Thursday, August 25, 2011

Downsizing - less is more


Hard work pays dividends
It’s been five years since we took a conscious decision to alter our lives drastically, abandon a decent full-time salary and downsize, abroad. Asturias on the north coast of Spain had captured our imagination and hearts when we came here on holiday several years previously.

Since relocating, many people comment on how lucky we are and how idyllic our lives must be. We are and it is, but not in the way some people believe it to be. Yes you can sit on the terrace and drink gin and tonic, you can laze away your summer days on the beach and you can eat out fairly cheap, in fact some people do opt for the extended holiday type existence. The problem is those who opt for the sun and sangria approach soon get bored, they find that their social circle is, in the main ex-pats, and they moan constantly about how much better it is back in the UK.

Downsizing and relocating brings with it many challenges, in fact twice the challenge of just relocating. For a starter, it can be hard work. Living on a reduced income means that you do what you can for yourself over and above hiring someone to do it for you or buying it in. Leaving family and friends behind is a wrench but on the positive side, they have a holiday home whenever they can get over...

Given the option to fell a tree, generously offered by a neighbour, knowing full well you will have to: use a lethal weapon (chainsaw) to chop down a 30 foot dying cherry tree; process it into firewood size chunks; transport it; stack it; clear up all the non-usable stuff, or to buy a lorry load from a local merchant, we opt for the former.

Growing vegetables year-round does never just happen. After 5 years, we rarely buy vegetables but they come at a price. There is ground to be dug, compost to be made, manure to be brought and added to the beds, seeds to be sown that will need daily care, pests and diseases to contend with that could potentially devastate your crop, tying and staking, watering and weeding, and hopefully, harvesting.

You have a glut of vegetable, several times a year, all requiring processing or storing. This results in full days in the kitchen making pickle, pisto, pesto and jams. Whilst you wait for things to cook, you decide to make bread, which eventually becomes routine as you rediscover the pure satisfaction that is home-baked bread. You cook fresh food and rarely long for convenience food, instead you develop your own and freeze it. Over time you become increasingly imaginative with courgettes and beans, you soon learn that there is more than one way to preserve the fruits of your hard work. Tomato jam, now there’s a first for many.

Home-made soap - nothing better...
DIY takes on a new meaning. After several bad experiences, DIY has come to stand for  “do it yourself as you can probably do it much better than someone else and considerably cheaper”. You learn new skills through trial, error and advice from great neighbours past (Terry and Bob) and present. You begin to realise that small-scale building projects and ongoing maintenance work doesn't necessarily need an estimate nor a shaking of the head that signals this is going to cost. You begin to believe that “actually, I could do that myself”.

Downsizing has never only been about having less money to spend but a conscious decision to try to be more responsible with the earth’s resources. Reduce, re-use and recycle has become the new mantra. In addition, something that was told to me by my mother on more than one occasion has become second nature as we assess our need for more possessions i.e. “Do you really need it and can you really afford it? If the answer is no, maybe, not really or possibly, then we do without. We have reduced our need for stuff considerably by leading a simpler life where it isn’t necessary to be virtually attached 24 hours to a transmitter, where television isn’t our main source of entertainment and where shopping trips are planned when real need arises. We make do and mend where possible and entertain ourselves in much more creative and productive ways.

There is no doubt that this change of direction in our lives has resulted in a complete re-think and re-evaluation of what is important in life. Gone are the days when we sit in traffic jams on our way to work for organisations that are so wrapped up in the politics of managing that they have forgotten what they are there for. Gone are the days when we would spend silly amounts of money on the latest must haves and holidays that were over before they began. Gone are the days where you sit daydreaming and wishing your life away as you cannot wait for the weekend to arrive.

Our new life isn’t perfect, but whose is? The joy of living in a place that you never tire of discovering, the taste of home-grown food, the sense of pride you feel in what you build, make and mend, the daily walks though traffic free country lanes and caminos (small lanes and footpaths), the time to pursue your hobbies and interests and the never-ending motivation to get out of bed in a morning as you are really looking forward to your day makes it all worthwhile.

Overall, it has been the right decision for us. What has become clear is that relocation has been the vehicle and stimulus for change. Downsizing is much easier when you do not have the constant competitiveness of careers, when you are not constantly bombarded with advertising telling you that you life sucks without possessions and when you can take the necessary steps to take stock and re-assess what is important. On reflection, we could have downsized anywhere and not necessarily relocate abroad. The trouble is, when you are in the thick of it, those brief moments of sanity when you think “there has to be more to life than this” are swept away by the constant stream of detritus that comes with a life of convention and expectation.

Chemical free food

Ian Hicken 2011 ©

Monday, August 22, 2011

Visiting mammals

When our friends John and Be recently lent us their brand new Trail Cam I was expecting some interesting results but thought it would take a few days before we managed to film anything of interest at night in the garden... but I was wrong:

Can you guess what it is? Please leave suggestions in comments

La Pasera is surrounded on three sides by fields, cuetos (rocky outcrops and meadows), caves and woodland. We often hear larger mammals scurrying around after dusk, some of which you can identify but others impossible to see or name.
Taken by John Shackleton
Deer can be often heard, especially the barking of the males, but rarely seen. On occasion we can identify the small herds of wild boar by their rough low pitched growls as they turn over turf looking for bulbs and roots. Rodents of various kinds can be heard gnawing away of fallen nuts with their teeth and hedgehogs can be seen hurrying around looking for slugs, earthworms and beetles, grunting as they work their way around the garden.

We have recently seen a beautiful young red squirrel perched in the top of the old cherry tree, brought to our attention by Gawber who sat for ages trying to work out if it was worth the effort of pursuit. Some years ago, we found a young pine marten during daylight hours, in the longer grass near the hut but have not seen once since.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A day at the Rastrillo

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For the past few years we have hosted a stall at the annual Rastrillo in the village of Nueva a few kilometers from home. The market is organised by a small committee who raise funds for Doctors without Borders. It takes place on the main street and is very much a mixed bag of stalls and people but never-the-less very enjoyable. We each pay a few Euros per meter of space which is donated to the the charity.

Sara and Maria Esther

Each year we have used the stall to demonstrate chair restoration i.e. cane work and rush seating. Luis usually demonstrates rush and I, the cane. This year Luis' sister Maria Esther wanted to join us to sell her handmade brooches and key rings. Made of felt, leather, beads and other bits and bobs, they are really popular here in Spain at the moment. Her reproductions of animals, symbols, sweets and a host of other designs are really attractive and extremely well made and thought out. With the economy subdued this year we decided to only demonstrate cane seating and not rush, thereby releasing me for the day....only to be on catering duty for the 6 or so relatives and friends who needed feeding.

There were about 25 stalls selling: second hand games and toys, clothing, wooden garden furniture, antiques and bric-a-brac, fair trade chocolate, sweets and coffee, painted roof tiles and chairs of course. All in all considering less people and a bit of a drizzly overcast day, they did really well with Luis selling three cane-seated chairs and taking orders for restoration of others and Maria Esther selling about 60 brooches and key rings.

Meanwhile, back at home a feast was being prepared...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Toriello - our village

It struck me the other day that we rarely talk about the village where we live, Toriello. Having been here nearly 6 years now, we know everyone to one degree or another and often pass the time of day with each other as our paths cross.

Toriello has a permanent residency of around 50 people and an influx of visitors in summer, spending time in their holiday homes or visiting family. The village is a collection of houses that are spread over a fairly wide area  and at its centre lies a small village chapel, an old school house (no longer used as a school) and a small village square that is actually triangular. The main north coast narrow gauge railway passes through the centre of the village with small rural trains every couple of hours, a steel train bound for Aviles once a day and the weekly passing through of the Trans Cantabrico, a tourist train that takes it's occupants on a very luxurious journey through the delights of northern Spain.


Sited about 1 km from the coast and the Bay of Biscay, we can trek along one of many cattle routes and small caminos to the cliffs and the impressive limestone blow holes that litter the coast line.

One of the many blowholes reaching 300mtrs

Being on the direct route of the Camino de Santiago, we see many back packer pilgrims making their way along the northern coastal route through Asturias, to Galicia. Stopping of at the village fountain to refresh their water bottles and take a short break before they set off for Ribadesella for an overnight stay. Invariably when we meet pilgrims on the path, they enquire how long it will take to reach Ribadesella. Luis always adds on 15 minutes or so in the belief that when they reach town earlier than expected, they will be pleased with their progress and it will brighten their day.

The majority of residents of Toriello are Asturian born and bred and many have not travelled widely however, we do have a healthy population of incomers from Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, UK and other parts of Spain, a few of whom are permanent residents.

Although the Spanish don't neighbour in the same way as we used to in the UK, they do often spontaneously gather on the corner of the lane, outside one of their homes or at the edge of a vegetable plot and discuss the news of the day, the weather, the harvests and the local gossip, nothing malicious, just catching up on each other and enquiring after old friends and neighbours they may not have seen for a while.

Tino, Tina, Vito, (just behind) Luis
A few people in the village make their own cider from the abundant apple orchards that surround the village. Invariably, if we stop for a catch up, the chilled cider comes out and is distributed by the host in a single glass, in turn. - a gesture of sharing. The cider is a still cider and is traditionally poured from above head height to oxygenate it before drinking - only 50 mls or so are taken at a time and then the glass is returned for the next one in line. It's strong, especially when drunk during the day....needless to say, we try and make sure that we bump into people on the way back, rather than on the way out to our daily walk.

Tino - expert cider maker

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Saved by Tortilla: 50 years a vegetarian

Being vegetarian most of my life, there are numerous stories that illustrate the problems associated with not eating meat or fish in a world where meat and fish dominates people's daily food. Having travelled extensively in the past it now seems quite strange that I choose to settle in the one country where being vegetarian is akin to being an alien.

I must say that we have found one or two vegetarian restaurants in Spain that are excellent but on the whole, especially in Asturias, vegetarians are not catered for. The dialogue usually goes along the following lines when ordering food in a bar or restaurant:

Me: I am vegetarian, I do not eat meat or fish, what can you serve me?
Waiter: We have lovely liver.
Me: No meat, fish or offal.
Waiter: We have seafood, lovely seafood.
Me: No meat, fish, offal or seafood.
Waiter: Ah, we have vegetable soup.
Me: Does it have ham or a ham bone in it?
Waiter: Yes, but that is only for flavour...
Me: Can you do scrambled eggs?
Waiter: Yes but they have sea urchin eggs in.
Me: Can you ask if they can do the eggs without sea urchin eggs?

At this point, the waiter usually slopes off into the kitchen and after a few minutes, the cook (granny), assistant cook (daughter), the washer up (grand daughter) and whoever else happens to be in the kitchen, appear with their heads peering around a half open door trying to spot this strange alien  - mind you, he is English....

Some restaurants in the past have refused to cook anything other than what appears in the menu whilst others offer a simple egg dish or plain salad. In the majority of cases, the one life saver that can always be relied upon for sustenance is Tortilla - even then you have to be careful that it is a plain tortilla and not cooked with chorizo, ham or tuna fish. Here is our recipe for a life saving Tortilla.

Tortilla de patatas

Peel and dice enough potato to fill a non-stick frying pan, add one finely chopped onion. Sauté in olive oil until the potato and onion is cooked and slightly browned and caramalised. A lid can be used to speed up the frying and reduce the amount of oil used. Season with salt.

Meanwhile, whisk about 6 eggs (for an average sized frying pan) and add any herbs you fancy. Thyme or sage work well but are not traditionally used.

Add the cooked potato and onion to the egg mixture and mix carefully - a thickish creamy consistency is required. Add a touch more oil to the pan, bring to heat then add the mixture to the pan. Cook for several minutes until browned and partially set (steam vents come out of the mixture). Turning at this stage can be problematic but here in Spain we use a special plate with a handle on but a dinner plate could be used if need be. Put the plate on the tortilla over the pan, lift and quickly turn the pan and plate. Add a touch more oil to the pan and bring to heat, carefully slide the tortilla back into the pan until cooked to taste.

Remove from the pan by turning with the plate and pan again, leave to cool and serve with fresh salad. A life saver!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Course: Weaving a cane seat - Cursillo: Restauración de sillas en Rejilla

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Short course in chair restoration – Weaving a cane seat.

Dates: October 7-9th 

Venue: Asturias, Spain

Cost €200 (includes materials, lunch and refreshments)


Due to demand generated from I am pleased to offer a short course in chair restoration – weaving a chair seat in rattan cane. The course will include:

1.   Preparing a chair for restoration
2.   Materials and techniques
3.   Finishing and aftercare

At the end of the course the participants will have woven a seat using rattan cane.

The course will take place in a workshop at La Pasera. There will be a maximum of 5 participants on each course to ensure quality tuition from the instructor Luis Laso Casas. 

Luis has been restoring cane and rush seating for the past 10 years. He has re-caned and re-rushed chairs old and new from a variety of sources. From exhibition pieces to dining room suites, boudoir chairs to Thonet, he has restored somewhere in the region of 500 chairs and overcome many challenges to accomplish the craftsman finish that has become his trademark. There maybe both English and Spanish participants on the course but as Luis is bi-lingual, this is not a problem. You can also practice your Spanish is you so wish!
The programme will commence on Friday lunchtime with an informal chat and lunch. The course will be structured to ensure maximum support for participants and where necessary, one to one tuition. A vegetarian lunch will be provided on each day the course. If you are unsure about anything or if you require further information, please contact Luis at :  artesanialapasera @ (no spaces) Telephone 0034 646436562

Cursillo de restauración de sillas: Rejilla

A consecuencia del número de gente quienes me han preguntado donde poder aprender a tejer un asiento de rejilla, esterillado francés, me complace el poner a su disposición los siguientes cursillos de restauración de asientos de rejilla o rattán.


7, 8 y 9 de Octubre del 2011


Ribadesella, Asturias, España.


El curso incluye:

Preparación del asiento antes de la restauración.
Materiales y herramientas
Tintes y cuidados.
Al final del cursillo, los participantes habrán aprendido la tecnica basica para tejer artesanalmente la rejilla usando junquillo o tireta de rattán.


€200.00. La matrícula incluye los materiales, tres comidas principales basadas en una cocina vegetariana y bebidas no alcohólicas durante el día. Puedo facilitar una pequeña lista de hoteles cercanos donde los participantes puedan alojarse durante el cursillo.

Aquellos interesados en participar en este cursillo deben ponerse en contacto con: Luis Laso Casas a través del email


El número de plazas está limitado a un máximo de 5 participantes.