Sunday, 18 December 2016

Reflection and anticipation

We have it officially. According to AEMET, the meteorological office of Spain, 2016 was the third hottest and the second driest summer since 1965. To top that, the other two years that appear within AEMET's data include 2015. So basically, unprecedented heat and drought. You can therefore imagine our glee at having had a couple of weeks on and off of decent rainfall. 

The land around us is starting to develop a bright green carpet of weeds. We have put weeding on our 'jobs to do' list for next week.

It is quite something to look down the valley and see clouds ......

The Sierra de Lujar mountain range opposite us has a sprinkling of snow ......

Last Sunday we went for a walk above the High Alpujarran villages. Since then the snow line has dropped further and will be close to where we stood on grass and earth last week.

Lunch in Capileira last Sunday. It has snowed there this last week.

Since our last post, we have seen a bit more of Spain. In the middle of November, we flew from Malaga to Madrid one weekend and met up with two very good friends in the capital. We visited the Prado art museum, the Royal Palace and we worked our way through a list our friends had brought with them of craft breweries. We returned to Malaga on the high speed AVE train, a very relaxing experience, then enjoyed the week together at our cortijo before spending the last night in Malaga. We are not shy of having fun!

After a lovely week of relaxing, we could see that the olive harvest was not far off. Some of our olives were going to be hard to reach and we realised we would have to leave some to drop naturally. So we gauged the right time by drawing a balance between quantity of fruits that were already dropping and would spoil from hanging around and those that we would not be able to pick at the harvest and would end up dropping later. 

We would love to have our own oil from our own olives, i.e. single-estate oil, but we need to be able to produce the magic 500 kilos for that to become a reality. This is the fourth year that we harvested and we are collecting slightly more each year. Last spring some of our large established trees were pruned back heavily and have rejuvenated very well. Although these trees did not produce fruit this year, we have high hopes for them in the future and so not think it would be unrealistic to expect to achieve 500 kilos + in a few years to come.

This year we harvested 158 kilos, which should give us about 25 litres of oil, plenty to see us through the year.

Once harvested (it took us about 3 days), we loaded the car and drove the olives off to the mill.

The scene at the mill is as follows....

You reverse your car up to the grille

You get out your sacks and tip your olives down into the metal chute which has a false floor. Once all the olives are deposited, the floor moves away and the olives pass through to have any twigs and leaves blown away and to be washed and weighed.

The clean olives, still a bit wet, pass out onto a conveyor belt.

A very proud moment and a lovely smell of raw olives.

The weight of your load is registered on a computer in a hut at the side. You are given a slip of paper and asked to return in several weeks to collect your oil. You don't have to have all oil in return for your olives, you can request money instead, or a bit of both. We like the mill we go to as the procedure is straightforward and we like the taste of the oil. It is sold in our local supermarket.

Following the olive harvest, we are still picking up the olives that have since fallen and we may take a smaller, second batch to the mill in the New Year.

Talking of produce, we have just bottled the wine we made from the grapes we picked in August. We only managed twelve bottles this year. We do need to study pruning techniques a bit more when it comes to grapes!

We have also been getting creative on the land. We cut back some of the willow around our alberca and have formed the shoots into a willow arbour....

We will put an irrigation pipe around the willow shoots and hopefully they will send out roots and grow into a decorative living shelter.

We have also built steps up one of the slopes that leads to the terrace above our house. Most of the steps have been formed by using the logs (from the trees we had reduced last year) as risers and by forming some of the smaller branches into pegs to hold the risers in place.....

It's always good to do before and after photos. Sometimes we forget and when we get to the end of a project we regret not having taken a photo before we started.

There are several slopes on our land that would benefit from steps. We chose to start with this slope because we want to keep our chickens somewhere at the top and, as the steps are likely to be used the most they were the priority.

Whilst working on the land on the sunny days, we introduced our little kitten, Chula, to the garden.  She was so ready to go out and was starting to get a bit bored indoors. Also, our home has quite small windows to keep it cool in summer and warm in winter so it was good to get her out into the sunshine. She loves being outdoors and thankfully is not wandering too far from us at the moment. 

Recently, after being out in the garden on and off all day, we have had one tired kitten flopped in front of the fire.

One rainy day it was a bit too wet to let Chula out, so we put the tree up and she helped to put the finishing touches to it.

It is very much the time of year for citrus to be ripening. We have watered them diligently ever since the fruit set last spring and to be honest they already looked as though they would be juicy before the rains came. We have quite a few different citrus plants our land:

Oranges, loads of 'em, sweet ones and Sevilles

We pruned our white grapefruit tree quite hard last spring to rejuvenate it.
 It has still managed to give us two fruits this year.... and lots of new green growth.

The pink grapefruits are ripening nicely.......

....and they taste very good indeed.

We have miniature lemons

And we also have some rather large lemons....

These are limes on a tree our son gave us for Christmas last year.

Mandarins - very Christmassy!

This lemon tree is pushing its luck! Those purple leaves are young and tender new growth.
Given the forecast for this week, I think the cold is going to get the better of them.

As well as our lovely citrus harvest, we have some vegetables coming along.

Cabbages interspersed with garlic....

Lettuce and radish - they bolt so quickly in the heat of summer but the climate is more clement for them right now. This evening we ate a lettuce with our tea and it was delicious, so crisp.

We invested a bit of time in our strawberry bed over the year and I think it is starting to pay off.

A few aubergines are still holding on. I have a nice recipe for an aubergine pasta pie!

....and yesterday we sliced a rather large courgette and added it to the Bolognaise sauce.

The habas (broad beans) are coming on a treat. They are a very Spanish crop to grow. They are not far off flowering.

The geraniums are coming into their own. They seem to prefer the cooler, wetter weather.

Moving further into winter, our first big task for the New Year has presented itself. The acequia water supply is cut off at present as it has rained and everyone has a full water deposit, except for us! Our irrigation alberca loses water. The deposit must hold about 150,000 litres of water and all of this has slipped away into the land over the course of two weeks and whilst we have used nothing at all from it. So, together with our neighbours who have watering rights from the deposit, we have decided to line it.   We don't like covering the land with bits of plastic but global warming is here to stay. With a depleted aquifer meaning that our winter water has only just started to flow, we need to take action. More to follow about this in the New Year! Lining our alberca will be a very big tick for us in terms of summer water management and has been on our list for a while. 

So, we have our jobs lined up for the weeks and months ahead and a purpose-

driven year in store. But before any of this we are looking forward to Christmas, a time of year when we reflect on how lucky we are to have a house full of food and to live in a safe and beautiful part of the world.

Monday, 7 November 2016

A Change of Season

The September and early October sun continued to burn the earth, but now there has been a change in temperature and a definite feeling of shift in season. Although we have some lovely blue sky days, we are seeing a few more clouds and it has rained once or twice, so the land is breathing a sigh of relief.

Clouds patterns enhance this sunset.
One day we could see both ends of the rainbow as it arched across the valley

The rainfall resulted in some snow on the peaks of, the Sierra Nevada. It has since melted, although after today's chill I don't think it will be long until we see more.

Some of the plants and insects keep hanging onto the warmth of the day, like the beautiful swallowtail butterflies.

Here on the land, it's time for us to start pulling out the summer beds that have finished and digging and fertilising the soil ready for some winter crops.

Mark is clearing the bed and digging in some manure ready to sow habas (broad beans)

The pumpkins keep on giving and giving. I reckon there are at least 30 on the land. 

Thankfully we love pumpkin soup. Served with croutons of bread fried up in our olive oil is my favourite.

A cat-sized pumpkin (or is it a pumpkin-sized cat?!)
The 'big daddy' pumpkin and some little ornamental gourds.
Maybe we'll draw a face on him and call him Wilson.

And it felt like the right time to harvest the pomegranates and make some juice. It freezes well. This juice should tide us over until we get our first few oranges.

We left a few on the tree because they look so beautiful

A very heavy basket indeed!
It has also been the moment to harvest our manzanilla table olives and cure and bottle them for nibbling on throughout the coming year. They are picked green. Any that are tinged even slightly purple go for oil production.

After picking, the first stage of curing is to soak in water, changing the water daily for about 10 days. This gets rid of the bitterness. However, before the olives are placed in the water, the skin needs to be cut to enable them to soak more thoroughly.  A friend gave us this machine for making cuts in the fruits. The hole they are pushed through has 4 little blades poking into the hole which make the necessary cuts and at the correct depth.
You push the olive through the hole with the next olive, not your finger!

After soaking the olives, they are bottled in a brine and vinegar solution then, Bob's your Uncle, you have table olives!

Some of these jars are bigger than they look! The total volume of olives was 20 litres.

The olives continue to change flavour as they take in the brine and vinegar. We were a little impatient and dived straight into a jar within a week of bottling. They were edible and palatable enough, although the flavour is improving every day. Last year we didn't realise that manzanilla table olives are picked green and we missed the harvest and ended up bottling other olives from the land that lacked the firm texture of the manzanilla. We are learning and our produce is getting more tasty as time goes by!

Our very kind neighbour gave us a mountain of avocados. We are enjoying fresh guacamole on a regular basis. Our avocado tree has two fruits but its foliage is looking much healthier than it had been and we have high expectations for next year!

And we have 3 pistachio nuts ........

A friend of ours has an interesting evergreen plant in her garden, a Triphasia. It is a citrus related plant. The red fruits are edible although it tastes nothing like a citrus. We have taken some seed and will try and germinate it.

Talking of germinating seed, we bought a papaya at the market a couple of weeks ago. The plant had originated from the Canary Islands. We collected some seed and sowed it in pots. Lo and behold, we now have some little papaya seedlings poking through the compost. As they have germinated just as the weather is turning cold, we are putting the seed tray indoors at night then outside in the sun under the shelter of a propagator in the daytime. We have seen Papaya trees growing on the coast in Almuñécar and it will be a challenge to grow them here, if we can find a sheltered enough spot.

Mushrooms, a sure sign that it's Autumn.
An ink cap agaric.
The Autumn colour is spectacular in the High Alpujarras, as we discovered when we took a walk with our son during his recent stay here.
Bridge over Poquiera River
Fraxinus and Diospyros - now they are just showing off!!!
Beautiful sunlight shining through the Autumn leaves

As the season changes, the brightly coloured summer vegetables are making way for more subtle colours. 

The green squash at the back is an angel's hair (cabello de angel) pumpkin. It is used in cakes to add moisture and texture.

October had some sadness in store for us. Pepper, our dear little British Blue cat, passed away after a short and rapid illness. We had had a steady crew of four cats living alongside each other for the past seven years. I had always dreaded losing one of the gang of four and Pepper's illness took us by surprise as she was only 14. She was visibly poorly for just two weeks and we do hope she was not suffering too much before this. We nursed her at home with the aid of 'cat morphine' to make her comfortable for the few days before she died. Pepper was our son's (Michael's) cat. When we got her our children were quite small and she saw them all grow from children to adults. She was very much part of our family and we will never forget her little ways and mannerisms.

Rest in peace, little Pepper

At the end of September, we thought it was high time to inspect the bees. The colony we had was from a swarm we collected in March and we had been quite disappointed at how little, if any, that it had increased. This was still the case when we inspected this time. Several days after our inspection, we went to an open day in a beautiful garden in nearby Lanjaron, and an English gentleman there was giving a talk about beekeeping. We had a chat with him and said how disappointed we were with the colony so far, and he dropped a gem of wisdom that made us feel a lot better. He pointed out that in Southern Spain the bees have their toughest time during the heat of Summer, and that conditions should start to become easier for them over the next few months. Obvious, I suppose, now that we know! So, just as with the different timings for growing vegetables, we are getting our heads round things being a little topsy turvy when it comes to beekeeping.

Quite recently our neighbour came to our door to tell us there was a swarm attached to one of our almond trees. It turned out to be our colony that had decided to leave the hive - no swarm cells, just a trip out, maybe!?! The swarm was accessible and easy to hive up again. The hive was short of food stores so we have fed them - liquid feed because Spanish bees will be able to fly a fair bit throughout winter, so no diarrhoea from being stuck in the hive with a bellyful of sugar solution sloshing about. And, as the bees are likely to be quite active throughout winter, if the nectar flow doesn't improve we will have to keep on feeding. Very topsy turvy indeed! 

The bees love the squash flowers and are straight onto them at first light

On the first weekend of October, whilst it was still warm, it was the Feria de Orgiva, the local fiesta that lasts for 4 days. The town pulls out all the stops. Street lighting goes up, marquees and stages are erected. Some of the musical entertainment is from local acts and some acts are known nationally and are brought in. There is a children's and adults' fairground, a horse show and a bull-tormenting show held in a temporary 'plaza de toros' erected at the edge of town. There is even a migas competition, where teams use their own recipes to cook fried breadcrumbs, a local speciality, which are then judged by a panel. This was our third year at the feria. We recognised many local faces at the feria, a sure sign that we are settling and integrating more here. 
Feria illuminations
One of the local acts, teenagers dancing in the afternoon sun
Our son, Tom, spent the last week of October with us and, as the heat of the summer had passed, we were able to put our minds and bodies into a little sightseeing. We spent the day in Jaén, a lovely city one hour's drive north of Granada and two hours from our house. The city has a beautiful Cathedral. 

Jaén Cathedral

There is also a castle, the Castillo de Santa Catalina, which gives amazing views over the city and the thousands of hectares of olive trees that surround it.

View of Jaén Cathedral from Castillo de Santa Catalina
There is also a museum on the site of the Arab baths with a 'mirador' which offers lovely views over the rooftops of the city.

We also went with Tom to the sugar cane museum in Motril, a town near the coast only 45 minutes from our home. The sugar cane museum is situated on the site of one of the sugar cane processing plants dating back to the 1600s. Motril was once a prosperous area due to sugar cane production and processing and the port of Motril would have developed so that this commodity could be transported throughout the Mediterranean and to Northern Europe, including England. I learnt quite a few surprising facts at the museum and from reading a bit more after the visit: sugar cane originated from Papua and sugar was part of the diet of these people as early as 8000 B.C.; the crystallisation process was developed in India about 2000 years ago; sugar cane was introduced to the Caribbean by Columbus on his second voyage in the early 1500s; large areas around Motril were deforested to provide the fuel needed to process the sugar cane (and the area remains bereft of this vegetation to this day); sugar production fell in Motril due to lack of wood for burning but there was a revival in the industry during the Age of Steam. Interesting stuff, and a reminder of how the balance in nature can slide and have such a disastrous impact on our World even in those days without the aid of modern machinery.

Taken outside the sugar cane museum,
 in what was the garden of one of the wealthy sugar cane producers

Our final bit of news is that we have a new little addition to our family, a pretty little kitten who we have called Chula. On Facebook, we belong to a local group called the Orgiva Massive. A woman had posted on there that she had a kitten that needed a home. She had been hitchhiking and, when a car pulled over, she thought she was going to get a lift. But instead someone got out the car, lifted the bonnet and pulled a frightened kitten from the engine and placed it in the hands of the hitchhiker. The young hitchhiker is a cat-lover but was in no position to keep the kitten, and that is how she fell into our hands. There are always cats and dogs requiring homes where we live and we often feel like responding but obviously need to limit the number of pets we have as it takes time and money to look after an animal properly. However, this little kitten's plea came at the right time for us to say 'yes': nursing Pepper had left a big hole in our lives which we needed to fill; the kitten was a female and for that reason would be ideal to fit into the dynamics in our household; she was a single cat so we wouldn't need to split up siblings; we have never owned a tortoiseshell; tortoiseshell are reputedly very good pets; she was the right age to integrate (old enough that she had probably been nurtured by her mum and young enough to socialise with humans); she was very needy - the list could go on .......! Chula will never replace Pepper, but she is certainly chasing all the dark thoughts away.

We think she was probably about 9 weeks old when we got her - she looked younger going by her size, but developmentally she was well coordinated and could jump and run confidently. Needless to say, she was ravenous!

'Chula' in Spanish means 'cool', 'cutie', 'chic', 'elegant' and she certainly is all of those things. We did start calling her Minnie for a day as she was found in a car engine and she has large ears, but it didn't feel right and so we opted for a Spanish name. Just think, with the motor car connection, we could have called her Rover!

She is integrating well with the two older females, whether they like it or not! And the two old ladies have been very good to her, like great-aunties, showing her how adults behave. Bobby is a bit out of sorts but he is coming back into the house more and more.

So, with a good load of produce tucked under our belts to enjoy, we are momentarily sitting back and making plans for the next few months, plans that involve harvesting olives, building steps, pruning and maybe those chickens aren't too far off!!

Beautiful cosmos lingering with the last warmth of summer