Tagged living abroad

Swallow on a sundail, honey in the jar

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.

 

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Making whoopee on a windowsill

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.
runner bean success at lastGolden 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.
Our new potatoesNew 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.

Keep well

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Away with the fairies

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.
Veg garden at sunsetThere 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.
DSCF2763At 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.

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How good to touch the earth

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.
Maggie working on the quince treesTime 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.
Keep well.

 

 

 

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Into the woods to find the lost olive trees

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 magical dawnThe 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.

Pau and Maggie with the paintingOh, 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.
Keep well.

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The importance of the Seventh Generation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is early. Another peaceful December day of edifying treasures begins. Golden light gushes through the mountain pines and kindles the silver haw frost. All glitters in a breath of beauty, even the battered wheelbarrow waiting beside the wood store.
Birds charm the blue sky. The last of the fig leaves begin to fall from boughs, followed by random pearls as the sharpness of sunrise quickly melts to green and brown.
All good things pass. But not hope. There is so much nourishment for the senses and spirit when I remember I am a human beings and should, well, simple just BE once in a while.
Suddenly, so few words left in 2013. Every syllable must count.
All people who live close to the soil have similar hearts, priorities and understandings – a grounding, or need for it, that is seeded in everyone. The similarities overshadow the differences, especially when set beside the memories of our rural English childhoods and those of our parents. I have talked of journeying back in time and it is true.
How lucky we have been to find and be able to share Mother’s Garden. We have had more than 1000 visitors now, from all continents.
There is nowhere like nature, and more so any garden which we tend, to offer an immeasurable security in an insecure world; a sense of place. However tiny, even a crowd of pots or a single yard of soil, can hold the truths, lessons, fulfilments, beauty and peace of mind to infuse life with an indefinable calm, a measure of existence.

This has been my home for nigh on a quarter of my life now. Goodness.
What more have we found here beyond perspective? I always say, simply, time. How scarce it is. But we have had the years, hours and seconds of Ella’s and Joe’s  childhoods for which, like all, there can never be any going back: the privilege of disconnecting as much as possible – seeking to shield as much as possible – Ella and Joe from the vortex of immoral, de-stablising commercialism until they have had a chance to find their feet, their voices and a real understanding of what happiness should mean; that it does not have a price.
The hope is that in the muddle, shadows and rush of a wider world they will have an inkling of where to stop, breathe and be revived in times of need: To not be afraid to walk along in nature, but be sustained. We dare even to wish they may do more – join the calm, clear voices challenging and pressing to change a system of gross economic obsessions that threatens to suffocate fundamental human values and rob society and its core – the family – of key securities.  I firmly believe most people sense this need, deeply.
The native North American Iroquois Indians have a golden rule, a binding law. It is known as the Seventh Generation.
This ancient nation never makes a decision without considering how it will relate to the welfare and well-being of their descendants 140 years in the future.

“What about the Seventh Generation? Where are we taking them? What will they have?”

In the current context it hardly bears thinking about, but that is the point. It has become so critical that most people do feel driven to think about it, to question.
I firmly believe the blind-eye world is coming to an end, driven by the paradox that in an age-of-plenty there is a palpable struggle to survive, and the pit-of-the-stomach knowledge that we are living beyond our physical and mental means, while some people on the beset planet have gross wealth and others starve.
As for the Earth and the Iroquois, imagine that 2000 years ago they or the Romans had cracked the atom and harnessed the power. What would the world look like now? The proliferation of nuclear with its implicit dangers and gross, ageless consequences have not stopped us because we crave the power now and, bottom line, there is money to be made. How have we somehow blanked out that which is unpredictable yet inevitable – violence, be it human, geologic or climatic? It is not and never will be a stable world yet we persist with today not tomorrow.
The new harvest is now in England
Forgive me but I have to say these things, as much in hope as anguish. So much good is being discussed
I am writing more than ever now. My four books have been followed by screenplays, and perhaps next year we will be able to tell more of the feature film based on my English novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy, the book I came here to write.
In tandem with Moon Daisy, a project now being co-run by two film companies, winter has seen me begin work on another screenplay – a love story set here among the vineyards, olive groves and mountains of the Priorat in southern Catalonia.
While we continue to consider the following chapters of our lives, we have decided to walk the same path a little longer, opening the cottage to visitors again in 2014 – come and stay why don’t you? – while pressing on with our burgeoning fresh olive oil business.
With assistance from friends around the world we now have a business Facebook page, new labels, a revamped website (all comments welcome as we seek to improve it) and more and more customers who appreciate how special fresh extra virgin olive oil can be.
We have even taken a deep breath and sent some wonderfully fresh new harvest oil home to England for Christmas, so get in touch if you would like some. A rare treat.

Must go. We have a young Australian couple staying and helping on the farm and we are clearing some flower beds beside the front door. A beautiful horseshoe whip snake has just emerged out of the front dry-stone wall of the farmhouse to bask in the December sun. Nature could not be more close, or wonderful.
Keep well. Give yourself some time this festive holiday. Think about the Seventh Generation. Happy Christmas from us all here at Mother’s Garden, and wishing you and the world a peaceful year ahead.

Martin

 

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Boar, downpours and the perils of late pickings

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.

Keep well.

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Why we need to be in the garden

We can and must lose ourselves in our gardens, however small. We need to once in a while, don’t we? To scatter our thoughts there; grounded in the toil; safe in the sanctuary; fortified by a sense of what is real; certain in the immeasurable worth to both body and soul.
I appreciate that more than ever now, as seasons and years shorten.
For some there is deep science in it. For most it is it is simply the unfathomable comfort of bending to the task with the ever-renewing, yet never repetitive, promise of flower, fruit, root and goodness, and in doing so touching the earth and being enriched by a sense of place.
And what about those delicious moments of tired contentment when you sit or stand and contemplate the progress, however small, even if it is one little pot, one bloom? Fulfilment flows from the fingertips to the heart.
As American environmentalist and writer Jim Nollman says in the opening sentence of his sensitive book Why We Garden, “People often turn to gardening to re-create a bit of paradise within an imperfect world”.
It is right and vital that there is somewhere real where we feel able to make positive changes, to take responsibility and to care, to sense our place, our feet and hands on the soil. Such truths are a counter-balance in an information age that fills our minds and feeds our anxieties with cumulative, complex issues sometimes too heavy to bear.
Our little farm is very much an ecological meeting point of nature and need, where wild is wonderful and rightly dominates, and where we try and balance our hungers with a greater need.
We have always tried to tread softly, but is it me, or are the creatures here more accepting of us than ever? Life has been exceptionally abundant –  and close – this autumn.
As with the bees and tiny young frogs lined up at the waterline of our old washpool- turned-pond, there is palpable harmony. I tried but failed to get a photograph of one bee sitting on a frog while quenching its thirst.
On my 55th birthday one treat was to sit for half an hour and dangle my feet into the circular reservoir in the company of curious carp, skaters, swallows and dragonflies. One smaller, iridescent blue dragonfly (with more than 5000 species I’m loath to suggest which one) returned repeatedly to settle on my knee.
Often a butterfly, usually one of the swallowtails that grow up on the abundant fennel, will follow me on my travels along the paths, causing me to turn circles. They always make me think of my mother, someone for whom, at raw moments, a trowel was an anchor and nature her sanity.
My birthday butterfly, though, was rarer still. To my wide-eyed astonishment it  flashed in front of the car when I was just about to pull onto the lane, where just days before another event was also over in the blink of an eye, the Tour of Spain cycle race.
When I fanned hurried through my butterfly reference book to confirm it was, indeed, a Pasha, I was joyful. I have never seen one of these Mediterranean fritillaries before; maybe on account of there being no strawberry trees for them on the farm. No disrespect to cycle race fans and the racers but that fleeting Pasha moment made my week. Nothing could top that. Or so I thought.
Later, when I was wandering back from the pony’s corral, there it was again, only now it was circling me like the swallowtails – large, fast, with telltale flashes of orange at the ends of dark brown wings. It settled on an old hazel. I studied it then hobbled in haste (bruised foot, long story) back to the house to get my camera, daring to hope it would still be there.
It was, flaunting its intricate under-wings and allowing me to get within a metre.
In the late afternoon I took Maggie and Joe to that hazel. A vain hope, but we strolled on along the terrace, Tilly and Ted straining on their leads. It is a regular pre-supper circuit, down to the hollow under the high firs, through the wilderness and out on to the crest of the almond grove, then down the track homeward.
But just beyond the hazel, behind the beehives, Maggie and Joe both let out a cry. I, and Tilly for that matter, had unwittingly stepped over a snake. It lay like a dark stick across a path which, to be fair, is littered with wood. We have had the pleasure on several occasions of studying ladder-back, grass, European whip and Montpelier serpents, including the adder-like local viper, but this one was different.
It had clearly just devoured something large and long, possibly a lizard, and wasn’t planning on moving a muscle for some considerable time. So I felt a closer look was a reasonable risk, and this confirmed it was another first – a horseshoe whipsnake, a rare reptile that can grow up to five feet in length.
The pigeons glean on the cropped hay fields and strut about in ludicrous numbers while the peregrines circle.
And at night the boar descend in ever increasing numbers, coming to within 15 metres of our back door this long dry year. The lure is the well-watered vegetable patch in the olive grove, and the wet earth is patterned with hooves, small and broad. The damage is increasing nightly, but they keep skirting the prolific beds and, fortunately, we have almost concluded an enormous tomato, aubergine and pepper harvest.
It is a different story at our neighbours’ home, though, where an ingenious network of irrigation pipes, resembling the London tube map and covering an area the size of a football pitch, has been ploughed up by the worm-hungry boar.
Our friends have been away for nearly two months and I gave up some time ago trying to put patch up the damage. The destruction was spreading faster than I could repair it, but the telling moment was when I looked the challenge squarely in the eye.
Returning home from a late supper in town I had to stop right outside our friends’ garden…. to allow eight youngsters, about half-grown, and three humongous adults, to saunter across the tarmac and into the flowerbeds. I might as well have turned the engine off it was taking so long. Two of the adults led the way and the third stood in the middle of the lane to usher the brood across. Tusked and intimidating, it was immense, fearless, prehistoric.
One boar can wreak havoc, so I knew there and then I was beaten.
The almonds are harvested, about 100 kilos this year, which is not bad considering some farms have none due to hard frosts during the February flowering. We pick and de-husk them by hand, so it is not a money-making exercise, rather the reverse; just goodness from our Garden.
Now for the olives. Harvest in three weeks and it looks like a bumper year. Have you tried a new harvest from-tree-to-you olive oil? We are taking orders for a December shipment to Britain. Get in touch by all means (just click here)  if you would like more information. Also, see our new Mother’s Garden business Facebook page.
And, blink, another year has almost gone. That fact could weigh heavily if I dwell on it, so I will step out into the cool air of dawn and do some weeding among our Norfolk runner beans. It is too hot to grow them here in the spring, so Maggie had the bright idea to cultivate them now in the cooler autumn, but it looks like we will only have a handful all the same.
And still, in mid October, the temperature rises to 26 degrees during the day, and no lower than 15 degrees at night. The air is, for the most part, as peaceful as an angel’s breath and the colours of autumn leaf and sky beguile.
Keep well.

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Not for the faint-hearted

I have a faint heart. That much is obvious. Behold, they urged, but I had to turn away and am profoundly glad that I did. I will never watch again.
The Catalans love their human castles, for good reasons that I will explain anon, although it would never work as an English spectacle. Can you imagine? Health and safety officials passing out left right and centre.

But before I tell you what transpired when a “castle” team mustered in the middle of the town during the local wine fair, there is something considerably more significant on my mind that I need to tell you.
Since my last chronicle there has been a chapter of great loss and reflection; of the need to seek the sanctuary of nature.

The scent of cut fennel billows around me, like the daring, darting swallows. These most agile of birds twist past within inches of my face as the tractor and mower plod back and forth, stirring all manner of insect treats from the vineyard grasses.
We have left it late and there remains much to do, but the regular rains and softer spring temperatures have prolonged the flowering. The Iberian wildlife has been drinking in the diversity. As have we. Even now, we am just cutting paths to leave swathes of growth for the eye and creatures to feast upon. It is good for the soul. Nature, by a country mile, is the safest of all anchorages in times of storm.

A friend has passed away.
Frank Prendergast was a film director, writer and inspiration, a gentle, wise and innovative flame, a family man first and foremost, a blues singer, a vital, generous friend to many: How long the list of his achievements in film and television, more so in life.
He and I have been on a great adventure for nearly six years, writing and polishing a screenplay and planning a film that will be based on my Norfolk novel Moon Daisy. He taught me so much and came to Mother’s Garden several times to write with me; wonderful, rare moments of creative harmony. His companionship was very special, as many will testify. I will finish his work on Moon Daisy, and the film will be another of his many vital legacies.

Frank came to harvest olives with his family, walking through the groves hand-in-hand with his grandchildren, feasting on paella cooked on an open fire and enjoyed at a long table under the fig tree; amongst the finest of days for all of us. As his daughter Rosie summed up so well, her Dad was at his happiest when the family was together, sharing food, sharing stories, sharing the loves.

What is it about unremitting gales? They get under the tail and knot the mind. June has been more settled and strangely less fierce, while in May winds whipped through the Priorat mountains as keenly as a North Sea blast that stirs the sand to sting your ankles. The half-clear skies were little consolation given the relentless ferocity.

They were so strong that a vast poplar tree on our neighbour’s land, roots loosened by squalls, toppled on to our power and telephone lines.

Crash, bang, fizz and wallop.
The power surge along the three-phase cable burned out the motors on our well pump, house water pump, washing machine, CD player, internet modem and telephone. Light bulbs popped and we wondered what was coming next.

A trek across the valley revealed the drama, and there was neighbour Pere looking stunned. The noise of the tree coming down just outside his back door followed by the sparks and the cable being ripped out of the side of his house was, he didn’t need to tell me, hair-raising.
A week earlier and I might have blown several fuses too, but perspective is always worth seeking and sometimes not so hard to find.

Excuse me while I step outside again, to reflect, but also to check on the pipes I have rigged up to run from the spring to the tanks in the farmhouse and the holiday cottage. In the past week I have had a stark reminder of the value of water, and how much we get through on an hourly, let alone daily, basis.
Next we must lock horns with not one but two insurance companies (home and holiday cottage business have different policies) to try and redeem the considerable funds it will take to replace everything. We are talking €1500, minimum.
Hey ho.
And up she rises. Meaning little Sarai, complete with crash helmet, age unknown because I didn’t get the chance to ask before she left her father’s shoulders and scrambled barefoot to the top of the male and female human castle that grew skyward from the throng at the wine fair. Age guess – six or seven at the most.

Sarai made it, I was told (having turned my back), but she didn’t have time to raise her hand in the air on the seventh tier because ….yes, the tower collapsed amid gasps and cries.
I span round to see several people lying prostrate. One woman in particular seemed a stretcher case. There was no sign of Sarai. That’s it. I thought. Never again, for me or the team for that matter.

I left. The team did not. Nobody went to hospital. And for good measure they tried again….successfully…….six more times.
Tthe building of human towers, a centuries-old practice that started just down the mountain from where we live, is a fundamental statement by the Catalans. It is ingrained in their culture and signifies so much – togetherness identity, strength, balance, finesse and fearlessness. One can’t argue with any of that.

A team consists of all ages and both sexes. It brings together doctors, farm workers, housewives, the unemployed, police officers, you name them, and, hard as it may be for any parent to grasp, young children who want to climb.
Every team members wears a matching shirt, white trousers and a faixa, a wide, black sash of thick cloth wound tightly around the waist. This has two purposes – to support the lumbar region and also to provide a finger and toe hold for the climbers.

The putting on of the long faixa, impossible without the help of another team member, marks a change in the festival atmosphere. The energy and tension suddenly builds as the team ceases to socialise but comes together slowly but surely to begin the castle. This faixa time can last awhile, as everyone senses the effort, skill, teamwork and risk is about to begin. Then up it rises, frighteningly fast.
I am reliably informed that seven tiers high was the maximum, but now a few of the larger well-drilled teams have pushed this to nine. NINE. Someone even mentioned ten had been achieved and which point I walked away again.

Before I sign off, some news that would please Frank. Ella has passed all her baccalaureate exams, including five languages, and so will definitely begin her film studies at the University of the Arts, London, in September. How proud we are. Go girl.

Keep well

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Climb the mountains and get their good tidings

It had been a fitful, bitter and gusty night on the summit, but I was in the land of nod when Joe rose at dawn, wrapped his NCFC scarf around his neck and went for a long walk. It was an act that was to bring home to me a significant truth about my son.
How good to be so sure-footed and content with nature when you are rising 13 and beginning to look out at the world.
The night before I had bellowed like a fool, calling for him to come back when he had wandered off along a path and been engulfed by swirling cloud. I chastised myself (again) for showing the fear that is founded on how my heart sees him, as my little boy.
We were at 3000ft, camping on a vast limestone and rough grass plateau of sheer cliffs with just infinity for company. We had promised we would, and so we did, with Ella and Joe raising nearly £800 for Comic Relief.
Not just for the money, but for the inspiration to appreciate forever what naturalist John Muir meant. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you… while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
The significance of Joe’s dawn adventuring in that extreme place was, on my awakening, like a care falling as if a leaf. Of all the lessons of life the greatest have to include the enchantment of nature, to want to explore and sense it. Not to be afraid. To be secure enough to walk alone. To love what is real.

There are two worlds, of course – the one that presses in on us, human-made and so obsessive as to almost deny the relevance of the other, namely the fundamental, life-supporting biosphere. Almost. Everywhere I see hope. Society is awakening, rising on a wave of real values and fulfilment to question, challenge and change a system that will surely fail if it continues to put the pollutions of profit before the legacy of a sustainable existence.

Let me tell you the story of Manolo. It is a truth not a parable, although I think it should be seen as both.
From our mountain camp we could look down on Manolo’s distant house and farm. The good beekeeper is a vital member of his little village, someone the community knows it can rely upon for good deeds. But the village council underestimated him.
A new mobile phone mast had been constructed further up the valley, above Manolo’s land. The council took it for granted that he would not object to power lines running across his farm. He did.  Manolo has more than 100 hives. The bees will be affected, he told them. They offered incentives but he stood his ground.
He knows what truly matters. No amount of risk is acceptable.
The world’s honeybee population has halved in 50 years. The European Food Safety Authority has released a study linking three neonicotinoid insecticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) to bee decline, concluding that the chemicals posed a “high acute risk” when used on crops attractive to bees.
Yet, shamefully and dangerously the UK government  refused to back an EC two-year restriction, and was rightly savaged for its “extraordinary complacency” by the cross party House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.
The bees symbolise the whole. The risk taking has to stop and Manolo is absolutely right.

Passive spring days are like an English summer dream here at Mother’s Garden, fostering with warmth and colour the emotional memories of my chosen youth, the days I want to remember, lush with life and light in peaceful Norfolk places when I was first numbed by the immeasurable beauty that is the great outdoors.

A serin, cousin of the canary, serenades from the treetop every morning. Then another joins in, and another. There have never been so many, or maybe I have never stood still so long to tune in to these tiny finches.
For weeks the effort has been to get a fix on the wryneck that only sings for a short while after its arrival. Kee-kee-kee-kee-kee. Easier said than done. But finally I got lucky and managed to track the call to a walnut tree then keep my eye on the blur of brown and buff mottled feathers as they whizzed on to a fig tree and then to another walnut. There it sat for five precious seconds, swivelling its head 180 degrees and allowing me to meet its eye.
It is said that when disturbed at the nest, the wryneck (genus jynx) uses this snake-like head twisting and hissing as a threat display. For this bizarre behaviour they were loved by witches, from whence has come the term to put a “jinx” on someone.
While serins have been thick in the trees, so wild asparagus has been plentiful on the ground (not to mention the breakfast menu, lightly sautéed and served on toast with a drizzle of the finest olive oil).
And here’s an embarrassing fact. Ella and Joe have recently taken me on an asparagus hunt just one mile from the farm, to a place I have never been to before. We now call it The Shire.
Due west there is a gorge into which the sun neatly sets. I’d assumed that it was impassable, and even if we did attempt to clamber over the boulders of the river bed there would be little to appreciate save a wall of rock on either side. For whatever reason I had never wanted to descend into the narrowest, lowest part of our valley.
The river was purring. The swathes of dry cane on both sides were being clattered by the wind making a sound like halyards trying to wake sleeping yacht masts.
There was an abandoned house with the words en venda – for sale – painted on one of the large stones in the wall. Its overgrown meadow was speckled with the tiny leafed mesh that is wild asparagus. Rich pickings. If nobody has beaten you to it there will be new shoots at the base, or if they have, it is best to double check because it is so easy to miss the succulent growths among all the twisted stems.
I had gone far enough, but the children lured me on with the promise of a “special place with loads of asparagus”. It wasn’t plausible, but just in case I followed.
I couldn’t believe it. Round the bend and there was still no ravine, but lush, well-tended gardens with little Hobbit houses built into the sloping land, radiating care and pride. They were the finest examples of the fertile plots where villagers spent countless fruitful hours. Through one open door I could see four, or maybe five people seated, sharing a meal.
I looked at the rows of vegetables and wondered how they had not been ploughed and plundered by the copious boar.
Another hundred metres on and the walls of rock finally closed in. The vegetation had all been combed down by the raging waters of March. Then we were at a base of a narrow abandoned terrace. Joe plunged into the undergrowth and we followed. There was just enough space to weave between bramble-engulfed hazels, and everywhere were fistfuls of asparagus happiness.
“Watch out for snakes!” I called out, as we pushed open the thorn door to the maze, but we were alone, nearly. There were no snakes, no Hobbits, but a solitary Southern Festoon butterfly. (I doubled checked – it wasn’t a Spanish Festoon.)
Bliss.
Keep well – and many thanks to those of you who are interested in renting or buying our farm. The conversations continue. I will tell you more next month.

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