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.
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.
Summer sighs, olives begin to swell on the trees and we beaver with Mother’s Garden farm work in the early or late hours, or in the shade of the house or barn. In the early afternoon we are in the office, talking olive oil to people from all over the world.
Every day more and more new customers are contacting us to order fresh olive oil, so thank you. We have stock in the UK right now, so please get in touch if you would taste the difference. You can also visit our the online shop.
Here’s the puzzle.
We have started the annual clearing of the barn in readiness for the September grape harvest (we made about 100 litres of farm wine from the little vineyard beside the house) and the all-important November olive harvest.
Hidden in a dark corner behind the olive nets we found some pottery – mud vases all sealed but for one. We find these everywhere and it is a fascinating story. Do you know what they are?
We will tell you later in the week.
Keep well. Eat well.
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.
Midsummer, languid, the day stirred by the faintest breath of eastern breeze. Look closer and our Earthly peers, the multitude of insects, birds and mammals, are drinking in the zest of the mellow first hour of long shadows.
Golden oriels warble and whizz through the pines. A pair of hedge sparrows has left the family shoal and the security of the reef of holly oaks and wild olives next to the chicken run to make whoopee on a windowsill. Oxygen is alive with winged wonders and I have clocked my first western marbled white butterfly of the year.
I potter with the terriers Ted and Tilly on loose leads. They know the rhythm. I water and talk to my sapling olives and then dwell happily in the vegetables. Maggie joins me and we harvest runner beans, a moment of the greatest cerebral sustenance. For years we have tried to grow runner beans. They always reach for the sky, flower but fail. Last year I couldn’t even be bothered to pull up the roots.
But this year those old plants shot again. I watered and sprayed them, building another bamboo frame, enjoying the meditation but not holding out much hope. It is too hot here, too dry, however much I give them to drink, or so we thought. Maybe that is the secret. Don’t plant seedlings, but leave the old plants to die back, to come again and again.
New red pontiac potatoes jewel our plates. It has been a very good root crop year, for a change, and the wild boar have not come a calling.
The paths and track, remoulded by the crashing storm last week, harden again. Memories of the trauma are slipping away, but we must go to a neighbours to pick her ripening apricots that were pitted by the hail.
Our storm-blasted village made national television news. Hail in late June and the most rainfall anywhere in Spain in the last decade. Farmers in our valley face grim grape and olive harvests this autumn. We too, but our vast fig trees seem to have offered a little protection to the vines. We shall see. My pulse has settled again. What will be will be.
Another storm is coming, but of the human variety. In towns and along the coast road bright shacks have appeared like pop-up kitchens in London parks. Only they are peddling deafening wares – explosives for the all-night firework festival of Sant Joan, from nightfall today to birdsong and ambulance sirens on tomorrow.
Already piles of combustible rubbish are growing in villages and naughty boys are lobbing bangers in the streets, the portent of thunderous fun and roaring fires on the one summer night in the year when firemen and medics are particularly twitchy. Like running before the bulls, the risks never stop the ritual, the upholding of Iberic traditions that defy caution and define identity. Let’s hope no flames are fanned and that our luck holds.
I must go and post an olive oil recipe. Maggie has been making parsley oil, perfect for our new potatoes, for marinating meats and simply for spooning on to her fresh bread. Quick and simple goodness, and such flavour. Mmmm.
If you would like some fresh olive oil, let us know.
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.
The mountain comes and goes. The air is heavy with thunder, rugged with the contours of rain clouds that take, give back and then take again both distance and perspective.
We were forewarned that this rare storm would be upon us at sunrise, even if last night a vast, touchable moon smiled on a valley day that seemed to cradle life. We were woodlanders for a few contented hours, taking out more pines to bring shafts of light to old olives, oak saplings and all manner of dormant seeds blanketed by needles. It is always good to be in the thick of it, to feel it, hear the whispers of our true context.
The 10 acres that are the sum of Mother’s Garden contain such a sweet muddle of living things and contours, even soils, that it can seem far greater a space. And while there is, we feel, a fair trade between us and the other residents it needs constant reflection and occasional hard labour.
We are on a south facing rise. The farmhouse and holiday cottage are fifty metres back from the lane, shielded from tarmac by our small meadow, a few olive trees and some half managed fruit terraces. To the east is our vineyard, behind we have an olive grove and our water reservoir.
At the top of the land there are more vines and two small almond groves, but across the middle of the farm runs a seam of woodland patterned with trails both human and boar, with piles of seasoning logs, where slowly but surely a long-forgotten life is returning.
It will remain woodland, but it is changing as we seek to bring balance, light and diversity, with one eye on the fury of summer fires. In occasionally spending the pre-breakfast hour weeding out the pines we have found song too. It took just the first effort of clearing for the robins, finches, blackbirds and others to flood that space.
This harmony is happening all the quicker because we have David and Melissa from Australia here. They arrived in early December having wandered south from the Arctic Circle in their camper van and, as happens here, they have exchanged labour for shelter. They seem contented, as are we, and we know it helps that we live in the heart of the world’s best rock-climbing area. Sense, strength, intelligence and laughter, all timely. I will tell you about them in my next blog, but now I must away to the corner of my mind where another screenplay is pacing.
Meanwhile, remember to get in touch if you want to savour some amazing fresh, new harvest extra virgin olive oil. We have stock in the UK now. All you have to do is go to our shop and order or get in touch. We need to keep it moving with your help. Pleasingly, more and more people are in tune with Mother’s Garden and bookings are now coming in for the cottage which will be open through to September. We have had more than 1000 visitors now. Have you seen our Facebook page? This has more photographs and regular updates.
As for the mountain, it as emerged from the gloom and we hope the calm returns before this evening, when the annual St Anthony parade of horses, donkeys and colour carts is scheduled to rattle over the cobbles of the nearby town.
Oh, before I go I must mention Pau’s visit. His name means Peace. He rolled up a couple of weeks ago and asked me if I remembered him. I did not.
Pau is 31 and runs an art cafe in the theatre in Tarragona. His grandparents used to own our farm and he and his family lived on the neighbouring farm. Mother’s Garden – L’Hort de la Mare – had been a fundamental part of his childhood, the land of grand adventures, of grazed knees and wolf cries from the top of trees.
Grandfather Enrique, who handed us the great key to the front door nearly 14 years ago, passed away last year and the family have slowly but surely been sifting through the accumulation of a lifetime. Among the possessions was an oil painting of the farmhouse, seen from across the great circular reservoir, a record as rich with the warmth and light that are as much a part of this place as the tangible treasures.
He thought we might like it. Now, like then, it was hard to find words.
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.