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.
The year drifts in and out of consciousness. Is that the hour – the month? I’ve overslept and January and now February have evaporated.
There have been the dreams of countless dawn-jewelled spider webs and the daze of almond blossom adorned by the dance of white wagtails that flit from branch to branch through the majesty of the groves.
If I get that far. Just outside the back door I have positioned a chair in the lee of the south wall to lose myself in the song of the siskin that perches every morning at the summit of our largest fig tree.
There are chairs everywhere now, including the little blue one moving sedately through the vineyard. It and I are getting to grips with the pruning, and after an hour at the task I leave it there, marking the point where I will resume on the morrow. My habit in all things is to chip away at several tasks at the same time, moving from one to the other in seek of balance – my desk, the woodpile, the vineyard, my desk , the barn, the woodpile and so on.
Perhaps this is a consequence of being a writer who has learned the hard way that after three hours of being engrossed in composition my mind’s wanderings become unprofitable and often ridiculous (!). So I go and do something else, and in that meditation of manual labour I often find the words I was searching for.
Yes, Maggie’s vineyard. I am trying to complete half of it while she takes a short break with her lovely, supportive family in England, resting from the relentless tasks here and from a nasty fall, tripping on an electric fence and being met on the way down by the up-ending wheelbarrow she had been pushing. The clout on the bridge of her nose yielded two black eyes, and she pulled something in her lower back.
In her absence I declare to you my immeasurable appreciation of her. She grafts, tends, supports and ensures. I want her to finish her vineyard without the weight of starting it.
And there is more for her to discover on her return. A few more grey hairs on my head for starters.
I’m pretty sure she’ll spot the new view from the front door. Or rather the old view now reinstated by the removal of Robbie the Range Rover, who came to a halt beside the path to the chickens five years ago.
He had become a fixture, the largest piece of clobber we owned, pressed into service as an animal feed store until the rats moved in, and then left to sink an inch into the earth. I had another reason to keep him, though. I threw a bucket of water over him occasionally and kept the undergrowth from claiming him completely because from the road it always looked as if someone was home.
But enough was enough. Masked, I gave him a shallow clean inside with a dustpan and brush and then called Joe who fetched the tractor and tow cable. The car’s engine had seized in 2008 and there was every chance the rest of him had fossilised too. The half-deflated flat tyres weren’t going to make budging him any easier either.
My plan was simple. Park tractor behind him: Attach tow cable to tractor and Robbie’s towbar: Put capable 12-year-old behind the wheel of the Range Rover, then try nudging the wreck down the 50- metre track to the meadow. If Robbie wouldn’t go of his own free will I would push him all the way. I even remembered to put the ignition key in to ensure the steering didn’t lock.
No sooner had I nudged the old brute out of his resting place than he – and Joe – started to gather momentum. Alarming momentum. The cable jerked in surprise then sprang off the tow bar.
If he didn’t make the hair-bend halfway down he would plough into the holiday cottage. I leapt off the tractor and belted after him, bellowing pointlessly. What I saw as potentially catastrophic the lad lapped up as enormous adventure. He made the bend, just, and finally came to rest five metres from the road, hopping out of the driver’s seat full of the joys of spring. I, meanwhile, had folded in half out of shock and exhaustion and was as white as winter.
Robbie is now parked on the meadow awaiting his final journey, but still looks quite perky and I remembered what a good friend from Darjeeling said – “If we could just get him there my family would rebuild him. Oh yes. Nicely.”
My year was awakened by a flurry of visitors. Brazilian ecologists from Barcelona came to see the land, possibly to run a market garden from here as we continue to explore ways of reducing our workload.
And then there was the day a chauffeur-driven Chrysler pulled in.
In it was Shuaib Al Muwaizri, the former housing minister of Kuwait, with his wife Hanan and two of their six children, daughters Mneerah and Haya. Being an old hack I had done my homework after a very posh Barcelona hotel had called me to say they had a client who was interested in our olive oil, but all the same I didn’t really expect the name they gave me to turn out to be one of the most significant politicians in the oil kingdoms.
As soon as he got out of the car I realised it was him. Shuaib, the first elected member of the Emir’s normally family-controlled cabinet, who resigned last year and has been pushing hard for peaceful, anti-corruption reforms in his country, spent the day with me. We talked about olive oil but to a far greater extent about his life and his hopes for his country.
We have stayed in regular touch, and as I write a small consignment of olive oil has just landed in Kuwait. Goodness knows what will happen next.
Meanwhile amazing Ella and Joe, fresh from the Encamisada horse parade, are going to climb La Mola mountain at the end of our valley (Snowdonia proportions) and will sleep up there to raise money for Red Nose Day. More grey hair. They are going to have to pick their moment carefully. As I look out of my office window La Mola has a snowy crown.
Want to help them raise funds to help children in Africa? Click here.
Maggie is on another mission, posting more recipes on our website, simple good fare – and timely, what with the unpalatable food truths now being put in front of the public. Delia’s new online cookery classes are coming at just the right time.
Society is fast losing touch with goodness and core values and has been schooled to expect a neatly-packaged, nicely chilled simplicity that is neither real nor sane. Giving blind trust on something as fundamental as sustenance is, when you think about it, loaded with guilt. We all know it would never be appetising to get close to the production line, to know exactly what it took to feed us so cheaply and for corporations to still make a fat profit.
In this age of fingertip knowledge we don’t want to know even if common sense tells us it cannot possibly add up.
Gross financial and time pressures on the typical family mean there appears to be no choice but to buy the marketing pitch, to make choices based on price and to reach for convenience. Not true. All power to Delia’s elbow as she opens her kitchen to show us. Making and sharing food is an essential, wonderful aspect of life, family and health.
And as for how we have reached this point, the economy-worshipping governments of all creeds, grossly irresponsible to date, need to prosecute the fictions and spell out the truths – for every label to say in legible print what exactly one is buying: For the imperative to be the definitive sources, age (not just best before) and all the ingredients in understandable language – and why not an online link to a webcam of the production line? Difficult? Hogwash.
Buy local produce when possible and build your trust and loyalty on the foundations of sustainability, provenance, nutrition and freshness. On the question of cost, we need to remind ourselves what is real and what matters most. We cannot afford not to.
I believe this is just the beginning of a food revolution, when the nutritionists will unravel the puzzle of the omegas and suchlike and we will listen attentively, hungry for health and a long life. We need to gather around the table again, to talk, share, resolve, laugh and rediscover that goodness.
Chew the cud on that and tell me what you think.
And if you didn’t see it here’s a link to new medical research on why fresh olive oil and the Mediterranean diet is vital.
I have to share this. Maggie Whitman’s Mother’s Garden feasts deserve no less. Yesterday she sent my tastebuds into orbit again, this time with her hake and prawns, almonds and parsley dish. And for what it’s worth, it is loaded with omega-3 and omega-9 goodness.
Maggie says it is a simple dish, with easily accessible ingredients. It is bursting with lovely flavours.
4 hake or other white fish fillets (sustainably sourced).
2 tbsp (30ml) of ground almonds for dusting (our alternative to flour)
4 tbsp (60ml) of Mother’s Garden fresh olive oil
1 tbsp (15ml) lemon juice
4 cloves of garlic, crushed (less or none depending on taste)
Quarter of a pint (150ml) of fish stock
Quarter of a pint (150ml) of white wine
6tbsp (90ml) fresh parsley, finely chopped
Two thirds of a cup (75g) frozen peas
Cup full of small prawns
Freshly ground black pepper and salt
You will need a good-sized, open ovenproof dish and a sauté pan. (Be sure to give everyone a spoon to polish off the juices on their plates!)
While your oven is reaching 180 centigrade season the fish fillets and dust with the ground almonds.
Sauté them in half of the olive oil for about a minute each side then put them in the ovenproof dish and pour over the lemon juice.
Wipe the pan clean.
Now sauté the onion and garlic in the remaining oil until soft before adding the stock and wine, peas and 80 per cent of the parsley. Season.
This sauce can now be poured over the fish and the dish can be put in the hot oven for about 15 minutes (Cooking time always depends on the thickness/size of the fish, so adjust oven time accordingly). Add the prawns and then cook for another 4 minutes.
Sprinkle with the rest of the parsley and serve with steamed vegetables (although our children also like some mashed potato to soak up the juices).
Red in the morning, shepherds’ ….TAKE COVER! Clearly something dreadful is brewing. Yet again Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, has set the heavens alight.
Winter’s Catalan cocktail can always be relied upon to have a kick to it, with lashings of angostura, but as all seven billion of us know, the weather is going increasingly haywire.
From long before Christmas through to January 6, Dean Martin blared out of the village public address system. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow!” I stood and listened next to the ludicrously early flowering pear tree, hat on to protect me from the beating sun, watching our happy host of sparrows hop through the burgeoning grass and boldly steal the chickens’ corn from under their beaks.
You don’t necessarily want to know this, but day after day – November, December and now into January – the peace, clarity and daytime warmth (circa 12 degrees) of the Priorat mountains continued to beguile like sirens. Is the mantic truth that this is the future? That between the rains in autumn and spring all will be serene?
No. The bite will surely come, late on and deep. Or the goaded planet will store its anger for another season.
Meanwhile we try not to worry about what is brewing. We try to appreciate the moment, these glorious days, the chance to hang winter washing on the line. After all, “Let It Snow” was written in Hollywood in July 1945, when I bet my bottom dollar flakes were few and far between.
Most evenings the black, random line of distant ink-black mountains is backed by the warm glow of sunset. But on January 5 it was an exceptional panorama, as the enchantment flared with celebration. From the far-flung clusters of lights marking the villages there rose fireworks – tiny, colourful flares above a beguiling community in miniature, heralding the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts for the Son of God and all the Catalan children.
There is one particular place, on the return journey from town, where this little world is laid out before me. I stopped the car and stared, waiting for another distant burst of happiness. I’d been on a fruitless shopping trip to town where most doors were locked, people were rushing to get ready and the main square was roped off with a 50 metre red carpet befitting the Oscars.
At New Year the children decided we should trek up the land in the dark, to turn off the torches and sit on the brow of the hill and listen to the distant village clock strike midnight. As we waited our eyes adjusted to the gloom and we wondered nervously what the plentiful wild boar were making of our unnatural presence in their nocturnal kingdom. None appeared and neither were there New Year explosions, just the tolling of the bell. Given the general tightening of belts, the villagers were obviously keeping their powder dry for January 5.
On the first day of the year we celebrated with a feast among friends at the always warm and welcoming home of Conchita and Mac.
So what will the new year hold? The fresh olive oil business bounds on – another website, run writer Judy Ridgway, has just posted our nut roast recipe – and the new year challenge is get the farm up and running, including pruning vines, as well as almond, fruit and olive trees.
Ella is working so very hard, juggling her five-languages baccalaureate (Spanish, Catalan, English, Greek, Latin, philosophy, geography, history, history of art and a thesis on fashion) while pulling together a portfolio to support art college applications. Regrettably an arts baccalaureate is not a sixth-form option in her small high school here in the mountains, so all her studies have been ex-curricular, something many arts-minded children may face in the UK if the mindless axing of arts education rolls on.
While I am on the subject, let me get this off my chest.
British art, music, theatre, film, books, radio and television are national treasures of invaluable worth that shine in the world and, for those in the corridors of power, bring vast returns to the Exchequer. Both Maggie and I despair that any Government should devalue this, or, indeed, deny that path of fulfilment to children. The planet needs far more arts, not less, for people to be more creative (and we don’t mean in the accounts departments of tax-dodging major corporations).
Meanwhile Joe is getting into his stride in his first year at high school, and growing an inch taller every week.
Ella and Joe will be 18 and 13 come June, an emotional thought deepened by the arrival of a gift, a large grass-weave basket, just like the one Joe slept in aged 4 weeks when we first came to Catalonia and saw Mother’s Garden.
Ella’s final exams will begin on her birthday, but she plans on celebrating in May when she and four friends and her brother will see One Direction in concert in Barcelona.
We will be there too, parked outside the Olympic basketball stadium in one enormous parental taxi rank, me nodding my head to the Rolling Stones on the car stereo, turning up the volume to drown out the screams while counting my blessings that somehow I managed to get the tickets.
How, heaven knows. I just kept frantically clicking the BUY button on the event website like a Wild West telegraph operator in a tumbleweed railway station who has a gun pointed at him by Clint Eastwood, until – Hallelujah – it worked. Life would not have been worth living had I failed.
As countless households all over the world know, bleakly or joyfully, One Direction concerts have been selling out in a blink, with online and shop vendors besieged by frantic teenagers and panicking parents. Now I notice some seats for the Barcelona gig are being offered for re-sale for a small fortune, as much as, well, tickets to see ageless (alright, he’s 69) living legend Mick Jagger strut his stuff while the indefinably cool guitarist Keith Richards sways precariously behind him. Heroes.
One Direction can’t be that good, surely?
Once upon a time, like many parents of older teenagers, I have been an expert on four colourful, fat friends with aerials on their heads and televisions in the tummies. Their incomprehensive but somehow catchy gibberish were then wallpapered over by the likes of “doggydoo” Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers greatest hits until I now find myself unwittingly humming 1D’s “Little Things” while walking the dogs. Not that I mind. Suffolk singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, who penned it, is class.
It is, give or take a sunrise or two, a dozen years since we rolled up here with our Norfolk bandwagon, chattels, dogs and dreams. We staked out this Latin soil as an outpost of the good county, promising to keep close and tell all; to share it.
Incredulity at the rush of time is answered by the grey-gilled man in the mirror, now 54 years of age. I have spent nearly a quarter of my life here and have tentatively begun the process of growing old. I need to accept that. Just beginning, I rush to add, but I – we – also need to recognise that the time has arrived to ease off the throttle; somehow.
Running the holiday cottage and, hence, having people on the farm for nine months of the year while also farming, writing and trying to grow the olive oil business is now too much.
So we are talking to villagers and friends to see who might like to share the land. There is talk of food cooperative members growing crops here. We want to focus more on the olive oil and the writing, so this may be our last season with the cottage. We shall see.
In truth, I don’t really know how old I am. My head says go for it until my body argues back two days later. Then I read in London Sunday supplements left by visitors and penned by deluded writers of roughly my age that where forty was once the new thirty, fifty is now the new forty. ER…no. Admit it.
PS: Cancel your flights. I wrote the above a few days ago. This morning it is tipping it down, blowing a gale and there is now on top of the mountain. Never take a god’s name in vain….
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.
It is the month of green and red, of course, although our shades may be a little different: the bounty of delicious new harvest olive oil and the miracle that is the red winter fruit of the strawberry tree.
We have been rushing hither and thither, completing our annual Christmas shipment of fresh olive juice to our key customers, preparing the farm for winter, planning the year ahead as sales of our award-winning cooperative olive oil in the UK, Canada and America climb at an ever increasing rate.
The word is spreading.
Just get in touch.
It is so necessary too, though, to find moments to stand and stare.
I see things differently come December.
Mistletoe appears from nowhwere, like the robin, holly berry and rosehip, and a friend’s garden in the lee of a great mountain is decorated with that indefinable delicacy of arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. It fruits a year after flowering.
And just yesterday – hallelujah – there was the flash of the kingfisher.
As the Iberian winter bites the tetchy cat has hijacked the little chair I salvaged from the rubbish tip. My plan was to perch on it while feeding the wood-burner, hence saving my creaking knees; but no.
So, just three days and counting….The Mayans ran out of chisels or stone when they got to December 21, 2012, and (as you are undoubtedly aware) the conclusion has been drawn that this signifies all of us have run out of time. KABOOOM.
I prefer to prescribe the ancient Greek definition of apocalypse – not a cataclysm but an unveiling, or revealing, in reference to a meaning of some kind previously hidden in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.
Let’s hope so.
The sense of change is heightened, though, isn’t it? Maybe humanity is unsettled by the compacted burdens of so-called advancements that weigh so much and have forsaken so much, from braking the core of being, the atom, to robbing family and community and the individuals of priceless time.
Or do I sense a longing for change more here, in Catalonia, an angry “state” within sick Spain now far larger in the world conscience after linking arms with Scotland and striding towards independence?
Catalan president Artur Mas risks having a ragged Christmas, because a month after the election his Moses-like posters are still hanging from ever lamppost and the wind is getting up.
He called an early vote in the region to pump independence air into the tyres of his middle-to-right of the road bandwagon, but it backfired. He lost some ground if not his crown, while left-wing separatists found a new gear.
The majority of Catalans voted for one of the pro-independence parties, though, and it is such a single-minded place to be right now that there is a real chance of left and right forgetting their differences, forming a coalition and defying Madrid by calling a referendum.
The right-wing Spanish government of starch-rigid President Rajoy has declared any such vote unconstitutional, which has had people openly pondering on the likelihood of tanks rumbling through these villages.
I can’t see Europe letting it come to that, but why the clamour in the first place? The Catalans cite their ancient and unyielding claim of sovereignty, for reasons of language, culture and brutal history, and now even moderates have added their voices and votes, spurred by the economic mess.
Our village has already voted and declared it is not part of Spain.
Many Catalans think they would be better off going it alone because they pay far more in tax than they get back from Madrid, with this north east corner, the cornerstone of the “national” economy, constantly getting what they see as a raw and offensively dismissive deal from central government.
Certainly the mandate is clear enough for Artur and those seated at his round table, with nigh on a quarter of all Catalans flocking to a September rally to wave independence flags.
Fundamental issues of massive bureaucratic costs, EU membership, currency and the subsequent stability not only of a Catalan nation but what would be left of Spain form the meat course in this debate and we are just coming to it.
Spanish austerity was one of the topics discussed in my Norfolk home town of a couple of weeks ago.
A Spanish friend, a teacher, went to define to a gathering of anti-austerity UK residents the gravity of the situation here. She added her voice to a multi-party counter argument to the UK Government’s stringent economic policies.
How strange to see a photograph of a face from the heart of here standing in the high street of my youth.
For weeks now the day and night skies have been clear and calm, down to minus 5 beneath starlight. Every morning sunlight bounces from dew drops and jet specks in the sky.
On a 40-minute afternoon drive into the mountains to fetch Ella from a friend’s home the three griffon vultures circling overhead outnumbered the cars we passed along the winding lane of timeless charms.
The rains of late autumn have filled the reservoirs and brought our spring to life again. There is ample grazing for the horses. The chicken run has been reinforced and although a grey male goshawk has been sighted we have stopped the slaughter I recounted last month..
And as I walk the land and think of what the future may hold I reflect on how Adrian Bell felt on his Suffolk farm. How we appreciate him. I quote –
“I thought, today, how the family and one small farm fill our thoughts from waking to sleeping. Yet the farm occupies merely a moment of a traveller’s time. What a concentration of concern there is all over the lands and cities of this island, and what an anomalously impersonal thing ‘government’ is by contrast. It will be superseded, surely, by something more personal, an intensification of the personal concern, not a denaturing of ourselves from it, which is present politics. It should be as personal an affair as the old heraldic rule of kings was; but adult in conception, a fusion and a sharing, not egotism splendidly strutting.”
That was his hope in 1946.
What do I hope for everyone in 2013? An open-hearted, hopeful discussion on how to counter the sense of overload. Now is the time.
Have a wonderful Christmas. Peace in abundance. Ready smiles and steady hearts. Keep warm. Keep well.
Oh – and remember, whether you are in the United Kingdom or North America, you can get a taste of this life. We would love to hear from you.
Carrot cake with walnuts – so so yummy.
This nutty variation has been enjoyed repeatedly in recent weeks with our hard-earned Mother’s Garden afternoon tea, and made for us by two tremendous farm helpers Natalie Kinsley and Andrei Solomka from Norfolk, England. Among the many farm tasks we are collecting walnuts now and so it makes sense! Delicious.
100g Self-raising wholemeal flour
100g soft brown sugar
2 handfuls of raisins (soaked in orange juice for half hour, minimum)
50g ground almonds
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 180 C, 350 F. Grease a 20-cm round cake tin and line it with greaseproof paper.
In a bowl mix 100g of softened butter and 100g of soft brown sugar until fluffy.
Beat in 2 eggs and gradually add the flour to the mixture. Grate 100g of carrots into the mixture. Add the soaked raisins. Add 50g ground almonds. Roughly chop 100g of walnuts and add. Mix well.
Add 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon and grated ginger into the mixture and stir well.
Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 40-45 minutes. The cake should be golden brown. When cold, top with icing – make this by simply mixing icing sugar with soft cream cheese until sweet to your own taste.
It is one of those barbecues where you can’t go wrong.
Calcots are a variety of onion that look like leeks and are meant to be burned to a cinder on an open flame, before being wrapped in newspaper to sweat before consumption.
This March and April Catalan tradition always affords me ample time to leaf through the necessary pile of old newspapers.
With Biba the dog snoring among the irises and frightening the chickens, I did a masterful job of incinerating everything while sipping a small ale and browsing articles about the disturbed childhood of someone called Angelina Jolie, and how insulin plays a significant part in weight gain.
How to eat a blackened calcot? Grasp it with a piece of the newspaper, pull off the outer layer to reveal the very tender and sweet heart, which you tip in a salsa, dangle into your mouth and chomp. Seriously yummy, but rather messy.
High behind the barbecue the surface of the balsa was calm for a change. The indefatigable grey heron which kept coming back like a boomerang to feed on our goldfish has been displaced by a cormorant.
A rare sighting has been a hobby, sitting obligingly on the wobbly top of a young fir in front of the farmhouse, long enough for me to get my binoculars and be absolutely certain for a change what I was admiring. These falcons normally migrate north from Africa in the spring, but the mild winter had obviously encouraged him or her to embark early. Too early, perhaps, because the swifts and swallows and dragonflies that are prey have yet to appear.
At ground level there has been a delightful and rare flash of white tail. Rabbits may be rife in your neck of the woods, but here they are scarce, perhaps due to the plethora of carnivores, Catalans included, and the limited grazing. But flash by it did, as if late, and we quickly gathered up the radar-nose dogs and headed in the opposite direction.
There was once, many years ago, the trauma of our old springer spaniels retrieving from goodness knows where a great number of very young bunnies, all dead. We tried to track them back to the source, off our land and into the abandoned almond grove that borders us, but found nothing. I don’t think we have seen another rabbit at Mother’s Garden, until now.
There are no badgers as far as we can tell, like at our friends’ farm across the valley. The sett is close to their farmhouse, half way up an almost vertical bank of ivy and bare oak roots, where soil spills out of a gaping burrow.
Maybe when we have finished thinning the main area of pine wood that already resounds with much more birdsong we can focus on the dyke in the north western corner, where there is about half an acre of dense undergrowth, including highly flammable cane and countless abandoned hazels.
This wilderness could contain be all manner of inhabitants, boar included. They come and go, as you know, along set paths worn to bare earth, then fan out across the farm, leaving trails in the soft ground.
I’m loath to disturb them or any other creature, but we cannot take the risk of leaving the area untended through yet another tinder dry summer. After all, our power line, trip switch and meter are on the edge of it and it is not so far from our neighbour’s house.
And amid all this undergrowth there are eight more ancient olive trees waiting to be freed.
Here’s a Mother’s Garden favourite, not only because it is so so yummy hot or cold, but because we can source most of the ingredients here on the farm.
We are not vegetarians, but meat is absent from a great deal of our diet and our kitchen bookshelves feature recipes by the likes of Sarah Brown, Rose Elliot and the American Mollie Katzen.
This nut roast is quick, simple and can be enjoyed with roast potatoes and steamed vegetables, or cold with a fresh crisp salad.
For us, though, it is a slow food, as we enjoy sitting at the kitchen table, talking or listening to the radio, cracking farm nuts and filling the large jar that we know equates to two nut roasts.
Why not do what we do and always make double the mixture and pop two roasts in the oven, ensuring there will be some to enjoy cold. The use of an egg to help bind is optional, but we tend to put one in.
As I said, so many of the ingredients can be sourced on the farm – the walnuts, almonds, hazels , onions, garlic, wild thyme, extra virgin olive oil, breadcrumbs – and we then cook them in the little oven above our woodstove.
Ingredients for two roasts
Two tablespoons of Mother’s Garden arbequina olive oil.
4 large onions, peeled and finely chopped
25g of flour
thyme, fresh or dried, two or more teaspoons
300ml of vegetable stock
300g of mixed almonds, walnuts and hazels, ground or roughly chopped. We vary the percentages and sometimes replace one with bought cashews.
200g of breadcrumbs.
One fresh free-range egg(optional)
Juice of a lemon
Large clove of garlic, finally chopped
Gently saute the onions in a heavy pan until tender. Stir occasionally. This should take about ten minutes
Use this time to mix your ground nuts and breadcrumbs in a large bowl and, if time, line two loaf tins with saved butter papers or grease-proof paper.
When the onions are soft add the flour. Stir for a minute then add stock and and keep stirring until the mixture thickens. Turn off the heat.
Now the sticky bit.
Combine the onion mixture with the ground nuts and breadcrumbs. This is when we add a farm egg, but not essential.
Add the lemon juice, crushed garlic, thyme and salt and pepper to taste and then work the mixture together with a wooden spoon. It should provide enough mixture to three-quarter fill two loaf tins.
You can now leave these in the fridge for a few hours or, if your oven is heated and ready, pop them in.
We have tried baking at a high heat (200C) for 40 minutes, but prefer to cook them for an hour at a slightly lower temperature. It is always hard for us to gauge because of the personality of our woodstove, but all you have to do is keep checking. Sticking a knife into the roast is always a good test. If it comes out sticky it will need a little longer in the oven.
We have also learned to let them rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.
If we are having it as a hot meal we always pour fresh olive oil on our steamed vegetables (so so good) but you may want to either make a gravy or, as we do regularly, some homemade garlic mayonnaise (ali-oli).
A popular gravy at Mother’s Garden is made with mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil, a little brandy, flour to thicken, vegetable stock and seasoning to taste.
Lightly saute the chopped mushrooms (400g) in a pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil , add a nip of brandy if you like the idea, stir until the liquid has gone and the mushrooms are brown then add the flour, stirring for a few minutes. In goes the stock. We let this simmer for 5 minutes, then allow it to cool a little before liquidising. You can then leave until you need it, or reheat immediately to serve.
Any leftovers always make a great addition to a “what’s left in the fridge?” soup.
Tell us how you get on! We love feedback…..