Saturday, November 22, 2014

Staying safe and warm this winter

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It is rare to have any heating on in the house before the onset of November and unlikely that heat is needed after April. We have two sources of heating, log burners (one in the lounge and one in the studio) and diesel central heating which also heats the water. We rarely use the central heating apart from taking the chill of the house if the log burner hasn't been lit for a while. The insulation in the house is really good and once warm, it retains an ambient temperature for a good 12 hours. This is despite the high ceilings and open stairway. 

We source our wood from a local merchant who needs reminding from time to time that we want mixed wood with oak, cut to an appropriate length and where possible dry... and we occasionally need to remind him that we are locals and want a good price. Luis is very good at negotiating and setting out terms and conditions (a formal way of saying - "if it's no good, we won't accept it and you will have to take it back"). To save having two different sizes delivered we split and cut the larger logs ourselves so that we can use it for the smaller log fire in the studio.

When possible, we try to keep a year ahead with our wood store so that when we come to use it we can be assured that it is dry and it will burn more efficiently.

Our wood supply is supplemented from time to time by fallen apple, cherry or hazel that is gifted to us by neighbours. We never refuse as wood is expensive here and if we didn't collect it it would probably be burnt in situ and wasted. We have a good chain saw, axes and log splitter but we are very aware that there are dangers when operating such machines, especially a chainsaw. A couple of years ago Luis almost lost two fingers when a lapse in concentration by the chainsaw operator and poor technique resulted in the saw driving over his gloved hand, cutting through the leather and slicing deep into his flesh. Fortunately, both fingers healed well.

We always wear chainsaw gloves, goggles and ear defenders when operating a chainsaw but we are very aware that our home-made saw horse is not ideal. I recently came across a piece of equipment called a Log Master. Having watched several Youtube videos, it seemed like a good investment and something that would significantly reduce the possibility of accidents (and back strain) when using a chainsaw. We have just acquired one and will unpack, assemble and use it in the very near future. We will report back in a subsequent blog post.   You can read more about it here and watch a short film: Log Master

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A clifftop walk

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Tomason Cliffs near our village (Toriello) looking westwards.

I have always been attracted by the sea with its changing moods, sounds, colours, smells and the way in which it reflects light under different conditions. If in addition to all of that you add the stunning ragged limestone cliffs we get on the stretch of the Asturian coast near La Pasera,you could easily understand how little it takes for me to forget all I am doing and simply go for a walk along the cliffs. This is what I did this afternoon, I simply could not resist taking this walk knowing there was a storm coming towards Spain and causing rough seas.

I personally love this walk and every time I do it I notice something different along the ragged but stunning limestone cliffs that make me stop to admire the views or be captivated by the way the waves crash against the rocks.

Walking along the cliffs, the sea in never silent and I have come to view the sea in this part of the Bay of Biscay as a friend that accompanies me on a walk and whose constant voice I never tire of; a friend whose voice at times is soft and gentle while others it is powerful and loud.

Halfway along this walk, I never fail to be impressed by a small rock island that stands like a solitary witness; where a local rock climber can occasionally be seen defying gravity; one of its faces is rather smooth and makes a nice challenge for those who enjoy this popular sport here in Asturias. I can only imagine the adrenaline rush.

Within a short distance further East, I came by an area known by local fishermen as St. Michael's Bridge. Other than the occasional fisherman precariously hanging at the edge of the cliffs with a fishing rod it is unusual to meet others along this path. The rough seas are a good time for them to come out fishing, it is very rare to come across other people along the path. The sense of solitude and tranquility along this walk is something I find to be very inspiring.

St. Michael's Bridge
St.Michael's Bridge is one of the most beautiful areas within this walk and close to the picnic area known as Castro Arenas at the mouth of the Guadamia river estuary where the clifftop walk ends. From Castro Arenas the views both towards the West and East are simply stunning and the drama as the waves crash against the cliffs and reach all the way over the clifftop is something that I always find captivating and never fails to impress me.

Depending of the tide, at this time of the year, the blowholes that dot the coastline in this part of the Asturian coast are a natural phenomenon worthwhile seeing and Castro Arenas without doubt is the best place to enjoy this spectacle. On this particular day, the blowholes were just starting to work and as the tide comes it forces air and sea water that comes out through the blowholes as a water vapour geyser.

There is an Asturian word that refers to this phenomenon: "bromaduriu" a beautiful sounding word for a beautiful and impressive show that nature graces us with. I hope you one day have a chance to visit this beautiful part of the Asturian coast and enjoy this fantastic walk.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How we prepare the vegetable plot for Winter


As the days get shorter we start noticing a drop in the temperatures, especially first thing in the morning, that contrast with the hot sunshine we experience in the middle of the day. This warmth encourages a spur of growth not only in the vegetable plot but also in the garden and miniature gardens where the Lithops or pebble plants start to bloom.

The hot and dry weather we tend to get by the coast at this time of the year encourages the last of the aubergines and peppers to ripen whilst the Winter crops start coming into their own. In another post I will write about what is happening with the crops that we will be harvesting as Autumn deepens and Winter becomes closer.

The red peppers will be bottled, we freeze the green ones to use later in cooking whilst the aubergines we will be frozen after they are grilled or made into a pate.

In the vegetable plot, one of the main jobs we normally undertake at this time of the year is the clearing and composting of all those vegetable plants that have come to an end and digging of the soil in readiness for sowing oats as green manure.

Home made compost is a valuable resource and you can never have too much. This year the Summer months were unusually dry and as a result the garden produced a much smaller amount of organic matter that goes into the compost bins. At the beginning of Autumn, one of our compost bins was only half full and the other completely empty rather than both been bursting to the rim. We brought a few barrow loads of dry grass from a nearby meadow that our neighbour would have otherwise burnt. This grass comes from a meadow where animals graze and no chemicals have been used.

An important health and safety aspect to take into account when dealing with drying grass is the amounts of spores that semi rotten grass produces. These spores are a respiratory sensitisers and can lead to chest problems if breathed, hence the use of a mask. 

With the several barrow loads we brought in, we should have enough compost to dig into the soil when the next growing season starts in late February or early March. As the grass was rather dry, we had to water it to ensure it rots over the Winter months. 

Another of the big jobs that we normally undertake before the wet and cold weather season starts is the preparation of the soil in the areas now empty of growing plants in readiness to sow the oats as a green manure.

We considered buying a mechanical rotovator but decided against this once we found out that using these devices would kill most of the earthworms, an invertebrate whose benefits to the soil are numerous as they help the break down of organic matter and improve soil structure with the tunnels they create which also help improve soil compaction and aeration. Consequently, we use a spade or garden fork to dig the soil. It is nice to see how the earthworm population appears to increase year after year and as a result of the organic matter added to the soil.

Once the soil is dug over, a light sprinkling of oat seeds is applied over the whole surface before the seeds get gently raked into the soil. Some people leave the oat seeds to germinate whilst they lay on the soil surface. We favour covering them lightly with soil by raking them in.

As the oats grow, their roots reach deep into the soil breaking it up and thus improving its structure. With the oats covering the surface of the soil, seeds from weeds are less likely to germinate; the oats will also help fixing nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is washed from the soil when it rains but when the oats are grown in the soil they absorb the nitrogen they needed to grow. When the oats get dug into the soil next season, the nitrogen will be released back into the soil as the oat grass decomposes at the same time that the breaking down of the organic matter will increase soil fertility and the amount of humidity the soil can retain. As you can see, the benefits from sowing oats or any other type of green manure at this time of the year are many.

We will often see Gawber and Wentworth eating tender oat shoots to purge themselves, another good reason to continue sowing oats at this time of the year. We find the oats will start germinating within 7 to 10 days depending on weather condition such as warmth and humidity.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cycling in Asturias: El Fito viewing platform

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Ribadesella with the Sueve Mountains in the background
Cycling in Asturias is a great way to discover this beautiful part of the country although it presents some challenges: being a mountainous region. You need a certain level of fitness to be able to face the challenge that some hills present.

You are never too far from a hill even when you choose the coastal routes.
When you cycle off road, the paths tend to be poorly signed and at times you need to carry your bicycle as some of the paths are not very well maintained.

Mountain biking really applies to off road cycling in Asturias but in spite of the challenges it presents, it is a great activity as you are never too far from magnificent views. Personally I tend to cycle along the roads as they never get busy with traffic and I tend not to get lost as easily.

This particular ride up el Fito viewing platform takes me to the Sueve Mountains which we see in the distance from La Pasera and it is a circular route along the coastal road after leaving behind Ribadesella.

After passing several villages and small towns dotted across beautiful valleys I turn towards the mountains until I see a road sign indicating El Fito viewing platform where main challenge of this route starts, a 600 m ascent over a 4 Km distance along a very windy road used as part of an international car rally and favoured by many car and motorbike drivers.

On this occasion, I came across about 200 motorbikes and the photo opportunity was a good excuse to catch my breath and have a sip of water.

The viewing platform is a very popular tourist attraction because on a clear day it affords incredible views across the valleys with the Picos National Park in the distance and golden sandy beaches below. This viewing platform is within a protected natural space when the semi-wild Asturcon horse can frequently be spotted. Unfortunately, this time they were on higher ground according to one of the farmers I spoke with.

View towards Ribadesella from El Fito viewing platform.
After reaching the top, one of my favourite parts is the free ride you are rewarded with down the rather steep and windy road. The fastest I have managed coming dawn is close to 60 Km per hour. I am sure many will be happy gaining a greater speed but for me, the possibility of a car coming in the opposite direction is a good reason not to come down any faster.

The coastal views with La Isla beach and Lastres town in the background.

The Picos National Park from El Fito
At the end of the free ride the town of Arriondas is a good place to refill the water bottle if needed just before joining the road that runs along the river Sella and after 17 Km you reach Ribadesella and a further 5 Km before reaching La Pasera once more. I often take a few minute's break over one of the few pedestrian bridges over the river where I can enjoy the surrounding scenery and on a warm day wave to the tourists enjoying a day out, doing the river descent by canoe, a popular outdoor activity with those visiting the region and as the weather remains very warm a good way to spend a day close to nature..

The river Sella as it reaches Ribadesella.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mosaicos La Pasera, an update.


As a mosaicist and whilst living at La Pasera, I have designed and created numerous decorative pebble mosaics that now adorn paths and a small terrace. My passion for this mosaic genre stems from my love for pebbles and a holiday we once took in the Greek Island of Rhodes where we saw many decorative mosaics been used as pavement. After returning home, Ian got me as a present, a book by Maggy Howarth titled "the art of pebble mosaic". Since then, I have completed a good number of mosaics that decorate our garden and have had several as commissions.

For my latest pebble mosaic of a flower pot made out of small pebbles and terracotta roof tile, I spent several hours selecting the right sized pebbles no grater than 1 cm in diameter. Using these small pebbles, I was able to create small mosaics light enough to be used as a decorative picture hung on a wall,

This little Mosaic (31x22 cm)  was made as a present for a mosaic artist friend of mine who comes from Belgium and whom I recently met when I travelled to Chartres in France to visit several international mosaic exhibitions.
Although I usually I work with natural stones for my Roman style mosaics my last two commissions required me to use smalti (vitreous paste) made by the Orsoni family in Venice following centuries old recipes. This allows me to choose from a wide colour palette. This was the case of my latest commission for a birthday present depicting a lobster.

Using smalti has been an enjoyable challenge that not only required me to learn to use new tools but also required to adapt and use different processes and as a result I am researching several mosaic courses to see which one can suit my needs better specially since I want to learn more about colour use within mosaic art.

XII th century stone carving in one of the porticoes of the Gothic cathedral in Chartres.
I recently returned from Chartres where I attended the opening ceremony of the 10th edition of the internationally renowned mosaic "Prix Picassiette" celebrated on alternating years. During this event, I met many mosaicists and mosaic artists with whom I have been communicating via the Internet and several mosaic art forums I am a member of.

In Chartres I was able to spend time not only admiring the beauty of many works of art but also having an opportunity to study different mosaic techniques specially those used in 3D mosaics as I have in mind several projects for mosaic sculptures that in time I want to create and place around our garden here at La Pasera. You can follow my mosaic work on my dedicated and newly updated blog: Mosaicos La Pasera 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beans - from plant to plate

Beans are big here in Asturias, not in a huge way but in usage in all kinds of cookery. One of the traditional dishes is Fabada which is white beans with chorizo, black pudding and fat. Really not our cup of tea but very popular amongst the tourists and served in most restaurants. Being vegetarian, beans provide us with much needed protein and a stock that can be used all year round.

We sow our own bean seeds (dried from the previous year) in April indoors. These are then transplanted into soil when they germinate and put outside to grow on. We are fortunate in so much that we do not have frost and by April there is an ambient outdoor temperature throughout the night and day.

The young plants are put in the ground around the end of May. They are initially supported by an 'A' frame structure we construct out of locally sourced hazel. As they grow we may add additional support by introducing twiggy pea sticks.

Apart from ensuring that the plants wind their way through the support, they need very little attention apart from looking out for black fly which can be a problem if not caught early. We treat the black fly with soapy water with an additional spray of diluted alcohol if necessary: this usually works well.

The beans are eaten fresh as in green runner beans and dwarf kidney beans and what we don't use we leave on the plant to dry. When the outer casing is parchment-like we harvest, shell and leave to dry in the sun for a week or so. The dry beans are then frozen for 24 hours to kill any bugs and then re-dried before storing.

Our favourite dishes include home-made beans on toast, mixed vegetable and bean cassoulet, white bean and black olive pate, in salads and, bean and chestnut casserole. How do you eat yours?

The discarded bean plants are composted to provide much needed nutrients for the soil.

The insects are busy doing their work in the garden and helping, in their own unique way, the cycle of life, death and regeneration. More creatures from the garden can be found here:  Smaller tales .

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Autumn foraging: Chestnuts and Walnuts

We may have mentioned this before but walnuts and chestnuts are abundant around here. There are many fully grown trees on country lanes, on field boundaries and in cultivated plots. This year is a particularly good year for foraging as the trees are heavy with fruit.

The good news for amateur foragers like us is that very few people collect these crops, preferring instead to purchase from commercial sellers on the markets: convenience I suppose. When out walking or cycling at this time of year we will take a small bag with us and collect what we find along the way. It is surprising how quickly you can build up a welcome stock of sweet chestnuts and fresh walnuts.

So far this year we have collected about 25 kg of walnuts which we will continue to add to over the next couple of weeks as the emerging autumnal winds shake the fruit out of their splitting green outer casing. We will dry them in the warmth of the autumn sun and store them in a cool, dry room to be consumed throughout the coming months. Similarly with chestnuts, although these can be slightly more hazardous to collect due to the vicious spikes that protect them.

Over the years we have come to know the trees which produce the most succulent nuts and fruit and we will make sure our walks include them. Occasionally you will see the evidence of other foragers who have beaten us to it but they are few and far between. We have a mature walnut tree in our garden which is not in the best of conditions but with some TLC, this year it has quite a few fruits on it which will will harvest soon.

We mostly eat walnuts as they are or baked in apple and walnut sponge cakes. I take my Mum a bag full and she will use them in a wonderful coffee and walnut cake recipe. The chestnuts will either be roasted slowly on top of the log fire on a cool autumn evening or peeled, boiled and added to a chestnut and winter vegetable casserole...delicious.

You may remember that earlier in the year we pickled green walnuts. These are now ready for eating and can be enjoyed with cheese, salads, veggie burgers and so on....