Saturday, February 26, 2011

La Matanza - Slaughtering and processing a pig

There are many places, not only in Asturias but also across the whole of Spain, where during the Winter months, you may still come across "la matanza" or pig slaughter. In Asturias the matanza has become a fiesta in many towns and villages, where people come together in the village hall to enjoy some pork based dishes or go out to some of the restaurants that prepare traditional and modern dishes cooked with pork.

My sister Rita, the matriarch in our family, traditionally organises the matanza in December and January on a Saturday when people are off work and available to help as it is such a big job. Ian, being a vegetarian, needless to say, stays at home.

The matanza cycle starts during Spring when 4 piglets are purchased from a  local pig breeder. The pigs never get named as this practice would make it harder when it comes to Winter time. Over the next few months these piglets will be reared and fed with a range of grains and vegetable matter that comes from her small-holding. The surplus vegetables and fruit that she produces in her large vegetable plot is always enjoyed by the pigs with ripe tomatoes and figs being their favourite.

As the Winter sets in Castilla, the cold weather brings the beginning of a new matanza season and friends and family are notified of the when the matanza will take place.

On Friday, we all start arriving to help. The matanza is always such a big event and an opportunity to get together. The first job to be done is peeling and chopping about 50 kg of onions to make the black pudding. You always hope your eyes will not react to the onions - onions are one of the main ingredient in this black pudding recipe, a recipe which has handed down (verbally) through the generations and is very specific to that part of Castilla.

A big rustic bread loaf is thinly sliced to be soaked in the pigs blood and to be added to the black pudding. It is interesting to hear from those who try Rita's black pudding, they say it is the best they have ever had. Of the 100 or so black pudding made, she keeps very few as there is an extensive list of friends and family who are given some to take home.
The skin is cleaned and clear of hair
Saturday is the big day and my brother, Ruben, would have arranged for some of his friends to come for the matanza which starts with us all sampling one of the several home made orujos (liqueur) normally taken with a biscuit. As the outside temperatures are very low, -10 Celsius is frequent, you welcome the warmth  that the orujo gives you. I quite enjoy the orange orujo, one has to make an exception on such gatherings and drink early in the day.

Once the two pigs are slaughtered, the butchering commences. Once the hairs have been carefully burnt away with long rye grass collected during the Summer, the carcasses are washed and cleaned.

A sample of each pig is taken to the vets for analysis and everyone gets ready to come in for a big lunch. The table will be set for anything between 15 and 20 people gathering to enjoy a typical lunch based on legume,  pork and vegetable stew for which Castilla is famous for and that does not go on too long as the black puddings need cooking and this will take us into the evening as there is always two lots of black pudding to be made.

Sunday is a busy day and with an early start we all gather to process the different joints. We usually have jobs allocated according to experience and ability. The meat destined for chorizo is minced with a hand mixer as this ensures a better texture than an electric one and it is usually one of the younger ones the one who will do most of the mincing. The minced meat is seasoned with rock salt before is marinaded in paprika, oregano, garlic, black pepper and a bit of brandy or red wine. This will be processed later on in the week and piped into casings before hanging up to be aired cured.

Another big lunch is celebrated with the 10 to 15 people helping on the morning. After lunch they gather around before starting their journey back home and are given a package containing black puddings, some chorizo mixture and a joint of meat. The rest of the joints are bathed in a mixture of water and paprika: oregano and salt is added before leaving for some time to marinade.

Monday is a quite day when I enjoy a drive to visit some historical building nearby or one of the numerous Romanesque churches for which Palencia, the province I was born, is famous for. On other occasions, it is nice to wrap up and take the dogs for a walk within a landscape that I am very familiar with and where you can look into the uninterrupted views for miles.

Tuesday is another early day as the piping and stringing of the chorizo and salami mixture, 50 to 60 kg in total, will take some time. Eventually the chorizo and salami will be taken to a cold and dark room to be left to be aired cured. The photo shows chorizo and hams curing.

For me the matanza finishes on Wednesday after the meat that was left to marinate is hung in a warm and dry place to partially cure for a few days before it is preserved in oil. This traditional home curing of the pork requires experience as it does not rely on carefully controlled environments and the using of chemicals.
The matanza is a tradition some people would find difficult to be involved with. I personally only eat meat that comes from Rita's as I know for sure the pigs have been fed a natural diet, I am happy with how the animals have been reared and how the meat has been processed. Although it is tempting to become a vegetarian, each year I enjoy helping with the matanza and returning home with some of the marinated meat, chorizo, black puddings, salami and ham. I always enjoy sharing with those who eat meat friends and family who come to stay. It is easy to buy in shops and butchers marinated pork, chorizo and cured ham but Rita's is certainly in a league of its own and much nicer hence the reason I occasionally still eat some meat.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pruning fruit trees

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We have a small orchard here at La Pasera, well Luis tells me that 6 or more trees makes an orchard, so we must have. We have about 12 trees ranging from apple, plum, pear and peach and about another 6 or 7 more wild cherry, orange, nuts and avocado. The orchard part of the garden needed pruning so that we can maximise fruit production. The fruit bushes: gooseberry, red and black current will also be pruned very soon. The raspberry and blackberry are already pruned and trained.

Luis set about the younger trees that fruited for the first time, last year. Some of the pruning is to shape the tree at this young age, to keep the fruit at a sensible height and to encourage fruiting spurs. It might affect this year's crop but it'll be worth it in the end.
We have two very old apple trees that have been neglected for many years, part of the original orchard where the house is now built. We need to make decisions soon on how to manage these as the first drastic prune prompted turbo charged growth resulting in the trees growing unacceptably high. They are really passed their best but being such mature trees, they look integrated with the garden and add some welcome shade in summer., besides, Wentworth and Gawber use them for play-fights and viewing platforms.

Looking forward to our first oranges

Friday, February 18, 2011

A painter's palette from the market

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We recently visited Gijon's Sunday market. This is a sprawling and diverse market we sometimes like to visit, you can browse and buy a range of items including clothing, shoes, fruit and veg, plants, second hand items... If nothing else, you can think of the visit as a big theatre stage where you are both an actor and an observer.

On this particular occasion, Ian spotted this painter's palette covered in a rainbow of dry oil paints. Some time  ago we admired a similar palette in an antique shop and although very attractive, it was just too expensive. The price tag of the one in the market meant we could not leave it behind. Admiring the random way in which the colours were mixed by the painter can lead your imagination run wild and to think of a miriad of posibilities. It was a pleasant coincidence to have came across an article on the palettes used by different well known painters, click here  to view the full article or Click here if you wish to read the story Ian wrote in his writing blog, inspired by the palette.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Otter part two: footage


With Luis busy, I took an unexpected opportunity to walk the Rio Sella with Be the other day. After sighting the otters for eleven consecutive days, Be was pretty confident that we would see at least one of them for a brief moment at least. After walking for 30 minutes or so we were beginning to feel disappointed and decided to watch a goosander as it navigated a small waterfall and rapids. Suddenly Be waved her lens at me and shouted, in a whispery sort of way, to look down river. Sure enough he (the dog otter) was there. Surfacing and diving, bringing bites of food to the surface, turning on his back and chewing away.

His constant dives meant he was hard to follow as you never knew where he would surface. He stopped, several times and look straight at us, probably to assess the threat but fortunately, carried on and became more adventurous and confident.

He surfaced with a medium sized eel and carried it off to the far bank at the foot of the fall, where he devoured it with gusto. Occasionally he stopped and checked his surroundings by sight, smell and sounds. He circumnavigated the rocks and waterfall on the bank, disappearing into fallen trees and reappearing as he plopped into the water on the topside.

We watched, photographed and filmed his antics for up to 30 minutes, losing him from time to time but locating him when water was disturbed or ducks flew.

I have more film but the files are just too big to load with our limited bandwidth.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Restoring Rush Chairs

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Luis has just spent the past few weeks rushing a set of dining room chairs for a client who has a holiday home in Asturias. There were eight chairs in the set plus two others - a huge amount of work that has taken him about 150 hours. Drop-in seated chairs are much more difficult to handle and therefore take more time. In addition, we have had difficulties in sourcing rush which turned out to be of poorer quality than usual so he took a lot of time selecting and discarding material that wasn't up to standard. Using a combination of Spanish and Dutch rush to complete the chairs, they have turned out well and look great.

Our supplier in the UK has stopped importing rush and Spanish rush is also proving difficult to source. We know there are still commercial growers and suppliers in the Netherlands so we are busy making enquiries via our friend Marleen from El Paraiso del Burro who is originally from Holland and who still has many contacts there.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Otters in the Rio Sella

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For some weeks now we have been trying to catch sight of the otters that live in the Rio Sella. Following several unsuccessful attempts last year, we have joined John and Be (they live close by and see them regularly) on an early morning jaunt to try and spot them. Sure enough after a freezing start, and quick to clear fog, John tracked him down to one of his favourite eating stops. He was around for a good 10 minutes or so eating the remnants of a Lamprey, then took off up river, diving and surfacing until he disappeared out of sight.

This was the male we managed to photograph on the far bank as he ate and made haste. John and Be (the otter spotter) have also seen a female this year with two pups.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Walking in Asturias 9 - Torre Blanca, (The White Tower) y Punta Gregoriana (Gregorian Top)

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Some of the Western Massif peaks
The walk I would like to tell you about today starts with a 1 hour drive from La Pasera, up to the Western Massif, the heart of the Picos Mountains National Park. This beautiful drive takes you up a narrow and winding road until you reach Lake Ercina, the second of two glacial lakes at an altitude of about 1200 m. Lake Ercina is the most visited spot in the National Park. The joy of experiencing the quality of the light of the dawning sun as you drive up to the lake is complemented by the numerous shadows that the early sun rays cast over the lime stone peaks.

Leaving the car on the shore of the lake, we start walking on animal tracks up to the base of the peaks through the area known as La Cereceda, a featureless expanse of grass and lime stone. Navigation is the main challenge on this walk at times requiring one of us to stay put while the other goes forward in search of the next waymark, a few stones piled up and easily missed. It is times like this when you really appreciate walking with someone who is good at navigating.

Some snow remains 
Although the greenery comes scarce as you gain altitude, it is always such a treat to come across a variety of alpine plants growing in crevices. The impressive deep ravines and size of the peaks we come across on this walk provided us with such an impressive back drop to some fabulous and very dramatic landscape and views that make you forget the hardships of climbing the peaks. It never fails to amaze me the incredible views from the top. I always enjoy the 360 degree views that you are rewarded when you "crown" the peak.

The top of many peaks is crowned by a sort of letter box like the one on the previous photo that tell you the name and height of that particular peak. There are times when you open these letter boxes to find a note with some information about the people who left it, the route they took up to the top and the weather conditions they encountered on the day.
On the peak of Torre Blanc

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Home-baked bread

Making our own bread has become part of the routine here at La Pasera. Bread in Spain tends to be either of no substance or far too expensive. Unable to find a baker who can provide the sort of bread we enjoy, we have developed a recipe that works for us and one that involves little or no kneading. To top it all, it tastes great.

Home-baked bread - Humous on standby

We usually bake about 6 or 7 loaves at a time and freeze them. So we only need to bake about every 10 days or so. Fresh yeast is readily available and is easy to use and gets better results than dried yeast. Organic flour is used in various mixes i.e. using various combinations of wholmeal, white, Rye, corn, and spelt. Mixed seeds are often added and other flavours sometimes used such as onion seed, malted barley or pesto. We tend to make the bread mix more sticky than normal which seriously reduces the need to knead as it helps release the gluten from the flour. We always let it rise twice, once as a whole in a rather large bowl and then a second rise in the tins.

Left over dough can be used for pizza bases or a few extra bread rolls.

Basic Recipe for 6-7 loaves:

These are the key ingredients that can be adjusted to suit your own taste and method. Other ingredients can be added such as herbs, spices, flavoured oils, olives, pesto, sautéed onion....etc.

3kg Flour (any mix you like: wheat, rye, corn, spelt, malted)
100gm of fresh yeast
salt 25g (to taste)
1500-1600 mls Lukewarm water
150 ml Sunflower oil (other flavoured oils can be used sparingly)
Seeds (sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, flax, poppy, onion...) (To your taste)
(If available) Malted Barley Extract 2 dessert spoons
(If not) 1 dessert spoon of sugar or honey

The key to a no knead approach is to mix your dough slightly stickier than normal - hence the need to adjust the water according to the type of flour used. Some, like wholemeal and rye, might absorb more liquid. Handling is easier if you grease/oil your hands to handle the dough.
Mix water, yeast, sugar or malt extract in large bowl. Dissolve. Add half of the flour, oil and seeds, mix with wooden spoon until smooth (ish) add remainder of flour and salt, mix with spoon until formed into a whole. Final bringing the dough together with oiled hand. Cover with cloth, leave to rise for approx 60-90 mins. Lightly form dough into large lump, divide, shape and pop into greased tins or tray. Cover with cloth until risen (30-40 mins). Pop into oven 190 C for 30 minutes. Cool out of tins on wire tray.