Time has slipped. This chronicle is overdue, too long and in part a bit bleak, so I also offer an uplifting small choir of photography at the end that has its own voice.
The here and now at delicious Mother’s Garden is calm and bright outside, but stormy inside.
We labour in the office, not least because we are at loggerheads with the British Government, and DeFRA and the Rural Payments Agency in particular, about an impending ban on the sale of on tap extra virgin olive oil in the UK. Yes, you read that correctly.
I would be so grateful if you could share this blog with as many fair-minded, good-food-loving people as possible.
Truthfully, I can’t see how we, tiny as we are, could every claim to be standing up to the bureaucratic bull of government, but we won’t be trampled without putting up a fierce fight. We have to.
This is the unpalatable truth….
There is grim history of corporate fraud in the multi-billion Euro business of olive oil.
That is why so many people buy our and similar premium olive oil, direct from our online shop or through fine food outlets, to be sure of provenance and quality. And buying it “on tap” through responsible, independent delis, farm and health food shops has been growing in popularity, to cut cost, waste and transport impact.
Last year Tom Mueller’s book Extra Virginity blew the lid off the big business olive oil fraud and at the same time hailed long and loud the producers of “real” premium extra virgin olive oil toiling away in Mediterranean countries against a tide of inferior and cheaper brands of undefined source and age that still bore the magical term extra virgin.
I need to explain the parameters of the EVOO “standard” another day, but save to say they are far too broad and fail to address the fundamental aspects of provenance, freshness and quality.
Now the EU and, in turn, the UK government have tried to tackle any fraud with
a) some sensible labelling requirements (we already do more),
b) an utterly misguided, punitive ban the sale of on tap extra virgin olive oil – a key market for experts like us, and a vital business for fine food delis, farm shops and health food stores.
– Wholly off target (in tackling the corporate fraudsters they may well kill off the likes of us and other honest producers who can be trusted),
– Grossly unfair (the “on tap” ban only affects olive oil, not other oils, Yes, you also read that correctly, which begs the question is fostering unfair competition lawful?),
– Excessive and illogical (proper labelling on dispensers – as we already do – defines the provenance, freshness and quality of the olive oil being tapped off).
Honestly. I am incredulous, as is olive oil writer and expert Judy Ridgway. See her website blogs at www.oliveoil.org.uk.
I could go on, and will at another time because I must. Save to say for now that emails are flying about, mostly in one direction. What on Earth is the cost of all this mindless bureaucracy to everyone involved, not least the taxpayer?
Tens of thousands of customers will miss out. Thousands of quality businesses will lose. It will cost us dear too, and we are going to really struggle, so at the same time as making the case to DeFRA that they are missing the target by a country mile we are trying to up sales of our 2 litre and 5 litre containers and cases of 6x500ml bottles.
Would you like some? Fantastic for feasting this winter and Christmas, and our 500ml bottles and embroidered aprons make lovely Christmas presents. Click here for the online shop.
This storm comes with others. October is serene, but September seethed with sierra night tempests, many skirting us, some not, all electrifying. The godly clouds were defined by pulses of blinding light, more rapid than I have ever seen, then came the torrents bringing with them great showers of walnuts and the onset of grape rot.
Heat and damp on the eve of harvest bestows the kiss of mould, and the farmers have been dodging showers to gather what goodness is to be found in the vineyards. People are working together, sharing , cooperating, toiling through: what is grim for the grapes is thirst-quenching for the olives. There is always another fruiting, some balance in the spinning existence.
What black grapes we have of worth beyond the Mother’s Garden fig trees will be made into fine wine by a friend. Our stainless steel fermentation vat in the barn echoes with emptiness this year. There just isn’t time, and this has suffocated any niggling inclination. Today, though, we climbed ladders to fill buckets with the green muscat grapes shading the front door. As I type Maggie is in the farmhouse kitchen making juice.
All growth surges again in the October warmth. Sun and moon shadows stop the clock. You can hear the Earth breathing. I tog up in beekeeping apparel and gently cut back a long stem of red current in the holiday cottage garden. A wasps’ nest has flowered close to the tip. The occupants are massed on it and I talk to them as we wander up the land and along a hazel terrace where I stick the stem into the ground in the shade of bramble leaves. Not one deserts the comb.
Tractors with laden and then empty trailers to-and-fro along the lane, fuelled by a pinch of harvest urgency. Snails fast-track through the grasses along the highways of irrigation pipes. A kingfisher brightens the view from the office window. And yesterday during my afternoon dog walk six different varieties of butterfly painted their colours against the lushness as life that swells before the great sleep.
The fig feast has finally ended. We gather hundreds of walnuts and thousands of almonds. The de-husking machine outside the back door rattles teeth but saves hours, and we must find a market for them. There is a good rate of payment this year, we hear.
Most of all, though, we labour in the office longer than we want to, spreading the good news about our olive oil, campaigning against costly bureaucratic nonsense , and opening people’s minds to the warm opportunity of a few days or weeks staying here in our cottage. Want to come? November, December, January, February, March……
I must away.
April rollercoasts on. Downpours, pulsing heat, clouds spilling over the mountains like frothy milk from a boiling pan. Gales then breathless calm. Life rushes headlong, while I stand in the vineyard and wait to watch the wonder of a myriad of wild flowers opening to the sun.
The laughing wrynecks and the frenetic serins leave the pre-dawn chorus to the warblers and blackbirds, then fill the bright hours with their calls. The family of short-toed eagles come lower and lower scanning for snakes in the myriad colours and riches of spring. Swallows surge north. We await the bee eaters.
The pollinators are thick in the air, and the dew pearls the countless funnel webs of the grass spiders. What speedsters these eight-eyed funnel weavers are, darting from their lairs to dine on blue-winged grasshoppers or other insects that drop onto their fishing nets.
We have set another hive, in the almond grove this time, in penance. A swarm took up residence in our loft. I squeezed after them into the darkness, even chiselling away part of a wall to try and reach the queen bee in the slim hope of settling her and her entourage somewhere else. But they were down a narrow, dusty shaft clogged with water pipes. Arm wedged, only my fingertips could reach them. I failed.
No stings, though, until yesterday. Wandering back from the far side of the wildflower meadow with another fistful of wild asparagus, I cast too close an eye at the comings and goings of our older hives. Two of the four hum with life and I must tend them, perhaps moving the vacant dwellings up to the almond grove. How mesmerizing the essence of life that is a tireless bee community. Too much so. I drifted closer and was nailed mid-forehead.
Sitting at the kitchen table, rubbing a clove of garlic on the sting, Maggie and I indulged in our constant reflection on the diverse joy and immeasurable wonder of the nature that swirls around us, somehow tolerating and thriving despite our footprints and human clumsiness.
We will leave the grasses and flowers for the insects and continue to channel our energies and water from the spring into the vegetable garden where peas, broad beans, lettuces, onions, courgettes are up and running. We still have half of our 30 kilos of seed potatoes to plant and, as ever, I’ve not quite come up with an irrigation system that fills Maggie (or me) with confidence. So, on every evening dog walk, I surreptitiously dampen the patches of dry soil with the aid of a watering can.
Eight more olive trees, lost for decades to wilderness, have been freed and pruned, and a bee orchid has popped up to celebrate.
There, in that fingernail-sized bloom, is everything that matters about Mother’s Garden.
I must press on. A shipment of fresh olive oil leaves for England today and I must alert our lovely customers. If you would like to join them just let me know. There is, by the way, a new post on our business facebook page about the joys of fresh olive oil and fresh asparagus, now coming into season in Britain.
Keep well – and remember, our cottage is available should you want to visit. See here for availability. Late deals for May and early June. Just ask.
Olive tree prunings roll like tumbleweed on windy days. Everywhere the eye lingers on blossom, be it the snow of almond or the candyfloss of cherry and peach.
We rise with the dawn frosts and drink in the champagne air as we race to prepare the groves for the growing and ripening seasons, mulching or burning the cuttings, sometimes baking potatoes in the hot ash. Two hours out on the land sets us up for breakfast and all the broad challenges of Mother’s Garden.
In recent days we have started to find the first wild asparagus; delicious sautéed in fresh olive oil (want some?) and served with our hens’ eggs.
Time presses. Maggie polished off the vineyard pruning single-handedly a month ago, but we still have 20 or so of the 200 fruit trees to do. You sense the surge in life gathering pace every day. It pays not to dwell on the detail of the challenges, particularly in our neglected vegetable garden, but we will get to that this weekend.
There has been little time to hang about, but I have been, tackling rock climbing for the first time.
We live in arguably the most significant climbing area in the world, and anyone serious about the sport will have heard of Siurana which is 20 minutes from us. Nearer to home there is a beautiful hermitage on a red rock outcrop overlooking the sea, and behind it you will find several knee-knocking ascents that a 55-year-old novice would be an arse to attempt.
“No dramas.” With Maggie watching, wincing, I and Joe were pinched into some excruciatingly tight climbing shoes, given a safety briefing, harnessed to a rope and then prodded upwards by two Australians who love nothing better than figuring out how to defy gravity.
David and Melissa, geologist and lawyer from Brisbane, have been with us for three months and we wave them off tomorrow. Fantastic folk. They have worked so hard for us and we have loved their company. Recently married, they have been on a year-long European adventure, weaving across the continent from one climbing site to another.
On a rare day off the farm, they thought I and 13 year-old Joe could handle a cliff ranked a “5”, whatever that means. We did, Lord knows how. Then they lured me to attempt a “6”, which was going reasonably well until, 30 feet up, the vertical face became an overhang. I dangled, twisted, gritted then gave up and abseiled back down. The annoying thing is, the whole business is weirdly addictive.
Have you see Jupiter, king of the planets and currently the brightest gem in the night sky? We have had mixed fortunes. One night we stood in the cold waiting in vain for gaps in the scurrying clouds but were treated instead to the calls of nightjars. The scops owls are back too. The birding is, of course, a major treat at the awakening of the year. The woodpeckers are setting the tempo and the surround-sound cacophony of song is delicious.
On Monday we were called to advise some investors who were acquiring a vast olive grove close to the Montsant, the Holy Mountain. This vast limestone ridge, rising to 3000 metres, dominates our tiny county. When the work was done we didn’t turn for home but continued to beyond the ridge, to the peaceful valley beyond it. There, high above us, six griffon vultures rode the sky.
Talking of olives and the wonderful fresh juice of the fruit, we have just shipped a supply to England, so if you would like some, please get in touch or visit our online shop.
Oh, and bear us in mind if you would like to get away for a few days, to walk these mountains, sit under an olive tree and listen to the birds. The holiday cottage is available.
It is early. Another peaceful December day of edifying treasures begins. Golden light gushes through the mountain pines and kindles the silver haw frost. All glitters in a breath of beauty, even the battered wheelbarrow waiting beside the wood store.
Birds charm the blue sky. The last of the fig leaves begin to fall from boughs, followed by random pearls as the sharpness of sunrise quickly melts to green and brown.
All good things pass. But not hope. There is so much nourishment for the senses and spirit when I remember I am a human beings and should, well, simple just BE once in a while.
Suddenly, so few words left in 2013. Every syllable must count.
All people who live close to the soil have similar hearts, priorities and understandings – a grounding, or need for it, that is seeded in everyone. The similarities overshadow the differences, especially when set beside the memories of our rural English childhoods and those of our parents. I have talked of journeying back in time and it is true.
How lucky we have been to find and be able to share Mother’s Garden. We have had more than 1000 visitors now, from all continents.
There is nowhere like nature, and more so any garden which we tend, to offer an immeasurable security in an insecure world; a sense of place. However tiny, even a crowd of pots or a single yard of soil, can hold the truths, lessons, fulfilments, beauty and peace of mind to infuse life with an indefinable calm, a measure of existence.
This has been my home for nigh on a quarter of my life now. Goodness.
What more have we found here beyond perspective? I always say, simply, time. How scarce it is. But we have had the years, hours and seconds of Ella’s and Joe’s childhoods for which, like all, there can never be any going back: the privilege of disconnecting as much as possible – seeking to shield as much as possible – Ella and Joe from the vortex of immoral, de-stablising commercialism until they have had a chance to find their feet, their voices and a real understanding of what happiness should mean; that it does not have a price.
The hope is that in the muddle, shadows and rush of a wider world they will have an inkling of where to stop, breathe and be revived in times of need: To not be afraid to walk along in nature, but be sustained. We dare even to wish they may do more – join the calm, clear voices challenging and pressing to change a system of gross economic obsessions that threatens to suffocate fundamental human values and rob society and its core – the family – of key securities. I firmly believe most people sense this need, deeply.
The native North American Iroquois Indians have a golden rule, a binding law. It is known as the Seventh Generation.
This ancient nation never makes a decision without considering how it will relate to the welfare and well-being of their descendants 140 years in the future.
“What about the Seventh Generation? Where are we taking them? What will they have?”
In the current context it hardly bears thinking about, but that is the point. It has become so critical that most people do feel driven to think about it, to question.
I firmly believe the blind-eye world is coming to an end, driven by the paradox that in an age-of-plenty there is a palpable struggle to survive, and the pit-of-the-stomach knowledge that we are living beyond our physical and mental means, while some people on the beset planet have gross wealth and others starve.
As for the Earth and the Iroquois, imagine that 2000 years ago they or the Romans had cracked the atom and harnessed the power. What would the world look like now? The proliferation of nuclear with its implicit dangers and gross, ageless consequences have not stopped us because we crave the power now and, bottom line, there is money to be made. How have we somehow blanked out that which is unpredictable yet inevitable – violence, be it human, geologic or climatic? It is not and never will be a stable world yet we persist with today not tomorrow.
Forgive me but I have to say these things, as much in hope as anguish. So much good is being discussed
I am writing more than ever now. My four books have been followed by screenplays, and perhaps next year we will be able to tell more of the feature film based on my English novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy, the book I came here to write.
In tandem with Moon Daisy, a project now being co-run by two film companies, winter has seen me begin work on another screenplay – a love story set here among the vineyards, olive groves and mountains of the Priorat in southern Catalonia.
While we continue to consider the following chapters of our lives, we have decided to walk the same path a little longer, opening the cottage to visitors again in 2014 – come and stay why don’t you? – while pressing on with our burgeoning fresh olive oil business.
With assistance from friends around the world we now have a business Facebook page, new labels, a revamped website (all comments welcome as we seek to improve it) and more and more customers who appreciate how special fresh extra virgin olive oil can be.
We have even taken a deep breath and sent some wonderfully fresh new harvest oil home to England for Christmas, so get in touch if you would like some. A rare treat.
Must go. We have a young Australian couple staying and helping on the farm and we are clearing some flower beds beside the front door. A beautiful horseshoe whip snake has just emerged out of the front dry-stone wall of the farmhouse to bask in the December sun. Nature could not be more close, or wonderful.
Keep well. Give yourself some time this festive holiday. Think about the Seventh Generation. Happy Christmas from us all here at Mother’s Garden, and wishing you and the world a peaceful year ahead.
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.