Friday, December 12, 2014

The winter pantry

With winter just around the corner it is always comforting to know that the pantry is full, that there are fresh vegetables in the garden and that the freezers are packed with this year's crops. Despite the long drought of summer we have had a good year for growing crops and where possible we have feasted on fresh from the plot produce, shared excess with friends and preserved or composted the remainder.

The vegetable plots are still producing well and we are currently harvesting large white bulbs of Florence fennel, swede, carrots, ruby chard, winter lettuce, leeks, the last of the beetroot and bundles of fresh herbs. Still to come anytime soon is celeriac (one of our favourite vegetables), flower sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli.

Luis has just returned from his sister's (Rita) where twice a year they slaughter the pigs and process the meat into joints, cured ham, chorizo, salami and black pudding. In Spain this is known as the matanza. We have written about this in the past and you can read about it here if you want to know more and see pictures of some of the work. We are always offered goodies to bring home but being vegetarian we of course decline apart from a couple of packs of chorizo we keep in stock for visitors. Rita always sends loads of food for us as she produces enough to feed half of Castilla y Leon. This time we have 4 dozen eggs, 20 butternut squash, 30 jars of tomato pisto, sack of red peppers, 15 kilos of quince, cabbages, pears.... (we won't be going hungry).

We also have a wonderful rich Christmas cake baked by my Aunt in the UK which we will continue to nourish with a tot of brandy from time to time and coffee and walnut cakes and a box of delicious chocolate biscuits my Mum sent...I doubt they will last long.

Whilst in Castilla, Luis bought locally produced honey (30 Kilos) which we use mainly in place of refined sugar. At 5€ a kilo it is such good value and we know for certain it has not been adulterated with glucose syrup. He also bough quite a few kilos of chickpeas, lentils and beans which are grown in that region and that we know to be of good quality and freshly dried. Ruben, Luis' younger brother brought us 10 kilos of sweet unwaxed and undyed oranges and 5 kilos of manderine oranges he sources direct from growers in Murcia, the oranges are so sweet and what we don't eat will be made into jam.

All in all our winter pantry is at full capacity and our gifts of food, what we grow and what we forage will sustain us, our visitors and our friends over the coming winter months. We have a lot to be thankful for and an awful lot to look forward.

And finally, a photograph of Luis and his new niece, Ruben and Veronica's daughter, Sara (8 weeks). So cute...

Monday, December 08, 2014

Caqui, Hachiya, Sharon Fruit, Persimmon...

We really look forward to this time of year when the local Caqui trees offer up their bright orange, plump fruit. There are one or two trees growing locally yet not many people eat the fruit. This means that we are often gifted a basket full in various stages of ripeness.

The Caqui (as it's known in Spain) is full of vitamins, minerals and tannins and is considered as the divine fruit. There are two types, the astringent and non-astringent varieties. The ones that grow in Spain are mainly the astringent variety which need to be picked when unripe and left to ripen slowly. Eat them before they are fully ripe and you'll probably never eat another, indulge when they are at their best and you'll never get enough of their soft, sweet and delicate perfumed taste. The secret is to eat them when the outer skin becomes easily pitted and the flesh inside is very, very soft and jelly-like - a stage known as bletted. Scoop out spoonfuls of divine fruit.

Many people we know have seen them on the supermarket shelves, or in a basket at the green grocers but few have taken the opportunity to buy and try. It's the same with many fruits and vegetables that are unfamiliar. I suppose it's because we don't know how to prepare them or how to use them in cooking or when they are ready to eat? We were the same with the caqui. We ow know that not only are they delicious when ripe but they are also very versatile and can be used in a wide range of dishes including sweet tarts, chutney, jams, cakes, biscuits... and so on. More ideas can be found here: Recipes

If you do see them around please try one but remember, you have to leave it to blet for it to be loved...

Further information about varieties and health benefits can be found here: Health Benefits

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Distractions on a deserted beach

Returning to Asturias after an extended period spent in the UK, one thing I look forward to is walking on one of Asturias' many unspoilt and deserted beaches. Apart from a few weeks in summer the beaches here are peaceful, free from crowds and perfect for letting your thoughts to and fro in rhythm with the ebb and flow of the tide.

We have had lots of wet weather of late and the temperatures have dropped but it doesn't stop us making the most of briefest of sunny spells and seeking distraction on our local beaches.

A walk on the beach is the perfect opportunity to find exciting pebbles, sea glass, driftwood and shells.

The ripples in the sand form tantalising patterns mirrored by the strata of nearby exposed rocks.

Birds fly low along the water's edge and flocks of gulls rest in the warmth of the later afternoon sunshine.

Despite the changing landscape of daily life, there is comfort in walking with the tides as they ebb and flow, taking away deritus and returning unsullied sands ready for the next footsteps to pass by lost in distraction.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Working with a chainsaw - evaluating the Log Master

Last week we spoke about the acquisition of a new bit of kit - a Log Master. We have now used it and here is what we think.

Before our evaluation, just to let you know, we have no commercial interest in this product, just a personal wish to stay as safe as possible and as free from injury whilst using dangerous equipment. You should always carry out your own research, read instructions and take note of health and safety issues before using any tools or machinery.

We tend to process a lot of wood each year despite buying the bulk of it already cut to an appropriate length. We are often gifted fallen or dying trees which need processing or we have to cut our previously purchased wood in half to fit the smaller log burner which is sited in the studio (this saves buying two different lots).

The trees we fell are processed on site then transported back home where we will cut and spilt them into an appropriate size. Up until now we have cut the wood to size using a home-made saw horse for supporting the logs and branches as they are cut with a chainsaw. This has always been a two man operation, one to hold the logs/branches and one to operate (with two hands) the chainsaw. No matter how many health and safety precautions you take e.g, the right protective gloves, clothing, the correct position and posture, the regular and correct maintenance of the chainsaw etc, there is always a feeling that something unexpected could happen and accidents could occur especially if you have a momentary lapse of concentration. In short, we were never totally happy working this way.

On coming across the Log Master, I was encouraged by the sturdy metal saw horse that came complete with a guarded clamp/mount for a standard sized chainsaw. In essence this would allow a one handed operation of the chainsaw leaving one hand to hold the log secure in the saw horse. The addition of a guard protecting the top of the chainsaw was an additional draw as this would minimise the possibility of broken chains causing serious injury. Anyone who has used a chainsaw for an extended period of time, will recognise that is does put a strain on your back, hopefully, a one handed operation will also minimise this.

The review:

Setting up the Log Master - The sawhorse and clamp feel a good weight and well made. Putting together the various elements was straight forward enough with minimal tools required. The instructions were clear and photographs helped. The only slight hurdle was positioning the clamping mechanism correctly to ensure the chainsaw could pivot fully but this was soon sorted. We made sure the chain was sharp, the chainsaw refuelled and filled with oil before mounting. Positioning the chainsaw in the clamp was easy enough but it was helpful to have a second pair of hands to hold the chainsaw in position whilst the clamp was being tightened. Making sure the clamp handle did not interfere with the operation of a the pivot was also something that became obvious early on.

We cut the wood on rough ground near the wood store so the addition of adjustable legs was a bonus which ensured the saw horse and chainsaw were stable. We were also able to adjust the height of the sawhorse to a comfortable level to avoid working with a bent back.

Using the Log Master - The chainsaw was mounted so starting up was a different experience but nothing we couldn't manage. Our chainsaw tends to be temperamental when cold and you need to keep it on low revs for a while until warmed up so we couldn't just leave it ticking along in the clamp. Saying that, once it was warm we could walk away and leave it running whilst loading the next log. The cutting action felt very different as well with one hand and on a vertical pivot action. It was noisier than usual but that was probably due to the saw horse and guard being metal whereas before our sawhorse was wooden. The pivot was self-limiting which ensured you could not cut through the cutting guide. We both used the chainsaw and Log Master and found that it felt safer, easier to use individually and together, put less overall strain on the back and once used to the pivot movement, it was an efficient way of cutting.

Conclusion - We both felt much safer using the Log Master although in our excitement we forgot to wear goggles and a face guard... which in it's own way gives us an important message: Don't be lulled into a false sense of security. With the mounted chainsaw, guard and one handed operation it is easy to forget that the chainsaw is one dangerous piece of kit and should be treat with respect at all times. We both feel it was a good investment (just over £100) and would recommend it to anyone who uses a chainsaw for domestic wood cutting. It cleaned down easily after use and with the chainsaw removed, folded flat for easier storage.

Stay safe - stay warm...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Autumnal jobs around the garden - the working area

Every season brings with it the need to keep on top of work in and around the garden. Autumn is especially busy for us. Surrounded by mature trees, we have many fallen leaves to collect which provide us with leaf mold for the following year. The colours of autumn are especially vivid this year prompted by an extended warm and dry period followed by cooler and damper weather.

Our main working area in the garden is down by the potting shed. When we first came here we built a partition hedge/fence around it made out of coppiced twigs, branches and logs: an idea we saw first used at Worsborough Reservoir in Barnsley, UK. This has worked well for us and has not only provided a natural looking compound around the working area but also a haven for wildlife including slow worms, beetles, lizards, birds, amphibians, mice and many moths and other insects which are so important in maintaning the natural balance in and around our vegetable beds and small orchard. We call this creation a fedge for want of a better word.

The fedge has served us well and each year we add more and more surplus branches and used bean poles and such which over time rot down and provide a valuable habitat - a functional and manicured wood pile. From time to time we have repaired it with new supports cut from coppiced hazel and last year we added discreet iron bars to help hold its shape and substance.

This year we will have a lot of coppiced hazel to add to the fedge so we decided to purchase some treated posts which will increase the height of the fedge and enable us to add a lot more material.

At the same time of renovating the fedge we decided that the leaf bin needed replacing as it had begun to rot and break apart. Fortunately we had a few pallets in stock from recent building work so with a bit of tweaking, a few nails and a staple gun we were able to produce a replacement leaf bin which is much stronger, slightly bigger and that will last us a good few years.  We will need to think about replacing the compost bins next year and we still need to re-treat the shed with preservative but for now, the working area is once again fully functional and will serve us well in the coming weeks as the autumnal garden jobs are tackled.

More creatures from our garden can be found on Smaller Tales from Toriello

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.