Thursday, 22 September 2016

Harvest Time

We have had a complete change over the past 6 or 7 weeks. So, no blogging has taken place, although there is plenty to write about.

Firstly, I returned to the UK at the very end of July for 10 nights to visit our grown up children and our friends, whilst Mark looked after our home in Spain. During this time, our daughter returned to England from her year-long stay in the USA, where she had been working and enhancing her CV for her chosen career ahead. She is now starting her 4th year at Uni. Following my return to Spain from the UK our eldest son came over to visit. It is always a pleasure to have our children to stay and we spent some time relaxing together in our home and some time out and about.  Then, on 19th August, Mark and I started our holiday together, which involved driving to the UK, as far north as The Wirral, crossing on the Ferry via Santander and returning via Bilbao. We are very thankful to the previous owners who came to stay in our home for their break whilst we were away, and for taking such good care of our cats, land and home. It is the first time Mark and I have been away together since we have lived here as it is difficult to leave our home unattended for any length of time, especially in summer when the land dries out so quickly. 

As we were driving such a long way, we needed to make the journey part of the holiday so we made sure we had some fun on the way, including staying at a Medieval-themed hotel. 

We took in some beautiful scenery the whole length of Spain.

Bound for Blighty! I wasn't smiling like this for long -
the Bay of Biscay lived up to its reputation!

During our time in the UK. we spent 5 nights amongst friends at the Towersey Festival and enjoyed some lovely, and lively, music!

When we returned to our home in Spain, our daughter came over to stay with us and we enjoyed taking her out and about and showing her some of the aspects of the life we have made for ourselves over the past year.

Near to where we live a couple open their lovely garden to the public.
They have two llamas amongst their livestock.

A trip out for churros is a must if we have guests.
Mr Sparrow is filling his boots alright!
After seeing our daughter off to the UK, we knew it was time to get back down to living the life we have been living for the past year, and we were very happy to do so, although we loved our rather long break and the physical rest of day to day working on the land. So after 6 weeks of damned good living, we are back to the graft, but physically refreshed and with a clear vision of the way forward.

Before our break started at the end of July, an important event happened here at our Cortijo. Mark made contact through some friends of ours with a gentleman at the bottom of our track that keeps horses and we picked up our first two trailer-loads of horse poo. Those of you that know me well will be aware of the sheer delight I would have got from this. Indeed, when we lived in England, on more than one occasion I sent Mark a 'passionate' text stating 'shit at Dave's', the covert meaning of this being 'we're not sitting down after tea, we are driving down to Dave's stables and taking a load of horse poo to the allotment'. It was really great to finally be adding manure to our compost heap here. We also had a very nice surprise when we collected it: it was a very hot afternoon, 35 ish centigrade, and the thought of shovelling heavy manure was not inviting. However, because it was so hot, it had dried out and flew through the air into the trailer with very little physical effort. Or maybe it was pure elation that made the fork move so swiftly!

Horse -poo Heaven. You can't get any higher than that.

When we arrived back home in Spain, there was lots to harvest. Some of our produce will be preserved and stored for future use throughout the year. We found that we had more melons than we had realised. Most of them were hiding in the shade under the leaves of other veg. 

Our big harvest at the moment is the almond harvest. This will be our 4th year of harvesting almonds and we are finding a method that works for us so that it becomes a bit easier each year. We are using more and more of the harvest ourselves in muesli, cakes, soups and stews.

Mark is shaking the almonds from the tree.

The almonds fall to the ground on nets we have laid down.

The almonds are tipped into a basket.

Once cleaned of leaves and outer husk, the almonds are left to dry for a few days until they rattle, indicating that the nut inside is drying. We take them in every night to protect them from condensation and opportunist fruit rats.

Whilst working our way along the terraces harvesting the almonds, we have also been clearing and tidying a little and starting to discuss our future plans and projects for when the weather is a little cooler.

We have a few very generous fig trees on our land. The figs are delicious fresh, but there is so much fruit on them that it would be a shame not to dry some and store for the winter months. 

We have also tried drying some apple slices to add variety to our breakfasts later in the year when they are not in season.

We have a spectacular pumpkin harvest and it is fairly effortless to grow them.

We harvested this pumpkin a little early as it had split. 

This is our biggest pumpkin. It is going to be a struggle to cut through this. 
We have made some delicious pumpkin soup and pumpkin bread (which is really a cake). The pumpkin bread was our daughter's suggestion, influenced and inspired by her stay in the USA. 

Pumpkin bread with a Philadelphia cheese-based frosting

Mark was speaking to a couple he met yesterday who informed him that pumpkin leaves are delicious. He has done a bit of reading up and I think pumpkin leaves will be on the menu tomorrow night. Maybe Mark's new signature dish!?

All this produce is largely thanks to our goteo irrigation system working so well for us and taking some of the hard work out of watering. As it is such a valuable addition, we have modified the system further today by adding taps at the ends of many of the pipes so that we can flush the sediment out of the pipes to prevent the irrigation holes from blocking (we hope!).

This year's wine has had its first fermentation and is racked off and sitting next to me as I type. Having taken specific gravity readings before and after fermentation, we reckon it is going to be 12.5% upwards!! 

We are in the process of looking at our solar power system and have upgraded one of the instruments, the charge controller. Now, amongst other things, we can see exactly how many Kilowatts we are harvesting every day. Our charge controller is connected to the wifi router via an ethernet cable so we can get a comprehensive display on our computer of what is going on. We are even going to be able to log in remotely when we are not at home to see what the solar system is doing. Freud would have had something to say about that. (Sigmund, that is!). Alongside this we are measuring our daily consumption of energy and taking the gravity of the batteries. We have a very good system which was installed by the previous owners and we want to keep on top of it so that it remains this way. The information we get from the charge controller will enable us to decide when we need to replace the batteries. Solar batteries are expensive and we don't want to replace them until we need to. Ours are top quality and we think we can get another 5 years from them. We are considering a further shorter-term upgrade : to add a further 2 or 3 solar panels to our array. We have had excellent advice and instruction from a local gentleman who owns a solar energy company.

So what are the bees doing? Flying in and out of the hive that's for sure! An inspection is long overdue and what the bees are getting up to will have to be for the next blog. We're not expecting any honey this year but who knows what surprises may await us! We do need to get our Varroa treatment in. Just as in England, the beekeepers here say 'If you don't treat for Varroa, the bees will die'. Some things do not change. I guess we are holding back because we are not entirely sure of when the honey flows are, and we don't want to taint any honey there might be with thymol. I did ask my neighbour, a very experienced beekeeper, where the bees get their nectar from at this time of year. He said they get sugar from grapes and figs. Sure enough, there are loads of bees on the fallen figs on our land. Earlier this week Mark spotted many bees taking the sap from the leaf axes of young poplar saplings. Propolis gathering, maybe, now that Autumn is coming?

Yesterday we had a lovely surprise as we found that one of our compost heaps to which we had added horse manure was rotted and ready to use: lovely, crumbly earthy-smelling stuff like you read about in text books! I added it to one of the beds and planted out some leeks and onion sets. Then I gave a bit of a top dressing to the summer veg - tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, to extend their life a bit. The things I want to do with that compost! 

We have a poorly performing strawberry patch. We used to grow strawberries effortlessly in the UK but our crown is slipping (no pun intended). I only ever purchased one lot of plants - from Woolworths in Birkenhead - 12 or so rather dried up specimens which subsequently thrived and have survived for generations. Our current strawberry bed in Spain is rather a different story. I have moved the plants once and they are slightly happier although the fruits are tiny, almost like alpine strawberries, a far cry from a Cambridge Favourite and an even further cry from the very large Spanish strawberries you see in the shops in the UK out of season. So I am hoping the newly-rotted compost will come to the rescue and today I scraped the mulch from around the strawbs, dressed the bed with compost, added some all-round organic fertiliser and then replaced the mulch. The plants have a lovely goteo watering system as well so what more can they need?!  I can see this is going to be a challenge! (I may also consider making a screen to shade the plants from the sun).

Happy to be back home after our road trip.
So, our second year out here has begun well for us with many plans in the pipeline and probably a fair few challenges in store. We hope and are optimistic that the forthcoming year will be as enjoyable and successful as the one that has just passed. Certainly, as we are becoming more accustomed to living here, we are less preoccupied with the new and unfamiliar and are finding more space for thought and a little more time for relaxation and the activities we promised ourselves we would do when we moved out here. I am currently re-reading 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' by Laurie Lee, which is a real-life account of this young man's travels through Spain just before and as Civil War was breaking out in the 1930s. Last Friday afternoon, as part of our vow to relax a bit more, we went to a lovely cove on the coast for the afternoon. The cove looks across to Almunecar, which is where Laurie Lee was picked up from by a British Ship to escape the Civil War. What better way to read Laurie Lee, overlooking the land where his feet trod some 80 years ago?

A bit of cat-fancying in one of the mountain villages.
Thankfully this kitten had a loving owner, or else we may have been expanding our family (!)