

We have relaxed into things a lot more this week - no mad rushes. After all, what's the hurry? We have upgraded the irrigation system on two of the lower levels, following the example of our very experienced neighbour. So when the water arrived this morning, an event which we set our alarm clock for (!), we were well in control of two thirds of the irrigation. There is just one section left that requires attention and we intend to see to this in the coming week. We require more pipework, and are going to see about getting some 1000 litre tanks on the highest point of the land to deposit the water in. We have already installed one up there, but it would really suit us to put in another couple. I have looked on 'mil anuncios' (it's a bit like gum tree) and we may make an excursion out towards Granada this week to buy some second hand ones. Mark is very at home with the whole watering  thing from his days in the Temperate House at Kew but I'm a bit of a novice and quite slow - I'm not sure if I would have got through the probation period if I had worked in horticulture! But I'm improving. The large taps that are turned to divert the water to wherever you want it to go are very stiff but are getting easier. Is it because they are loosening up or because I'm getting stronger? I suspect it is the latter. 

The irrigator's box of tricks

On the drinking water front, we filled up further up the mountain yesterday having got through 60 litres between us in a week, As we are using very little indeed other than for drinking, we have calculated that we are drinking about 4 litres a day each (!!) - plus a bit of lemonade and beer!

We have spent the middle of the afternoon sheltering indoors from the sun (the intense heat has subsided these last couple of days and now it's a more comfortable 32 ish), and the bulk of the unpacking is done. Just the beehives and chicken cage to go - but we don't need either of these yet. It is amazing how much 'stuff' you can collect over the years and it certainly provides fuel for reflection. I'm not quite sure how I feel about having enough pairs of socks to see me out!

I love market day on Thursday and the general atmosphere in town. It's great to stock up on fairly local and seasonal vegetables and fruit. This week we made a bit of a blunder on the air miles. When we got back home from the market we had a look at our receipt from the stallholder and realised we had paid €3 for a cauliflower, a vegetable which is a firm favourite on the Sparrow family dinner table.  How silly of me to think this would be local at this time of year - it had probably come all the way from Lincolnshire! So as not to waste something that was costing the Earth, there was a very hearty cauliflower cheese dish on the table last night! To compensate for this gaffe, we did, however, manage to get a delicious mango which the stallholder informed me had been grown in nearby Almuñécar. I believe that the Costa Tropical, where Almuñécar is situated, has a very unique climate for growing tropical fruits such as this. There was a big sugar cane industry in the area in the past.

We really want to be as self sufficient in fruit and veg as possible but it's a little late to start some things. However, we have got a bit of a plant crèche going on on the terrace. Mark has already transplanted tomatoes into the ground. Up and coming, there are chillies, red peppers, aubergines. 

The plant crèche

The oranges are all but finished with only a few, over sweet ones remaining so it will be a rest from vitamin C on tap until winter time. 

The almonds are now ripening nicely and slightly ahead of time. We may harvest a few trees in the week to come. We have already harvested one tree that ripened super early. 

The almonds are drying out in the sun

Once dried, the outer husk, which is loose, is removed before the almonds are bagged up

I have started doing a little almond tasting as one or two of the trees bare bitter almonds. These would have been wild trees that seeded on the land. These trees will either be taken out if they are poor specimens or they can be used to graft other trees onto if the root stock is healthy. 

Within the last few days one of our fig trees has started to ripen. Today we collected a good few handfuls. We had some with our salad at lunchtime and the rest have been prepared to be sun dried. This will be a bit of an experiment because we haven't done this before.

What a beautiful shade of purple

No we haven't lost the plot! Mark is covering the blanched figs with muslin
to protect them from insects and dust whilst drying

Under the shelter of a beautiful fig canopy

Our pussycats are becoming more settled. Our youngest one by far, Bobby, is wide eyed and very attentive at the sounds of the night that come from the garden. Just a while ago he watched with curiosity as a gecko slipped past on the other side of the window frame. I do hope he doesn't make a lunge for it as the mosquito net that is keeping him in is only made of fibre and his claws would made short work of it. Only another week and a half before they can go out! A cat flap is on its way in the post, one that recognises their individual microchip codes. There are some lovely wild cats that visit the garden but we don't want our cats inviting them back for a party in the kitchen.

We have organised the fitting of a bola de remolque (it's a tow bar) next Thursday so we can work our car harder and get a few more jobs ticked off. Next week we may also get back to swimming again (after recovering from getting sunburnt on our last trip to the pool). But right now I'm exhausted from water day activities, climbing up and down terraces, dragging hoses after me and talking to the plants, in Spanish of course!

Mi pan casero