There is nothing in our gardening library about late-season gleaning being hazardous. Oooooooooooooh that hurts.
The vegetation behind the farmhouse, once an orderly patch of colourful produce, now an all but abandoned knot of wilderness, took its time to clock that winter was pending.
The woody tomato, aubergine, pepper, melon and courgette plants may have keeled over and been swamped with weeds but they refused to give up the ghost. Up until a week ago we were still finding trug-loads of edibles beneath the riot of growth.
I suppose this is hardly surprising given the ludicrous autumn warmth (still 20+ degrees – 68F – most days) and the outpourings of our reformed spring. Until last weekend – more of that mildly moist sojourn in a moment – we’d had no serious rain since May. The reservoir was full though, so we were letting the water run on to the garden in the olive grove at the rate of 1000 litres an hour. That’s cheering for the rows of olive trees (which we are harvesting as you read this), but it has landed me in not one but two pickles.
Wild boar scent wet earth and make a beeline for it. What was once a pleasant late-night, star-gazing, 75-metre stroll to the pony corral to give La Petita her hay treat turned into a canter while wearing the alarmed expression of Private Fraser out of Dad’s Army.
I normally take the dogs with me but the other night I left it very late, too late. The mutts were snoring and I ventured off on my own. Fool. It was gone midnight. Halfway back to the house there was an angry grunt right beside me and I immediately leapt into action, sprinting to the back door like Usain Bolt.
For some reason the beasts didn’t up all the vegetables, so we continued our gleaning despite having precious little space left to store/freeze it.
That, however, has been the least of my worries. The peppers, which were meant to be of the passive variety have cross fertilised and turned aggressive.
A few days ago Maggie had me sitting at the kitchen table facing a large pile of green and red peppers, an empty bowl to my left, another to my right. Now, I’m not impartial to spicy food and can devour the occasional pencil-width, little-finger-length green chilli, so this was clearly a job I should handle. On reflection, maybe “handle” wasn’t the right word.
All I had to do was cut a little bit off the end, munch and decide it if was hot (left bowl) or not (right bowl). They also needed to be de-seeded and chopped up ready for the freezer.
It all started promisingly with three sweet peppers and I upped the pace and dropped my guard. Six consecutive sticks of dynamite later I had lost the power of speech…and my eyes were itching.
Yes, I should have worn gloves. No, I shouldn’t have rubbed my eyes. And, yes, I should have remembered which bowl was which.
Staggering painful, isn’t it, to realise just how long the spice stays on your figures, and how short your memory is when your eyes need a rub? I’ve been lying awake blinking and sucking air in through my teeth, thinking there must be a way to use the chopped peppers to dissuade the boar.
I need to tell you about the rain. Last Friday we were harvesting olives in our t-shirts. Then on Saturday the world turned upside down and it started snowing….which turned to sleet….which became stair-rod rain…. for 48 hours. Here they measure rainfall in litres per square metre. We have more an 240 litres, which is twenty four centimetres or, in English money, nine and a half inches. Blimey. That said, it is wonderful. The land can breathe, and maybe wild boar in search of soft earth will not swing by so often.
As usual we have failed to get to grips with the unmanageable quantities of benign quinces lying all over the place, but we at least we have not wasted one of the Muscat grapes (juice), and have squirreled vast reserves of walnuts, almonds and hazels. November breakfasts invariably begin with a squidgy ripe persimmon, a rare treat that will come to an end any day now, while another flavour of the month has been the rovello wild mushrooms from the pine forest.
Amid all this plenty there have been shoulder-rounding failures. The English runner beans feast never happened. Well, four pods to be precise. Despite our care and the favourable conditions only two of the 20 verdant, cane-high plants managed a flower apiece. What went wrong there? Answers on a postcard…..
We continue to pointlessly pluck innumerable cabbage white caterpillars from the ravaged cauliflowers, but we simply knelt and wondered at the swallowtail caterpillar Joe found on a fennel stalk. An observant lad, our Joe. His appreciation of the true world order rather than just the manufactured one is, for us, an essential counter-balance to the lure of comatose electronics.
Question – how many of you are aware of the new and vital Wild Network in the UK? We are supporting from afar. It is the wonderful harmonising of 400 charities and organisations nationwide who are chorusing for children to swap 30 minutes of television and computer screens every day to try and re-connect with nature; to raise their fitness, their alertness and, ultimately, their well-being.
Hal-le-lu-jah. You know how strongly we feel about this, having written in my books and in this newspaper that it is one of the fundamental reasons we moved to Mother’s Garden 13 years ago, when we ditched the TV and began leaving the back and front doors of our new home wide open.
I don’t know how anybody can fail to see the worth of the Wild Network. In a mad, economy-crazed world any galvanising movement to sell the idea that the great outdoors is the ultimate adventure is long overdue.
Beyond the awful thought that, somehow, children who are far more interested in “leading” fictional, sedentary lives in some surreal on-screen game are losing the life drivers of communication, energy, curiosity and true fulfilment, is the damning fact that this torpid generation will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Our generation is responsible. We have to find a way to, literally, reverse this disconnection.
See for yourself and – watch the short video online http://projectwildthing.com/film or see if you can source the full video on this website or through a local DVD outlet. Add your voice.
Ella has been home from London for few days, her first break since starting a film foundation course at The University of The Arts. We walked the valley and meandered down to deserted, dreamily peaceful beach a stone’s throw from artist Juan Miro’s farm; a world away from the rigours of our land and, indeed, the crowded banks of the Thames. Actually, it rather reminded me of treasured autumnal, pastel days of my youth, living within the sound of the North Sea – those still moments on the shiny sand when the world seems to hold it breath.
But before I go I have to tell you what we saw on Maggie’s recent birthday. We had lunch out after visiting Santes Creus, the vast, significant and rather beautiful Cistercian 12th century monastery about an hour from us.
The restaurant was buzzing and Joe was particularly impressed by a large, opulent Cadillac parked outside. We left at the same time as the car’s elderly owner who was being waved off my all the members of staff. Curious, I asked if the gentleman was significant in some way. Yes, they replied. He’s 90 years old.
He surged away and we followed him down the lane at a safe distance, watching the weaving Cadillac as it headed for the motorway. Then I started to weave too. The road was a mess of patches and dips and he was inch perfect in navigating through them. Had I been wearing a hat…..
We now have a business Facebook page with almost daily updates and photographs from the farm. Check it out. https://www.facebook.com/mothersgardenoliveoil. The new harvest olive oil is leaving the mill next week, bound for England. 60 per cent has already been ordered, so get in touch is you would like some.
NEW SHIPMENT LEAVING SOON – ORDER NOW
A new shipment of fresh Mother’s Garden olive oil will leave next week for deliveries in early February so if you would like some please get in touch as soon as you can.
And if you need some tips CLICK HERE to read cook Stuart Buck’s latest blog all about our olive oil.
“When you get oil as fresh as a daisy it has a spicy, grassy taste that’s really pleasing in winter cooking.”
We advise everyone to follow this foodie blog, particularly if you are in Norfolk where Stuart is based.
Meanwhile let us know what you would like to order from the shipment. There will be the usual selection of 500ml bottles (in cases of 6), 2 litre containers, 5 litre containers and 20 litre bag in boxes (as some food cooperative groups, ie our hubs, are now appreciating).
New labels are being printed but we will not use these until all the current ones have gone – why create waste?.
So we have also decided to delay the 2013 price rise for now too.
All olive oil now being offered is at 2012 prices – £39 for 6x500ml bottles, £17 for 2 litres, £35 for 5 litres and £140 for 20 litre bag in box.
SO HURRY WHILE LABELS LAST!! Click here to order or contact your hub if you are part of one.
STOP PRESS 8 December, 2012:
The freshest possible extra virgin olive oil is on its way to England from Mother’s Garden – taste the difference.
From tree to you.
Nature whirls around us, vortices of leaves reminding of the turning of the year, and we are transfixed by the kaleidoscope of existence, and death, of colours that matter.
This November the vivid hues have been yellow – not all autumn mellow but fierce too – and blood red.
Feathers have been flying at Mother’s Garden and horror has been muddled with awe. It has been carnage, not of a cat among pigeons but a goshawk among chickens.
Our brood was decimated just over a week ago, between 9 and 10 in the bright morning, and we couldn’t fathom what or how. Three dead, one wounded and another missing. Two days passed and another was taken during daylight.
After the first shock we discussed the usual suspects; fox (plentiful in the valley, but the manner of the deaths was not typical); badger (we have seen one black and white nose this year), stoat and weasel (both distinct possibilities). We looked for openings and reinforced the stout wire where perhaps, maybe, the killer could have squeezed.
We never looked to the sky. Why? Because the run was netted with the green plastic fishnet designed for fruit cages. There were a couple of gaps but we thought it was comprehensive enough to deter an aerial assault.
Maggie spotted it. We had just returned from picking up our mail in the village and there, round-shouldered like a Dickensian villain, a female goshawk was in the run, feasting on yet another chicken. I ran to the house to get my camera. Maggie edged nearer, opening the gate and trying to urge it out. The mustard-eyed, audacious raptor merely dragged the half-eaten corpse under the henhouse.
“What is it for goodness sake?”
I went into the run. Fool. The bird circled, hanging from the wire for a few seconds to allow me to hazard a guess from the plumage that it was a goshawk. Then it stood and stared straight at me with those unmistakable goshawk eyes; a large, brown-backed, seriously disgruntled bird, possibly a female.
I backed out, leaving the gate as wide as possible so it could take its leave. We watched as it rose and burst through the weak green netting, flapping slowly away past the cherries towards the forest. Privilege wrestled with despair. What a rare and wonderful sight; what a mess.
Birders will be wondering, as have I, how one bird could be responsible for multiple kills. This is not normal and there is the possibility that another carnivore was responsible in part. All I can say is that three of our birds were taken on different days. After the first slaughtering of three, the dead birds had puncture marks like stabbings, not bites.
What do you birders out there think? Is it possible one bird could do so much?
Meanwhile, despite the loss and the new labour of erecting more defences, it was a rare moment of closeness to life as well as death. Thankfully the hawk appeared completely unharmed. Now a neighbour has called to say two of his hens have been taken.
This month the birds most in evidence have been the buzzards on the phone posts, the jays and ravens, the grey heron preying on our goldfish, murmurations of spotless starlings, charms of goldfinches, two great musterings of migrating storks high in the clear sky, and great quarrels of sparrows splashing in the stone bath that has been constantly topped up by squalls.
How good the rain: More than a foot in five weeks. It came early enough to help the olives swell, and the harvest has been better than hoped, though we shivered and dripped as we carefully combed the fruit into the nets then poured them into crates. Our cooperative mill chatters urgently as the olives are brought in from the surrounding groves, in contrast to the gentle click of the dominoes of the retired farmers in the bar.
They seem oblivious to the television flickering on the wall, telling of latest developments on the talked-of independence showdown (critical elections tomorrow) and the endless economic woes. And it seems that not even the roar of engines will distract them from their game.
The world rally cars have rushed by as they do for a day every autumn, preceded and succeeded by the bizarre entourage of lads who love speed and loud exhausts. The night before the “stage” the narrow lane clogs in one direction with the laughable mix of boy racers, desperate to burn rubber, stuck behind impassable, wallowing blancmange camper vans driven by more mature devotees. The next day back they came, leaving behind piles of rubbish … and worse.
There was one close call. Our neighbour, a shepherd from Andalusia, has a knackered horse. Just as the first tarmac adrenalin rush was starting it snapped its tether and decided to stand in the lane, on a blind bend. As I ran towards it three vehicles missed it by a whisker. It didn’t dawn on any of the drivers to stop, but to be fair, as I was nearing the animal, the last one wound his window down and shouted without slowing that there was a horse. I cannot repeat my reply.
The dear old nag, part cream part dirt, now wild-eyed but still rooted to the spot, finally let me lead it back to the shepherd’s farm and the debris of dead mopeds, rubble, an upturned barrow on broken pipes and a ram’s skull on a post. Goats and sheep were penned with geese behind a blockade of old pallets. Two passive sheepdogs barely stirred and there was no sign of the large black female hound that earlier in the year had snatched one of our free-ranging hens to feed her latest litter.
The shepherd, who lives in the village not the semi-derelict farm dwelling, was in the bar when he answered my call. His response was a colourful as the mosaic of his farmyard and I could hear his wreck of an old Opel rumbling down from the village, and imagined it trying to overtake the hotrods.
As for the rally, it is but one weekend a year, a toxic reminder of how much I have changed.
Today the dawn was priceless, as jewels of dew were illuminated by a cold sun filtering through the mists. For the first time we have wild asparagus in November as well as April, and one pear tree is convinced it is blossom time. The crocus blooms give us dreamy delicacy and saffron for paellas. Mulberry, poplar, oak, fig, plane and hawthorn scatter embers of autumn across the valley, crowding the ribbon of the river banks with their chorus of colour. How good for the heart.
STOP PRESS: The new harvest olive oil is tremendous, and we are taking UK orders now for unfiltered oil, available in 2 litre containers or cases of 6x500ml bottles.
Powerful stuff, packed with fruit and goodness, a gloriously fresh, rare treat for Christmas.
We are bottling to order, and so we need to hear from you by Sunday evening, December 2.
The target is to get this fresh arbequina Mother’s Garden olive oil to mainland UK customers by the festive holiday. Email us. The choice is for a 2 litre (£27.50 delivered), or case of 6x500ml bottles (£50.50 delivered), unless you are part of a hub or share a delivery with friends which cuts the transport cost.
We hope to have this fresh olive oil with North America customers, through our friends at Dos Cielos Privado in Toronto, early in the new year. Get in touch with them for more information.
Well, that’s done. A dangerous month, October; scary too.
The gilded gods awoke from summer slumbers in capricious temper, moving their furniture and throwing bolts between sunbeams. Walnuts rained down from the shaken trees and I popped some in my back pocket on damp dog walks, forgetting about them until I sat down.
Between torrents we took a nightfall stroll to the recently silent ravine and bone-dry swimming hole to hear the roar of the river and peer through the gloom at three delirious ducks. The summits of pink meringue storm clouds loomed once more from the east, the lightning flashed again and so we turned for home, hearing wild boar in the hazel shadows beside the puddled track.
I did the rounds of the animals, and in the quagmire of the chicken-run a rock had appeared. I skidded to avoid it and it lumbered away; a juggernaut toad.
Warmth and water – the first moisture since May – have transformed the parchment map of Iberia. Grass has grown several inches and the swelling olives weigh the boughs towards the sward a little more each day.
I have been flitting between farm and mill, my head clogged with the challenges or looming olive harvest, wine making and the battening down of hatches, but more so with family revelations from the past.
First, though, I promised last month to tell of our commitment to that vital creation, the “modern” cooperative and its inherent principle of pulling together and sharing, adopted in villages across these mountains a century ago where communities are now fighting to survive through the chaos of the pan-European recession. The village cooperative we belong to consists of about 40 families.
Cooperative is a word – an ethos, a way of life – rising rapidly in the public conscience even in the hot-house capitalist nations like my native United Kingdom, now the dusty, dated throne room of Thatcherism. Thank goodness.
Before this turns into an essay of angst about gross greed and excess, and the betrayal of core values not least the family, fundamental reasons for the current crisis both economic and social, I should look to the positive.
Cooperatives and the growth of social enterprises are showing they can help bring the vital reform of economics, globalization, and social justice. As John Restakis states in his book Humanizing The Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, the co-operatives form the most powerful grassroots movement in the world.
The cooperative is as vital here in the Priorat mountains, as anywhere in the world, historically so.
Curious, too, how it now swells with importance in Britain where there are housing initiatives and an increasing number of social enterprise endeavours, while on the high street The Cooperative, now a burgeoning bank too, grows in significance, alongside the largest employee-owned company in the UK, the John Lewis Partnership.
Maybe in this age of social re-evaluation the principals set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society will come to the fore a host of community ways, encapsulating as we have experienced here first hand a wonderful foundation for bringing people together.
I fear, though, that this UN International Year of Cooperatives, the championing of a society-saving idea, may have been lost amid the crush of bleak news. Did you know, for example, that there are more than 800 million members of cooperatives worldwide, providing more than 100 million jobs (20 per cent more than multinational “big” business)?
Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary-General, made the point. As the world witnesses growing public discontent as a result of the financial and economic crises, she made plain how the international community could learn from the cooperative movement, which balanced both economic viability and social responsibility, “offering a model for harnessing the energies and passions of all.”
“As self-help organisations, cooperatives are inherently people-centred. They not only meet material needs, but also the human need to participate proactively in improving one’s life.”
With the olive harvest just a few weeks away we are trying to tidy our lives. The great sunflower heads and crate-loads of nuts had been gathered and the wood store was half-filled before the deluge. In the farmhouse there has been a significant culinary development. Quico (Keeko) has finally left the building, replaced by Italian Guido.
For many a moon we have aspired to a new cooker. Maggie produced feasts on 45-year-old Quico, but both he and we knew his time was up. Getting him to light required me to kneel and beg with my head in the oven, the door to which (when he decided to play ball) never closed properly so had to be propped with something heavy. Now we are able to check our appearance in the reflection from the spotless stainless steel of a Smeg semi-industrial range. Blimey.
Notice I didn’t say Quico had gone completely. I was for a swift end, but compassionate Maggie thought he might be useful (the gas rings at least) for farm helpers residing in the old caravan, besides which he now stands. I am glad.
So to my abiding thoughts of East Anglia.
Beside me there is a box that we carried with us from Aldborough in Norfolk 12 years ago. Inside there is a small oil painting of a Suffolk glade with shepherds sitting on a log. I blew the dust off it to show two artists who were staying in our cottage and I have since been unearthing a little more of its story and, to my surprise, more of my family’s history.
But the fundamental mystery remains – who painted it?
It was gifted to my great-grandmother, Sarah Baker, in the 1880s when, as a young girl, she allowed an unknown artist to paint her portrait. She had been raised on a farm somewhere between Rushmere St Andrew and Woodbridge in Suffolk.
Sarah probably took it to London when she married a Devon shoemaker called Huxtable who ran a little shop in Peckham. They had a son and two daughters, but at the beginning of the twentieth century both father and son died of consumption in the same year, so Sarah and her daughters returned to Suffolk.
One of the daughters, Ellen, married a Tom Kirby in Woodbridge, where they settled and had a baby, my father. So what is the Norfolk connection?
Sarah had remarried and had another daughter. The marriage was, to put it bluntly, a disaster, so much so that my grandfather Tom deemed it necessary to give up everything and whisk his wife and newborn son, his mother-in-law and her daughter away in secret to distant Holt in north Norfolk, to start again, renting a council house, 4 The Fairstead, for £1 10s a fortnight.
There were further great ructions and estrangements that I will not bore you with, but in searching for any records about the painting I have unearthed from the bottom of one of the old leather cases of family records some faded postcards that have enabled me to chart the subsequent life of my great-grandmother Sarah and, possibly, the painting.
Her daughter from the failed married, Winnie, later ran the restaurant on Wymondham railway station. She and Sarah lived nearby, then moved to Norwich, and during the second world war and until Sarah’s death were at 60 Heigham Street, a stone’s throw from the first house I bought. Countless times had I sat in a traffic queue waiting for the Dereham Road lights to change, staring at that terrace, and I never knew. How much more do I still not know?
Next month – One of Ella and Joe’s teachers is to speak at a meeting in England.
Life flows and ebbs. It is a summer when life at Mother’s Garden has spun from the fast flowing stream of existence into a pool of deep reflection, with vital and sad reasons to weigh the days.
There is a sense that it is a time of change, upon us and still to come.
First, let me tell you about our dog Blanca; ours for no more than six weeks. It is a sad story tinged with guilt.
Blanca panted up our drive early in June having managed to free herself from a neighbouring farm. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the last.
For nearly two years we heard her bark, sometimes for great lumps of time through the still night air, and on several occasions she escaped and made her way to Mother’s Garden, sending our dogs into a frenzy. We challenged the farm owner over her care – she was contained within a derelict 50 metre building – and he affably explained that although he was looking after her for the friend of one of his children he loved her and assured us she was well fed and watered. He pledged to change her location, but we later discovered this was merely to chain her to a wall with only a crude shelter of old feed sacks as a refuge from sun and rain.
Somehow she freed herself again. This affectionate brindle boxer, called “White” because of her four white feet, arrived painfully thin, her encrusted eyes besieged with flies. The smiling farmer followed her up our track several days later with a leash in his hand. We sent him packing.
Our vet came and immediately judged Blanca was suffering from acute anaemia and canine leishmaniasis, a blood parasite disease transmitted from sand fly or mosquito bites, with the consequence of a host of health problems, not least renal failure. This can be treatable but is incurable. But, given the evidence of her skin ulcers and severe weight loss, it was possible Blanca’s kidneys were already too damaged to save her.
While we waiting for the results of the blood test we treated Blanca’s anaemia and she rallied, craving attention, playing ball with the children and making her peace with our three dogs. For several weeks we dared to believe she would pull through. But no.
Her kidneys failed, the reignited light in her eyes dimmed, she stopped eating and drinking and the vet returned to end the suffering. Wiping away tears, we buried her in the middle of a terrace near the top of the farm where we hope to plant more olive trees one day. It will be known as Blanca’s Grove. If only we had allowed Blanca to stay the first time she came to us.
While the rains fall and fall on northern Europe we look to the clear skies, our feet on parched earth. The dryness is not extraordinary this time of year, but it is never easy, and we are starting to hear stories of rural houses in other areas where wells are running dry. Not so here, thank goodness, for our little valley is more verdant, with subterranean water courses bring life from as far as the melting snows of the Pyrenees. All the time, effort and great cost in excavating our ancient spring has proved this.
Just five metres down water bubbles from the rock at the rate of 2000 litres an hour. Not that everything has gone quite according to plan. The overall rate of flow must have diminished a little during this arid season, because the level is a centimetre lower than the buried pipe running down to our reservoir, so while an interim mains-fed pump purrs away and water gushes I am exploring the options for a little solar pump to keep things flowing independently during dry spells. It will be a small but significant step along our road to self-sufficiency. Should a current writing project bear the fruit we hope it will in 2013 and 2014, then solar panels for house energy will be firmly on the agenda to add to our existing hot water panels.
We will prevail: How far we have come since I crawled along the tunnel into the spring cave and first contemplated life without the constant gift of the spring. As well as Zeppelin courgettes at the heart of our lush garden we also have skyscraper sunflowers as a consequence of this return of moisture.
Maggie continues with her art forms – ceaseless, caring labours of provision that cast such wondrous natural patterns and colours. The beauty of her flower essences, in this case pomegranate,pictured above, is no accident. She lays the blooms and leaves on the spring water with such consideration as to create a magical circle that deserves to be, and will be, a picture on a wall.
Meanwhile, the bottles of dreamy elderflower cordial wait in line on the kitchen table, while the pan is cleaned in readiness for the bubbling scent of plum jam to fill the room. Goodness abounds all around right now, with golden oriels forgetting their timidity to feast with the rest of us on the ripe figs that weigh branches to ground beside the house.
Such things help take the mind off the economic storm clouds that crowd the horizon. Here in Spain prospects continue to spiral downward, and it is hardly surprising. Recently there was one particularly bleak day when the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, still bearing his expression of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a German juggernaut, reneged on a pledge and shoved VAT rates up to 21 per cent.
You will no doubt be aware that he is aiming to save 65bn Euros (£51bn) as part of a deal with Eurozone leaders (bossed by Merkel) to help rescue Spain’s banks. Eurozone finance ministers have agreed to provide 30bn Euros (£24bn) for Spain’s troubled banks by the end of the month and to give Madrid an extra year – until 2014 – to hit its budget targets.
In another round of austerity measures Rajoy announced higher taxes and cuts to unemployment benefits, union pay, and civil service perks. It was clearly not his hymn sheet, because tax rises were a measure his government had previously argued against amid concerns that it would deepen Spain’s recession by stifling consumer spending. Er, Yes. As the BBC’s Europe editor Gavin Hewitt succinctly put it “The measures will test further the patience of the Spanish people – pledges only recently made have been broken”.
Thank goodness, then, it is the season to sit out on the street in the cool of an evening, away from the incessant TV news of financial meltdown, and to talk of life within reason – the impending fiestas, the gathering of families in the villages for the holiday season. The public swimming pools in every village sparkle with laughter. Elders, mostly women, sit under the trees watching over the little ones. They have known of far far worse times and their heartbeats are steady, their doors and arms always open to family and friends. Older children wander home in twos or threes for lunch with wet hair, towels over their shoulders, to return for more frolics after sustenance and siesta.
As I write, Joe Joe is there at the pool, having stayed overnight at the home of his friend Joan, pronounced Jo-an.
It is a summer of special significance for our son.
His primary school’s farewell concert featured many special moments, not least a moving sequence of photographs featuring each of his peer group, who are all moving on to high school in September, sitting on the school stairs or floor reading to a much younger child, passing on the joy of literature.
And the school witnessed something else, equally uplifting. Joe Joe and two school friends, Josep and Arnau, all members of La Corranda dance troupe, performed a mesmerising, gravity defying, tambourine rhythm dance in the school plaça that brought the crowd to its feet.
The boys repeated it a day later, down on the quayside in Tarragona harbour, where region-wide dance companies had gathered and where the priceless moment was crowned with applause that rolled across the water to a vast 315ft super yacht. Apparently it cost £100m to build and is owned by someone with a fortune of about £6billion. But that only makes him the 81st richest person in the world.
Almost time to sign off. One last thing.
With Maggie away for a few days and Joe on another sleepover, Ella and I decided to dodge the catering dilemma and (once all the animals were tucked up) to spin down to the sea at dusk to seek out a Chinese restaurant. Halfway down the mountain I remembered where there was one, near to our favourite, Cuban beach bar, just across the road from the sand and wide promenade. People were out in number, as usual, drifting along in gentle conversation, or cycling, or just sitting and savouring the magical twilight as the darkening sea flickered with the reflections of distant lights across the bay.
When we parked we noticed about 30 senior citizens had gathered along a curve in the low wall that mirrored the great canopy of a pine tree mushrooming from the prom.
We sat on the restaurant terrace, enjoying our meal, amused by the effect of a parked 1950s split screen Volkswagen camper van on most of the men, me included. Then Ella pointed out the group of pensioners under the tree.
They were line dancing, which seemed from where I was sitting to be, entertainingly, to the accompaniment of the Chinese music wafting through the restaurant.
After our meal we crossed the road and I sat on the wall close to them while Ella went to paddle in the ink of the night sea. Promenaders of all ages slowed to watch the dancers, and more than a few, young and young at heart, began to swing their hips, some slipping off their shoes to share in the happiness. I didn’t need to move to do that.
Oh – our August shipment of newly bottled, fresh olive oil is now in the UK, in readiness for summer salads, as I promised to let some of you know. May the sun shine on you all and the Olympics. Keep well.
June, like the continent of Europe, huffs and puffs, blowing buckets and bags like tumble weed across red earth patterned with the dancing shadows of fig leaves. Temperatures nudge towards 34 degrees Centigrade (93 in real money, if you deal in Fahrenheit like me, like the older Spaniards who still value things in Pesetas) and the dogs and frogs wake us up every night.
It is as if nature is shaking Spain and other economies, the UK included, from the daydream of blind excess, of living far beyond means.
The question often comes – how bad is it, living in (as the UK media paints it) such a desperate nation? Spain is, after all, the test tube of the moment in an explosive Europe.
I will tell you, from the perspective of our privileged remoteness.
You know, of course, that Mother’s Garden is in tiny, relatively closed, mountain county of one small town and 22 villages. So you will appreciate, too, that roots here are deep, like those of the vines, and there is a simple rhythm to all things, centred on family and the great outdoors, that resists the prods to race with the winds of innovation and accumulation. That is true of great swathes of this spacious nation, more than twice the size of the UK with only three quarters of the population.
With that caveat I say this: Despite the depression and the camps and protests in major cities, I truly sense the Catalans and the Spanish in general are living with a level of pain and dire long term economic prognosis that might tip the scales in other nations. There is deep anger. There is a movement for change – the youth-powered “los indignados” (the indignant) – that has yet to galvanise a critical mass but still might. But there isn’t a sense of widespread desperation that shortens fuses to a perilous degree. There isn’t within the scope of my radar that anxiety, even fear, about social fracture, that brittleness I feel sometimes in Britain.
That may come. In the bank there is a booklet of properties for sale – all repossessions. Fuel and electricity prices are climbing, education and health budgets have been slashed, and the unemployment rate among young people is now 50 per cent. As in every community across the continent, there is bafflement over the financial detail of the fiasco, but a shrewd idea of the root cause, and disillusionment with the career politicians and their Wallace and Gromit grins while they try to wallpaper over the word written large – GREED.
In the bread shop the baker smiles, as always, and lists to the assembled the vital things in life that do not have a price. It is the general philosophy here in the Latin mountains, where far greater hardships are within living memory and where the rock-bed of family is the foundation of all. The older generation has to a great extent resisted the pandemic of consumerism and they continue to bumble about in the old Renault 4s, between the wealth of their vegetable gardens, chicken nesting boxes and their simple homes.
For their children, with families of their own now, smarter cars, flat screen televisions and mortgages, the worries are there for sure, but they still live close to home and they have the security of community, finding invaluable comfort in it. The talk in the bar is not so much whether the Euro will survive – it has to – or how deep the austerity will be, but humour and the common conversations of friendship and family (and football).
Push the economic topic and they will shrug with resignation rather than revolution. The facts are as obvious here as anywhere. The obscene feasting at the top table of the world economy had blinded the gross bürgermeisters as to how far they could push consumerism and load many people in the “wealthier” nations with debt and, inevitably, gross stress and anxiety.
The comment has been made that while a few have lived like kings the majority have been made to feel like idiots.
Another friend, who is helping us replace the kilometre long phone line to the farmhouse, shouts with a wicked laugh from the top of a ladder that the Spanish are bandits who will never conform.
“We are different,” he says. “They have to remember that. We live our lives how we choose not how they tell us.”
His childhood puts the current so called crisis in perspective. In 1970, when he was 14, Fascist dictator Franco was still in power and the Catalan language had been banned and culture stamped on for more than three decades. The economy was feebly trying to find its feet. That year there was a knock on the door and his father, a critic of the regime, was taken away and never seen again. For years his mother went on a fruitless nationwide search for his body.
So while Rajoy, Merkel and others stumble about in the rising heat trying to save the Euro and their skins before going home to their well-watered gardens, the proletariat are hung out to dry. If it wasn’t so painful it could all the makings of a cheesy television drama. Maybe it will one day.
Someone we know in England has lost her job. She went home, locked the door and ploughed through several bars of chocolate while watching countless episodes of The Waltons.
Where is there comfort in witnessing an American family living through the Great Depression in the 1930s? You would be surprised.
We have just bought the first 50 episodes on two DVDs. The benefits are threefold. First, both Maggie and I happily remember being addicted as children to The Waltons when it first ran in the early 1970s. It was a Sunday evening treat in our separate households and millions of others no doubt. Second, it has triggered the same rhythm with our family now, with us all curling up together on the sofa to be transported to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Third, it may be syrup-ly sentimental, but there is something uplifting about the gentle glow of a strong family living simply and happily through meagre times rather than the incessant radiation from the modern furnace of materialism.
You probably know this already, but for the record the Waltons, about a couple with their seven barefoot children and the two glorious grandparents, ran for nine seasons – totally 221 episodes.
John Boy, the eldest child, tells of the challenges and traumas of that time, all overcome through the fortitude of unity, and there is much truth in it. The creator of The Waltons, writer Earl Hammer, drew from his upbringing in Virginia during those dark days, and it is his voice you hear in reflection at the end of each episode.
The worth is in the sentiment. Drawing water from the deep well of our elders who have known of worst times and know in equal measure how to live through them is what counts now. Here at least.
Let’s move on, up the track to the top of the farm to near the power line where the whistling bee eaters gather en masse as sunset; yes, bee eaters like the one that created a stir last month when it was spotted in Norfolk close to where I grew up.
The stone plopped with baritone depth. An echo of water-wealth barrelled up to our faces peering down into new opening to our spring. A life force has returned to Mother’s Garden.
We are not brimming with glee quite yet, but after weeks of hard labour and wonder at old wisdom we are flowing again, at the rate of about 500 litres an hour. When we have replaced the ages-old clay pipe that runs across the farm, part clogged with silt and roots, we expect this will rise to 1000 litres and the bill to nudge far beyond €5000. Ouch. But what choice? Water is life, and we have done enough, we hope, for the benefit to run through many generations.
In May I told of our hair-pulling anxiety after the spring ran dry, of a narrow shaft, tiny tunnel and blocked cave, of what looked like an insurmountable problem beneath this land. I went down there about ten times in total, on the last occasion curtailing a meeting in the cave when a very brave local expert was trying to explain to me how he would clear by hand the great mound of debris stemming the flow.
No way, I said, reversing out. The roof had collapsed once and could do so again. There was no option but to get a digger and excavate the whole area.
So we did, in dramatic style, with a JCB digger clawing away earth and rock, to a depth of 5 metres. First the cave appeared, then the tunnel. It dried my throat to see what little force it took to break the earth’s resistance.
My Dad, who died in March, knew well enough the value of water and would be content to know his legacy paid for the work. For two years he drove a water truck across the parched landscape of North Africa, being shelled and strafed as he searched alone for clean wells on his relentless mission to help quench an Army’s thirst. His part in Hitler’s downfall concerned the thing that some say future wars will be fought over.
There has been one disappointment, however. I said last month that at the back of the cave there appeared to be a man-made arch of rocks. No so. It was the edge of a great seam of sandstone patterned with surprisingly regular faults. There was no hoped for revelation. But what remains amazing is how, an age ago, someone had burrowed their way to the exact source of our spring.
Once the digger had done the heavy work we laboured with spades until water bubbled up from the ground beneath us. We were spot on. Our friend Antonio said we were most fortunate. How wise and kind our guide, the spirit of the tunneller.
The happiness is not ours alone. The well-watered vegetable garden shines with growth. In the old wash pool outside my office window the resident male Iberian green frog proclaims his contentment day and night. What a racket. There is at least one female in there too, but any tadpoles are going to find it tough given the appetite of any fish that survive the visits of the kingfisher. Oh the circle of life.
The frog, meanwhile, takes rides on the floating polystyrene seed tray, nudged along by one or two goldfish. Hand on heart, I have seen this several times now.
Must go – but two important oil footnotes. Sales of our fresh olive oil are climbing and we have just shipped another 500 litres to the UK, so if anyone would like some get in touch via our contact page. Second, our online shop has had a wobble which we are trying to fix. Sincere apologies to anyone frustrated by this.
New harvest olive oil straight from the village mill here in The Priorat, Catalonia, Spain, will be arriving in Toronto – where Maggie was born – any day now for immediate delivery to private clients and chefs.
We have teamed up with Dos Cielos Privado of Toronto to bring make Mother’s Garden arbequina extra virgin olive oil – awarded the top 3-star gold standard in the British Great Taste Awards in 2011 – available for North Americans who appreciate the finest, healthiest food that is bursting with flavour as well as goodness.
As in England, we are giving people the chance to enjoy fresh olive oil as we do here in the Mediterranean – 100 per cent extra virgin, from a single village cooperative mill, in the beautiful Priorat mountains where the groves have been tended for thousands of years.
Just contact us now and we will arrange for Dos Cielos Privado to get in touch.
This is what Colin Webster of Dos Cielos Privado, Toronto, says about our olive oil.
“It the best 100 per cent arbequina olive oil that I have ever tasted.”
BOOK RECOMMENDATION: And we strongly urge everyone who loves and understands – or wants to understand more – about the finest, freshest 100 per cent extra virgin olive oil to read Tom Mueller’s vital, intelligent and engrossing new book Extra Virginity: The Sublime And Scandalous World Of Olive Oil (Amazon in US). The American writer, based in Italy has laid bare the story of one of the world’s more important and wonderful foods.
Our annual NEW HARVEST UNFILTERED olive oil shipment has now landed in England for Christmas feasts – and 90 per cent has already been sold!
Every year demand for the freshest, finest olive oil grows as, thankfully, more and more people appreciate that freshness is as equally important as provenance and a guarantee that the olive oil is 100 per cent extra virgin olive oil. That is why we always tell you where and when the olives were pressed and bottled.
If you have ordered this potent new harvest unfiltered oil, alive with fruit particles, it should be enjoyed within six months maximum.
But if you missed out, don’t worry, we are taking orders for a January shipment so get in touch (click here). This will be filtered new harvest olive oil that will be packed with flavour and goodness, as always from the groves that won the highest award on the 2011 Great Taste Awards – 3 gold stars. Get in touch.
And we can announce today that Mother’s Garden olive oil is now available in Canada.
We are working with Dos Cielos in Toronto where Maggie was born – a fledgingly business run by a family who have stayed at Mother’s Garden. As with our UK supplies there is a choice of larger containers (5litres) and 500ml glass bottles. If you are in Canada or America and are interested to learn more please drop us a line and we will put you in touch.
The olive harvest here on the farm has been early and a little disheartening. A very localised April storm crashed in from the west and pummelled the olive flowers, robbing us of all but a few precious fruits on our trees. Other growers have had better fortune – groves just half a mile apart tell different stories – and the cooperative farmers we work with have more than enough wonderful fruit for our customers, thank goodness.We gathered what we could, then shared in the harvest at our neighbours Marta and Benet, taking with us friends from Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, all members of the Prendergast clan.
As we savoured the sight of the youngest picker, toddler Mina, sitting with legs splayed on the nets, it was easy for the eye to drift to the autumn colours of the adjoining vineyard. The hues this year have been more warming than ever and the pastel days refused to yield.
More and more people are taking a fresh look at olive oil!With the help of Tina from Priorat Provenance in Yorkshire, and Tamsin and Andy from Offshoot in Cornwall, we built on our top 3 Gold Stars Great Taste Award by linking up with a host of leading delis and chefs from all over the United Kingdom who want bulk fresh olive oil.As the orders come in we will keep you posted on where you can buy our arbequina oil and we will continue to add to our list of top chefs for whom it is an essential ingredient.
Today we can announce our latest customer is Alex Rushmer, runner up in Masterchef 2010. His restaurant is the hugely popular Hole In The Wall at Little Wilbraham between Cambridge and Newmarket – see www.justcookit.co.uk.
Are you a chef or deli looking for something different, something wonderful for your customers? Just drop us a line and we will explain how you can get the very best for as little as £7 a litre.