The key to the future may lie in the past.

It is autumn, October 1st 2013. There has been no rain for several months and temperatures are still high 80s in the shade. There has been a lot to learn in the garden. ImageFor example, English asters have thrived in semi-desert conditions whilst high Andes Amaranthus failed on campus, but took over a small raised bed kept well-watered.
ImageA nursery corner on my roof terrace contains succulent cuttings and lettuce seedlings. The first lot of lettuce simply dried up in the heat, but later batches are benefiting from cooler evenings and lots of water. I have rigged up a hose to the roof and led it under the base of my rooftop naya, a netted, fly-proof, outdoor area where I can sleep in summer and protect my cuttings and citrus plants in winter. It is also the only place where cucumbers survived this year. On my finca, tomatoes and peppers were picked ready dried, although, surprisingly, celery, parsley, and leeks are thriving in a dense cover of weeds.ImageIrrigation is a major problem which I am currently tackling in holistic fashion with a combination of shaped channels, gravity feed, inundation, and drip. Hopefully I shall be able to plant winter crops before too long, chicory, radish, pack choi, land cress, and Chinese leaves which will get enough moisture from morning dews off the river as temperatures fall, even if the long threatened rain never arrives.

Every week we are promised rainstorms next week. One day the forecast is for continuous showers and storms. A day later, wall to wall sunshine is predicted for the next month. Whatever the prognosis, the weather circles our little river meander and swings around the outside of the circle of hills that protects us. We have had lowering black clouds, ominous rumbles of thunder, a single flash of lightening, and then the lot evaporates and the sun reappears in a clear, azure sky. Apparently there has been torrential rain all around, but not a drop for my poor plants to drink. ImageI have been learning about food preservation, campo style. With roasting temperatures and riverside humidity, nothing keeps more than a few hours without refrigeration. Although I bring ice in a cold box every day to preserve the day’s fresh food, without a reliable, cheap source of electricity, it is necessary to manage long-term storage in a more primitive manner. Solar and wind electricity complement each other, but are weather dependent and only to be used sparingly for light and low voltage applications. Gas fridges are expensive options and petrol or diesel generators are for pumping water and emergency use only.

Most fruit and many vegetables can be sun dried. I have successfully done this with figs, plums, tomatoes, peppers and olives. A lot can be preserved in alcohol, such as peaches, cherries, and apricots. More can be bottled in their own juice, like grapes and tomatoes, and many more used to make wines and vinegars, such as grapes and pomegranates.

Of course, salt and sugar and even wood-ash lye can also be used, with or without vinegar, for jams, jellies, pickles, relishes and chutneys, but there are dietary consequences to too much salt, potash or sugar, just as there are to storing meat in oil or fat as our ancestors did.

Storing tomatoes, thick skinned, slow ripening varieties used to spread on bread with salt and olive oil, need little water until they actually wilt. Cut when beginning to turn from green to gold, the fruit will keep a year or more, becoming deep orange and soft: a tasty puree in a bag.

Fruit vinegars are the healthy, refreshing cordials of our great-grandmothers. Fruits, steeped with sugar and wine, or juices with added yeast and bacteria, ferment for only a few days to make tart, richly coloured liquids that can be watered down to drink.

Similar cultures of kefir grains, yoghourts, and wild yeasts can be kept as everlasting starters, used for probiotic fruit or milk-based drinks as well as sourdough breads and cakes. Every few days, most of the batch is used for drinking or baking, keeping back a little to add to more liquid or flour base where it continues to grow until next time.

The surprising thing is the realisation that all these “germs”, yeasts and bacteria are actually far better for us than the sterilised, pasteurised, disinfected and irradiated produce that looks so pretty in the supermarket. They have not “gone off”. They supply us with micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. They stimulate our immune systems as well as helping to combat disease by keeping our internal flora and fauna strong and healthy.

Perhaps our future survival as a race really does depend on going back to the sustainable practices of the past.

My store cupboard no longer contains packs of freeze-dried, chemically preserved, powdered, tinned, or sterilised commercial products. When I open my cupboard doors these days I am faced with home-made salsas, sauces, purees, relishes, chutneys, pickles, and fruit leathers. Bottles of dried figs, apricots, plums, mushrooms, and apples are good just as they are or cooked. There are all kinds of tasty sweets and savouries, bottled, dried, and made into jams, jellies, marmalades, conserves, and preserves.

It is as time-consuming as most other aspects of self-sufficiency. But it is infinitely satisfying, piquant, and individual. No-one else in the whole world is likely to be sitting down this evening to mixed salad with fresh cheese curds and pomegranate rubies, lamb with home-made mint and apple jelly, roast squash with caramelised tomato ketchup, home-made strawberry and yoghourt icecream, fermented milk drinks and home-made wine, white peaches preserved in vermouth and olive leaf tea, all processed within minutes of gathering.

No, I am neither losing nor gaining weight, nor am I dancing till dawn, but as a gentle drift into second childhood, I can recommend the good life, Spanish peasant style.

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It Has Been Raining.

It has been raining for days. Two weeks ago, with temperatures in the 80s, I could not weed the vegetable beds because the ground was like concrete.  Now it is so wet that if I try to stand on it, I sink in over the tops of my boots. Temperatures have dropped to the 40s and weeds are now over a foot high.  But the roses are beautiful,  and daisies of all kinds thrive here,  as do irises and ranunculus.

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The rain has flooded the river which is running faster and higher than I have ever seen it.  It is washing away all the clogged weed and dead vegetation and has started to erode the river bank.  But it has saved me a lot of work and petrol as I do not have to pump water and irrigate.

Today, I picked a basket of fresh strawberries which I served with hot custard as something of a novelty, because of the weather.  Several apple trees have set fruit, but my treasured Bramley is late flowering.  I am keeping my fingers crossed that two of the others will keep blossoming long enough to pollinate it as it needs a number of mates to be sure of producing fruit, since it has double the normal number of chromosomes.

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It looks as if it has been snowing, with white “snowflakes” swirling through the air, blanketting the lawns, settling in the trees and flower beds.  But they are only the seed parachutes of cotton willows on the river bank.

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I also tried breeding carp, but they have turned out such a varied and beautiful collection that I have not the heart to eat them.  So I feed them instead and get a great deal of pleasure from them too.

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Because I could not work on the finca, I have planted a lot of early vegetables in my new raised flower beds at the bungalow.  My neighbours are vastly amused at the lovely crop of radishes, parsley, land-cress,lettuces and beetroot which are sharing my front terrace with flowering tobacco, marigolds, exotic african veldt flowers, leptospermum, lilies, and lantana.

Up on the roof terrace, orange blossom scents the air, cacti and succulents are flowering bravely, and tiny cucumbers are appearing in the axils of seedlings only a few weeks old.  More trays and pots of seeds have yet to show signs of life.  When they do, they will be planted on the finca in experimental, traditional American Indian fashion, the “Three Sisters” beans, corn, and squash together, three seeds in one hole.  The maize supports the climbing beans. The beans fix nitrogen to feed them all, and the squash shade the ground and retain moisture. As a decorative feature I am also trying colourful amaranthus and quinoa for leaf and grain as well as flax, fenugreek and coriander for seed.

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The weird weather has upset the local wildlife.  Badgers are leaving their lower river-terrace sets.  Birds and bats are getting water-logged and moles and snakes are above ground enough to fall victim to my cats who have killed 3 snakes, several birds and voles and were playing with a baby bat which I rescued and fed on a sweet clementine in my work shed until it was fit to leave.

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Apart from weeding and digging the last terrace, the garden is up to date and promises to yield some very interesting crops.  In particular, it looks as if I will have my first cherries and persimmons later in the year.  I can hardly wait!

WHERE DID THE MORNING GO ?

 

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My New Bathroom.

This green living is a time-consuming hobby.  Every day I spend several hours on the tasks that have not been done by civilised housewives for a couple of generations.

After the ritual of preparing myself to face the world, (now a delight with my sparkling clean, warm and luxurious new bathroom) I spent a couple of hours battling the dust left by the builders, with the cheerful help of the lovely Romanian mum from next door.  She is helping me to re-organise the chaos in return for a surplus washing machine which I found amongst mountains of junk in the utility room and restored to working order.  If I had known it was there, I should not have bought a new one, as there seems to be very little difference between them.  Still, too late now, I do not need two and hers was leaking badly, which is no fun when you live with a builder husband and father-in-law and have two tiny children.

Alone in the re-organised kitchen, first I made a stack of wholemeal pancakes to use as wraps with salad and home-made liver paté.  Then I cooked some Thai style fish cakes with parsley, mashed potatoes, peas and (home-made again) hot, sweet green pepper sauce.  Then a tortilla of eggs and wholemeal flour topped with a thick layer of grated cheese took care of left-overs from the fridge.

Next, I strained, blended and bottled drinks and smoothies of water kefir, kombucha tea and yoghourt, refreshed the cultures and set them to work again.

The next job was sorting stored fruit and vegetables to use up anything that will not keep.  So, a pan of onion soup, a jug of orange juice, baked wedges of squash and white cabbage hearts, a tomatone (storing tomato) salsa and a chicory salad.

Lunched off a bit of everything, before putting it away for use during the week.  Also treated myself to a glass of homemade wine. Image

Morning on the Finca.

Then I set off to the finca to collect more vegetables. There are brocolli spears, endives, leeks, calçots, chard and radishes as well as standing potatoes, cabbage, chicory, carrots, garlic, fennel and jerusalem artichokes, all waiting to be harvested, cleaned, cooked, pickled, bottled or eaten in any other way that takes my fancy.  I also need to collect a bag of greens for my neighbour’s grandson’s rabbits.

The first 4 days of 2013

The first days of the New Year have been a wonderful illustration of the range of skills needed to survive here.
Before Ray left for England in his camper van he helped me to dismantle and clean the pot-bellied stove with its long, tar-filled metal chimney pipes. That is a job that needs doing at least twice a year, depending on the wood one burns. Then I had to clean the mess we had made in the bothy.
I cooked three haggis from the livers and lights of two suckling pigs killed by the brother-in-law of one of the pupils with whom I conduct free English conversation classes – a quid pro quo gift.
I also mixed two baked orange and almond cheese cakes from excess Kefir yogurt which I make for myself, as well as Kombuchu tea, all very healthy alternatives to expensive, probiotics and soda drinks. The surplus was exchanged with friends for home-made sausage, black pudding and date and walnut cake, brocolli and winter squash.
Next day the warden from the local nature reserve came to investigate our otters. Then I translated a Catalan document from the Town Hall about barriers to the emancipation of Spanish women. After that I did the washing.
Yesterday my loo cistern plunger broke and I balanced at the top of a stepladder with a mirror and a piece of rusty wire to effect repairs to the old chain-pull tank.
In the evening a more modern challenge was offered by Trojan viruses in my computer necessitating a safe-mode trouble-shooting session and a system restore, before I could put in my two hours’ copy-writing on the topics of “Optimizing Storage Space” and a “Space Museum in U.S.” Then my printer decided it had no ink in spite of a set of new cartridges. I haven’t solved that yet so I had to move some research on herbal remedies for Polycystic Ovaries to a memory stick, find a way to open another corrupt program and transfer the info to another friend’s computer so she could send it to a sufferer in U.K. She rewarded me with a Tupperware container of Chinese egg Fou Yong.
At 10 a.m. today, her husband presented himself complete with chain-saw to cut some wood on my finca, half for them and half for me. I used a smaller chain-saw (which he calls my “nail file”) and a small sledge hammer to break up the thinner branches for kindling.
On returning I was able to catch up with the lorry with Propane and Butane bottles to exchange the empty from the finca which was in my car boot. That saved me a trip to Flix.
It is still only midday on January 4th. and I am supposed to be an invalide and retired. But it certainly beats an old folks’ waiting room for death in Blighty.

The Golden Hour

Every evening, just before sunset, the light changes and the hills turn to gold. It is so breath-takingly beautiful, that I sit quietly to watch for those few magic moments until the light fades.

The cormorants come home to roost in the silver-leaved aspens on the island in the centre of the river, where they chunner like roosting chickens, cackling in crescendo to greet each new arrival and then subsiding into a muted mutter of contentment. As a child I stayed with my grandparents, where I used to love going into the chicken pen at twilight, when the birds were entranced with sleep and one could pick them up and cuddle them with impunity. They clucked and squawked gently in a way that soothed me beyond measure. The cormorants have the same effect. I love them and I worry every autumn when they do not arrive to take up their winter quarters opposite my finca. But every year, at the end of October, when the rest of the islands are occupied and skeins of birds fly across like fighter squadrons in their hundreds, necks stretched and legs trailing behind, I fear they will not return to where I can enjoy their restful evening chorus. And every year, in the first week of November, they begin to settle where I can watch them, and the world feels in balance again.

This is the time when I retire early to my little Wendy house on the finca, with a good store of firewood and kindling and a stock of candles to supplement the inadequate solar power on days when cloud has limited its charge. I light the stove, take off the lid to fry a quick pan of eggs or fish, put on a cauldron of water to heat, or leave a soup or stew to cook slowly overnight. Once the fire has settled to a steady burn, I put on one large, dry log, close it all down for the night and put some stones on top to heat up to warm my bed. These I wrap in old socks to prevent them burning me or scorching my bedding.

A simple meal of bread and cheese

A simple meal of bread and cheese becomes luxury with scented blossom, Japanese tea lights and my new gas lamp

These pictures were taken in very inadequate light, but give you the flavour of my play house with its wood-burning stove, stacked logs and kindling, candle holder, camping cooker, solar power inverter, water tank and my latest new mod con – a gas lamp to enable me to see to do my mending or read even if it has been overcast most of the day.

As I have often said, “It is never too late to have a happy childhood,” and I am thoroughly enjoying my second chance.

Update on the wood front

I woke up yesterday to hear angry voices and the sound of a tractor as three irate gentlement searched for the wood they had cut.  I did wonder about the wisdom of going out to talk to them, but decided discretion is not me, so got dressed, took my crutch ( a signal that I am elderly and frail, but also a weapon if needed) and marched out to confront them. 

To my relief, they turned out to include a father and son I know, and  when I explained my position they apologised and offered me the same deal I had with the last wood-cutter: half for me and half for them.  Well, we shall see if it works this time. 

They were there again this morning with chain-saw, sledge-hammer and bolsters and seemed happy to pose for this picture of their activities.  There was no sign of the tractor or other transport .  They explained that they hope to cut the wood every morning and bring the tractor and trailer next Saturday to take alternate loads for me and for them.

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 They then suggested that the surviving olive trees would also benefit from pruning, which would provide another source of logs to season for next year.  Quite true.  I have thought myself that it is criminal to allow everything to succumb to neglect, when I could keep it in order until I am able to purchase the land  which has been untended for at least the last eight years.

 But there is one huge snag.  The land is almost worthless, sand and gravel with no irrigation, overgrown with weeds, bamboo and wild liquorice, with crumbling infrastructures that form potential death-traps.  I have offered 20,000 euros.  The owners want 65,000.  Not because it has been valued at that, but simply because there are three of them and they want at least 20,000 each !

Prices here are now incredibly variable, with a fully-furnished 2-bed house in excellent condition on offer at 75,000 for a quick sale and an adjacent ruin which has been for sale at 85,000 for many years.  Some prices have halved in the last three years.  Others have stayed the same and the unsold properties are slowly falling into decay.  A  finca of 9 hectares with producing olives, almonds, carob and stone pines is offered for 18,000 whilst the one I want, less than a hectare with nothing but a river view (the bank actually belongs to the Water Board) is stubbornly kept at over three times its value whilst it loses what little it has left. 

The attitude is reflected in much of the local commerce where it is argued that they cannot reduce prices in order to increase sales, because there is a crisis and they must retain the value of the stock for which there will never be a market at the prices they ask. 

I was once a full corporate member of the British Management Association and so I tried, gently, last week, to explain the Woolworth’s logic (pile it high and sell it cheap), to the manageress of a moribund garden centre close by.  But she could not see any virtue in decreasing potential profit on individual units to increase actual sales, even though she is currently selling almost nothing and the units sold would increase turnover and therefore real profit. 

But, hey, I’m retired and it isn’t my problem any more.

Problems, problems…

A frustrating day on the Internet, trying to sort out a way to purchase and send Christmas gifts.  Needed to start by getting ink cartridges for my printer from Cartridges DIrect, but my cash card had to be verified by VISA which would not accept a UK debit card without a UK postcode.  VS would also not accept a Spanish debit card because this needs to be ratified by mobile phone to obtain a pass code which is only valid for 24 hours.

 I wrote to customer services by email to explain the problem and ask if I could send a cheque.  I got an offer of a 10% reduction with a print-off form to send back with the cheque, which would have been fine except that I need the  ink cartridges before I can use my printer.

Finally, a lovely lady called Kath phoned me to try to solve my problem.  She suggested various online solutions which I had already tried without success but then cut the Gordian knot by taking all the details by phone, including my UK debit card no.   Simple and obvious – but it took a woman !

The other orders will be possible by snail mail as soon as I get the ink cartridges to print off the order forms for my Christmas gift and other personal shopping – medical supplies, seeds etc. which I shall do next week.

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Meanwhile I have another uniquely Spanish dilemma.  The finca next to mine has been neglected for many years and, since it was overgrown and contained much dead wood, was legally a fire hazard. I have been keeping it in order for my own safety and had permission to take the firewood in return, so I arranged with a Spanish friend to take half for himself, if he cut half for me.  But he and others have taken most of the wood for themselves or to sell without honouring their promise to bring some for me.  I was not too worried, as the boles of the trees remained and would last me for some time.  But today I found that someone had already split and carted away another two of the remaining stumps, so I am afraid I helped myself to some of what they had cut (and obviously left to collect later with their tractor and trailer), in lieu of some of what was promised, and left them a message to come and talk to me.

 This sort of thing has already happened on another piece of my own land on the opposite side of the railway which is hard for me to access.  It does not have a water source, so I simply left it to look after itself and collected the almonds which grew there every autumn.

 To my amazement, this spring the plot had been ploughed and the almond trees carted away for much-prized fuel by the man whose tractor had been hired for the work by the owner of an adjacent olive grove.  I remonstrated with him and was promised firewood and almonds as recompense, but so far nothing has materialised. I also negotiated to sell him the land which he wanted for equipment access to his own, but it seems I cannot do this as it is still legally part of my own plot which, according to the land registry, cannot be sub-divided, although part was compulsarily purchased (for the value they put on a few olive and almond trees growing there) to build a road and railway across the plot which effectively made it inaccessible.

 I shall have to take this up with him again later, but his mother has died suddenly and it is not the time at present.  The village is so inter-related that I have been sympathising with two of my language students, the owners of both a farm and a bar and even the postmistress, on their loss.