October clouds have been as sporadic as political apologies. The snakes are still in the long grass and the eagles have been picking them off. Nispera scent gilds air rusty with pig odours and rotten bureaucratic nonsense.
Juan, the tireless giant of a farmer who doesn’t let darkness stop him, has been pressing on transforming the scrubby folds and ribbons of abandoned land near the ruined convent. The brief pong is a price worth paying.
The biggest man in the village has the biggest tractor, and the broad beam from the rank of lights on his green machine searches the valley as he weaves between the sporadic olive trees, muck spreading and then harrowing in before he sows his winter barley. We shall have the pleasing lushness soon enough, then the swaying sea of ears in May, the bales and wavy lines of stubble between the timeless olive trees.
Winter. Hardly. It seems an age away, yet Joe returns from high school with talk of a brutal season in store. We have had no snow to speak of for two years so we are due, yet October has surpassed September for warmth and our swallows have only just preened, flexed and flown.
We sleep with the window open. The duvet has not been unpacked.
Back in pulsing July, from a French cheese-making family who wanted to come down from their Brittany farm for some October sunshine. We looked at each other and crossed our fingers. On a blustery, damp September morning they emailed us again to ask if they needed to bring sheets and towels. No we replied. Great, they said, adding that the children couldn’t wait to enjoy the swimming pool.
Nobody has ever dipped a toe this late in the year, so it is indicative of the Indian summer that the lovely Bretons have been taking the plunge day and night, incessantly. My much-rehearsed apology (in floppy French) about the weather and water temperature went by the board.
In a couple of weeks I will be in a Barcelona television studio trying not to make an arse of myself as we (the freelance writers on the magazine Catalonia Today) grin inanely into the camera and try and string a sentence together without sounding like we are breaking some teeth in for a friend. The Catalan newspaper I write for has launched a television company and seems to think we might pull in the crowds, so to speak. Mmm. I promise to send you the online link when we have managed to record something.
THE OLIVE OIL BAN LATEST
Meanwhile, the impending UK ban on the sale of “on tap” olive oil continues to foster outrage and incredulity. I think we should challenge the legality of it as it discriminates and is unfounded, so if there are any trade lawyers out there willing to join the fray please get in touch.
Here is some more startling information.
In our Mother’s Garden campaign to shed some light on Government thinking I asked the Rural Payments Agency (which has made the pronouncement) why didn’t civil servants talk to people before they weighed in?
Oh but we did, they told me. There was a “public consultation” with stakeholders. That’s news to me and obviously 99.9 per cent of the UK population. Here is a link to the report on the four week “consultation”, on an issue affecting hundreds of businesses and thousands of customers. Have a read of the summary of responses.
Bottom line – the 10-questions online survey and report is based on responses from a total of…. seven people. That’s three bottlers, one local authority representative, one retailer, one customer and one person who did not say who they were.
I then asked why didn’t the RPA tell anyone about the impending December ban? Oh but we did, came the reply again. The RPA’s answer….
” Details of olive oil requirements are at the following link on gov.uk as last updated on 20 August 2014. This was also publicised through social media via the RPA twitter account”. The RPA Twitter account!
I am sorry, but as a published author of fiction and a screenwriter even I could not have made that up. Juan’s muck spreading smells sweeter.
Please do me and other small producers and fine food outlets a huge favour and share this blog – we have to spread the word, counter and hopefully stop such awful governance.
We are 3 gold star winners in the Great Taste Awards (2011). We know our stuff and a great many people trust us and rely on us. We are olive oil experts and we deal with small fine food expert outlets, never supermarkets. Our fully-labelled bag-in-box approach, killed off in one bureaucratic brush stroke, most certainly is the answer for quality, provenance, freshness and waste reduction for people who want the best for less.
Yet the civil service simply does not have any understanding. Olive oil is not a luxury but an essential food that can and should be affordable.
We will seek to challenge this somehow, small though we are. Help us if you can, even with a word. We have also spoken out on our Mother’s Garden Facebook page too, so please share that if you can.
And keep well.
PS We have to sell 60×5 litres, 20x 2litres and seven cases of 6x500ml bottles during November. The perfect solution, may I humbly suggest, for gifts this Christmas or for dinner parties with friends and family feasting. Just get in touch.
The endless examples of governmental disconnect – a repeated and abject failure to understand how most people think, exist, survive, work, attain and sustain – span my lifetime. At unthinkable cost.
Compared to the gross scale of some of well documented failures in governance, our stand on the matter of extra virgin olive oil and how it is sold is miniscule, but it makes it no less important. It illustrates the general issue of how good intentions can, due to law-makers’ failings to communicate and understand simple truths, become punitive, costly disasters.
I need to shout, and I will. See my last post and watch for more.
But today I want to simply share the fortifying textures and beauty of Mother’s Garden and these valleys. The vegetable garden chair, the bearded man of the mountain (do you see him?), a cobweb stair to the summit of wild asparagus.
Time’s up. Back to the office. There will be further news from Mother’s Garden soon. Keep well.
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.
I stand, shrink. The web of grasses and bare earth awaken the soles of my shoeless feet. There is the sweet, toe-flexing coolness of dew. Figs are falling like tears, and dawn is delicately cast with the first inklings of autumn.
Hundreds of Swallows and Martins call and swirl, lifting my chin and heart and taking my mind far from the heavy weight that is the myopia of humanity. Where on Earth are we headed? The birds are bound for Africa. It is another survival master-class before the great departing, and the young, new to the wing, follow the adults as they swoop at pace to gracefully scoop water into beaks from our reservoir; a fine, perilous art that takes time to master, and the fledglings smash the mirror surface repeatedly, somehow hauling themselves back into the air. I stand by in case of disaster, net at the ready, but there is none. Not today.
I cannot stand constantly at the edge of the water, with the fathomless mountains and forest to my back, much as I would choose to, and so yesterday I found a drowned novice that will not be journeying to Africa. It will feed a rose instead.
The cacophony, movement and colours flood all the quicker the more I slow. I diminish some more as context grows. The heat builds, the birds retire to the phone wire and I wander back to the shadow cast by the farmhouse, through the olive grove and via a far smaller open-top irrigation container where the bees love to drink but occasionally flounder. A finger is dipped for them to climb onto.
My increasing need is to journey, to cut the distance between me and nature.
Is that a Sardinian Warbler on the woodpile? I sit on a frail chair, unable to go back into the house. Ants have found the unwashed dogs’ bowls, hazels are falling in slow motion like the figs, time has almost stopped. In a flash the monarch of headlong life, the kingfisher, takes a goldfish and shakes the world out of its dream.
The garden table made from rubbish tip salvage still holds the loud echo of a recent lunch when Jen the cat curled in the guitar case and was serenaded to sleep. How sustaining to carry plates outside, far from plugs, with eternity for a ceiling, to be fed on sometimes gentle, sometimes profound conversation marinated in good food and harmony.
I have never been more certain – reinforced constantly by the Mediterranean insistence of giving time for food and, hence, family – that by sitting down together daily to eat will be the saving of us, the disconnected species; so loud, so fat in the self-conscience, so short-sighted and increasingly distant from our roots and the real world; as we all must surely sense, a social species in desperate need to find a way back to family and community, to communication across the generations, to respect, tolerance and goodwill.
Yes, the invaluable security and worth of tables, where we can all be comfortable, belong, fit, share, listen, learn. That old garden table keeps giving.
Joe told us as we ate of a recent meeting at the old fish market in town. On the Low Road, as it has been known since Gothic days, close to the crowd of smiles at the ice-cream parlour (home-make, to expire for) stands a void between the tall terraced houses. All that is left is the gateway bearing the faded words of past scents and bustle – Pescaderia.
Joe was translating this for a visitor. An elderly gentleman, a stranger to us, stepped out of a nearby house and slowly made his way to Joe’s shoulder. He was neither invisible nor uneasy about talking to young people he did not know.
I remember when it was bombed, he said. It was in 1938 at the end of the civil war. I was a young boy. I was in my bedroom and I heard the whistling of the first bomb. There was a flash and the glass of the window blew in. My mother ran into my room and we raced down into the cellar. We did not know where my brother was. More bombs fell on our house and the fish market and we were trapped for days. I never saw my brother again.
We were eating in the shade of the house, between the crumbling lime render of the north wall and the tubs of three runner bean plants that have not thrived. It was a very late lunch, in the still, heavy air just before the 4pm sweet breeze from the sea.
We were stepping away from the computers and telephones, into the infinite, calming greatness.
I had my back to the pitted wall. There was a low hum. I turned and a fat and yellow creature cruised past my nose and back again – what looked like a hornet, but on reflection may not have been given what transpired.
It was twice the size of your average yellow and black incubus. Mesmerising. During the next five minutes it completely ignored me as it painstakingly explored holes in the render between the red stones, before suddenly rising rapidly through the tangle of wisteria and making a waspline for the woods.
We ate. The breeze arrived. Then back came the purring juggernaut, only now it was clutching a lime-green cricket that was twice its size. What power. Within a few seconds the paralysed prey had been hauled into the chosen hole, presumably food for the wasp’s offspring. But what was it? It had hornet markings but they are not solitary, and it did not look like a bee-wolf wasp. How I wish I had a photograph to show you.
But I did present you with photo-puzzle the other day, didn’t I? Clay pots in a tidy row, most of them sealed. Here is the grisly and frightening story behind them.
The creator was another winged resident of Mother’s Garden, the female pottery or mud dauber wasp, a viscous looking beast with a narrow, thread-like waist and long sting needle that, in fact, is mostly passive where humans are concerned. We regularly have to guide one out of the house.
All these pots, each two centimetres long, were the work of one female, and inside each pot is one lava and several paralysed spiders for it to feed on until it is ready to take wing.
How deep the pool of unknowns and how much to wonder at: How under our noses there is extraordinary life, if we but stop and see, and drop our guard, preconceptions and fears.
A wasp isn’t just a wasp, though it is a fine example of the narrow view.
Wasps come in all manner of colours and the number of species tops 30,000. Or rather, that is the number identified so far, but with nearly 10,000 new species of insects being discovered annually it could well be higher by now. (Have I found another one?)
And although we think they swirl around in gangs looking for humans to puncture, most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging, or non-aggressive varieties. They are another critical, wondrous detail in the tapestry.
Wasps are members of the Hymenoptera order, along with bees and ants, considered to be the most beneficial to life through their pollination of fruit and vegetable crops.
There are a staggering 115,000 species of Hymenoptera, making it the second largest group to Coleoptera (beetles) of which there are 300,000 known species.
The current book pile in our bathroom is as eclectic as ever: Eric Newby travel logs, Catalan grammar course book, English poetry and, yes, a detailed guide to entomology. All of them inform me, not least how little I know.
The leaning tower of literature by my bed is too tall to list, but on top is JM Roberts’ History Of The World which I am reading to Maggie. I first read it to her two decades ago.
We are in the thick of the Roman republic, sliding towards the age of emperors, further flourishes of efficient domination and expansion, and on finally to the corruption, crumbling and collapse of something that had once seemed eternal.
What was it like for that final generation as the sand ran out?
It is unnerving reading, especially when I can bear to turn 360 degrees and attempt to hold all that is manifestly soul-breaking about the human situation now: the weight of relentless, unthinkable aggressions; the wrong, selfish, denial among the economic and political power brokers who are locked into the ages-old patterns of greed and control; the portents of palpable climate change.
I need nature more than ever – to step outside regularly, distancing myself from the numbing babble of the unbridled information age and to find clear air in which to counter the exhaustion, doubts: To try, in my own barefoot way, to find context.
A few elderberries hang from the high branches. We gathered what we could to make cordial and jelly, and now the shoal of sparrows is working to clear the rest, chirping with glee and purple paint-balling the car.
Last week we timed our evening dog walk to coincide with the honey-light and iridescent congregation of bee-eaters on the power line at the top of the farm. More and more. Maggie counted sixty. Yet our honey bees thrive too.
Life in happy balance. Reasons to hope.
Yesterday I told of treasures of time, colour and song. Here they are – that swallow on the sundial and, fleetingly, the golden oriole on the crown of the Friar Tuck fig tree.
Care to share my blogs with others? The more that sense Mother’s Garden the happier my world.
I’m grateful to the swallow on the sundial. In the delicate beginnings of another day we wake again to the cacophony of golden orioles feasting on tear-drop figs, accompanied by whistling bee-eaters spiralling above.
Outside the storeroom door I drop cat food into an old frying pan for the two barn felines, and lazily lift my gaze up above the muscat grape vine. The swallow sits near the tip of the angled iron rod protruding from the mottled lime render, soon to cast a shadow and tell us the early hour, plum centre on the forehead of the weathered house.
It sums up Mother’s Garden, the common quest to weigh time and consider the natural waypoints to a fulfilling existence. I tiptoe back into the house to get my camera. The swallow bides and I thank it. Then, just to its right, an oriole alights on the dead branch crown of a crowd of fig leaves. The fat tree has a bald patch like Friar Tuck. Most days I glimpse a flash of gold as the fidgety orioles whirl about, never still for more than a breath. But now I am holding my camera. There is just enough light, just enough time.
Bind weed clouds the log pile, life swamping death, and trumpets its victory through a plethora of white blooms that unfold with the warmth. How stupid the word we have for plants that don’t fit our narrow values. Just a few days ago a typically curious, keen-eyed six year old Bavarian boy, staying with his family in our cottage for a few days, and like all little people hungry for real adventures if given the chance, stopped me on our nature walk to marvel at the yellow flowering of a succulent thistle. The intricacies of things we rarely notice crowd the senses. How raw and rich the world can be to young eyes, uncluttered minds, if time and will can be cherished, nurtured.
The valley steadies its breath, paces itself as the heat of midsummer sucks energy from Englishmen. Hounds and felines flop too and busy ants must make a detour round a lazy tail.
What follows may not be palatable but it is the truth.
Rats come and go. The population is thin most of the time, far thinner than any city, but spikes occasionally when, naturally, there are rich pickings on the fruit trees. These creatures, mostly of the night, take their life in their claws and figs in their teeth. It is impossibly hard for them. They flourish for a few days and those that prey on them circle and close in.
Raptors eye for daylight risk-takers, ring-tailed cats crouch in the dark, and snakes move in. A mostly black western whipsnake (coluber viridiflavus) a 5ft wonder to behold, ignores Maggie to bide in the shade of a drystone wall near the woodpile. It is taking a mid-morning risk, for the birds of prey are partial. The circle of life spins. Ripe, half-eaten figs fall to warm earth, hungers are sated.
Yesterday the sweat was blinding. I was at the hives for nearly two hours in the seamless heat, talking quietly, taking a little honey, repairing frames and delicately transferring one family of 50,000 from one broken hive to another, newly repaired. Only a tiny few lost their patience with me.
Ella was at my side. We finished, gave thanks and wandered away as slowly as we had come, brushing the last remaining bees from the heavy frames in our hands. Joe helped in the farmhouse hall with the spinning, and then Maggie and I filled an assortment of jars with more than 25lbs of chestnut dark, simple goodness that will last us the year as well as afford us the joy of gifting to friends. Always seek raw honey from untreated mixed farms with healthy hedgerows if you can, where the bees have a host of options, a chance to thrive away from mono crops. Honey that has not been heated or processed in any way contains natural vitamins, enzymes, powerful antioxidants and vital natural nutrients.
After our labour scores of bees filled the air close to the barn door where, on a yet to be cleared work bench, Joe and I had been repairing frames and affixing the sheets of wax. As I put tools away and tidied the surplus frames, smiling Ella wandered slowly through the thick air, simply attired for a cooling dip in the pool.
I took myself off up the land, through the eye-height fennel and shin-tickling growth. We have set a fourth hive in the almond grove. No residents yet, but I will put a spun-but-not-spent honey frame in with the new wax sheets as an invitation, a welcome. The bees will come, for sure. Also patiently waiting for signs of their arrival were the iridescent bee-eaters, decorating a pine. Their numbers grow, yet somehow all is in balance. The humming of the honey-makers swells in equal measure.
PS: See our Mother’s Garden Facebook page for Maggie’s latest summer recipe. We’d be delighted, too, if you were able to share the news, blogs, recipes and fresh olive oil from Mother’s Garden.
Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, doors blown off hinges, terrified chickens; horizontal hailstones that rattle on tiles, these are a few examples of the world going wild.
June the 17th. Nearly two inches of rain in under two hours. Yes, hail too. We hunched in the dry, comforting ourselves by comforting our old hound Biba who cannot abide the gods rearranging their furniture. Gashes in the iron red track bled with the torrent. Then the clouds lumbered east, chased by two of the flying boats fighting the lightning-strike forest fire 15 miles south-west of us. Yesterday the sky was stained like the nicotine pub ceilings of my youth. The wind propelling the storms was fanning the flames. Latest count, 1000 mountain-top acres torched.
Today’s moisture-madness may have extinguished that fire, but the crackling could have started another. We wait to find out. Once, a tree that took a direct hit, burned at the core, then toppled two days later when all was dry again. Wwoof.
I paddled out before the final drops, certain that our cottage guests (Japanese and Australian) would have rivulets running from windows across the terracotta tiles, and that the normally dry swimming pool motor would be submerged. Right on both counts. I mopped, then with the sun on my wet back I steamed as I tried to get a small submersible pump with pipe attached down into the opaque depths beside the floundering pool pump. I jiggled the pipe too much and it came away in my hand. A fountain of dirty water hit me full in the face. It stopped the steaming for a short while, though.
What damage to the tiny olives forming on the trees, the young grapes on the vines? Maggie met a friend in town and the tale from her family farm was grim. The shadow of the storm will reach to a poor harvest.
You wonder, though, don’t you, when those gambling the economy against ecology, share prices against sea levels, power lust against the force of nature, the fat and greedy now against the increasingly sick future, are shamed for their woefully limited reaction to the glaringly obvious. History will damn them, but that is no help now.
Ella is home for the summer . We are four.
I will post again in a couple of days. Keep well.
And don’t let me forget to tell you the story of the blue bird and the blue whale….. another true story from The Garden.
Fairies dwell in our garden. It’s always good to be away with them. We join for sustenance almost every dappled evening now, weeding and watering our vegetable patch and minds.
May. It sedates the cats and lifts the heart with beguiling shades of new life that surges before the eyes. When I listen hard I see more, and even deadening ear protectors for occasional tractor duty only seem to evoke dreamier enchantments.
There is so much to fill every minute, what with the need for paths through the waist-high grasses while avoiding the wild flowers, and especially now that the holiday cottage has awoken with the deepening of the warming seasons and the lengthening of the outside hours, when people want to change their rhythm for a while, to touch the earth, bare their knees, stare at stars and hear the cacophony of nature that we all call peace. The bookings calendar is, finally, beginning to fill through to September – air for the financial rubber ring. Still gaps though, in case you were wondering.
And in the office my book and screenplay ponderings blur with managing olive oil shipments and sales in the UK as customers wanting at least the summery taste of Mother’s Garden send their orders. Sales build as the word “freshness” spreads and I must re-visit my passionate thoughts on the delicious and healthy subject of the juice of the olive before flying back to the UK to give a presentation at Hunstanton Golf Club at the end of the month. I’ll then move on to London to see our Ella who has just finished her Film Foundation course at the University of the Arts.
We crack on early with the many tasks after a round of animals feeding and plant watering. Yet, when we flop for early evening English tea the meditative tasks of the vegetable garden inspire us to stand again. When approached in the right frame of mind it is not toil, but comfort, don’t you agree? The art, of course, is to tickle along, to make small but visible advances every day, and when we don’t there is a pang. There are the usually misses as well as the hits, and the occasional rewards of indescribable goodness for the table. But equally importantly, we need this gentle time, individually and as a couple.
Last night two new raised beds, prepared with a mix of mature pony poo and ash, were planted with aubergines and peppers. While Maggie carefully spread olive leaf mulch around them I puzzled over how best to increase on last year’s runner bean crop of four pods. The plants reached the top of the canes and we watered the leaves, flowers and roots, but it was most probably the heat that stopped the fruiting. We planted too late. This year the plants are deciding. They have shot again from last year’s roots. Can I create some sort of shade for them?
If the rampant lettuces are anything to go by we have got the soil balance about right for once. Next to go in are the tomato and melon seedlings, plus some more runner beans.
At the back of the house our peas, French beans, courgettes, onions and broad beans aren’t exactly flourishing , and I think I may lose two of the ten young olives I in the autumn. A third is looking unhappy too, so at first light I cleaned around them all, laid down some mulch, watered and talked.
Today I must strim down the grass touching the electric fence, grit my teeth and test the system, for another hog season is upon us, that time of year when midnight wild boar shed their shyness and come within feet of the farmhouse door in search of salad sustenance.
It was still 21 degrees at 9pm last night, but by sunrise there was dew and a zing in the air. Wrynecks, golden orioles and serins have joined the chorus, and the barn swallows and fig tree bee eaters chose the same day to wing in from Africa. Today I have been trying in vain to photograph the pair of short-toed eagles riding the blue river of light between the banks of the Catalonian mountains.
The wild asparagus season has waned, sadly, but we have had our fill, which reminds me of our very recent, extraordinary stay in Rutland, land of my ancestors, the Healey clan of Edith Weston. Two incidents made it extraordinary. First, we spied wild asparagus in England for the first time (but I am not at liberty to tell you where….) and, second, we were there when the earthquake struck. It felt like a truck had reversed into the building. Been to countless countries where the earth moves and never felt a twitch.
Ah yes. The blue bird and the blue whale.
Ever since I can remember we have had a large gourd shell that needed to be put to a good purpose. The hollow, hard, bulbous former vegetable had been lying about; beautiful to the eye, but unless we used it as a water carrier like ancient civilisations it was destined to be merely decorative and homeless. Like a great many useless things we can’t bear to throw away, it ended up moving around in the barn.
My nephew Yan, a musician, digging for bits to repair the dog kennel for us, saw it and asked if he could use it to make a kora harp. He’d learned to play and make them in Senegal. Great. One side was cut away, leaving two-thirds of the shell and the funnel neck intact. But he ran out of time and so the gourd shell returned to an old crate.
Then artist Paul, a regular visitor, spied it. I think it had moved to near the gardening bits and bobs by then. He thought it was perfect for an up-light. He painted it as a striking blue whale, with two small holes for eyes. We put it in the outside toilet near the holiday cottage swimming pool and, boy, did it shine. Once or twice.
But the convenience, which has western saloon bar swing doors for, er, ventilation, is rarely used at night, and not at all through the winter and spring.
Yesterday Maggie was in there, clearing and cleaning in preparation for our first guests of the season who arrive today. Only they will have to use the loos in the cottage, not the one with the whale light.
A blue tit has built a nest in it and there are about eight eggs about to hatch.
We’ve turned the outside sign round from vacant to occupied.
Keep well, and happy gardening.
And if you like the tales for The Garden, please spread the word. The more the merrier.
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.