The storms have abated. The enraged river has lowered its voice.
Tiny insects, winged flecks of gold dust, sail through evening sunbeams. The shafts of light fan between the budding pear trees while the scent of freshly cut grass swells to meet them. Wild flowers, spring’s courtiers, bustle for attention fussed over by bees, and the call of the returning oriol and the drumming of the woodpecker proclaim abundance.
So strong is the beak of the bird that the rhythm rebounds off the mountain ridge, now snow free and sweetened by new growth on the pines. I sit by the talkative water pouring from our Roman aquifer at 1000 litres an hour, faster than it ever has in our 12 years at Mother’s Garden.
All is beginning and yet, perhaps, something is about to end.
Why would anyone think of leaving this? Yes, we are. Let me tell you why.
Some of you discerned in my last blob from the Garden that, after spending nearly a quarter of our lives here (and much of those of our children), Maggie and I seemed a little unsettled.
Indeed. We have been facing facts and agree it is time to take another deep breath, another positive stride.
Ella will be at university in England from September. Joe is ready for new challenges too.
And we know that our growing fresh olive oil business in England can flow even faster if we give it more oxygen and cease gasping to fit it in between the increasingly demanding challenges of tending a multi-fruiting organic farm and running a holiday cottage.
How great the fulfilment of bending to the challenge of an ecological existence at an age when we still could bend. How much we have gleaned and stored. But the sheer physical endeavours are unsustainable, naturally, and like all we need to balance truths.
The creep of age is punctuated with stark waypoints, like the dismantling of the long-unsafe tree-house, the suddenly impossible flexibility of seeing the soles of my shoes without taking them off.
And there is another reason to recalibrate. I crave time to write daily, to unburden my cerebral filing cabinet of tales. There is the Norfolk film script Moon Daisy now looking for funding (more next month), with another script and two books in the wings. Maggie, my editor, could not be more supportive.
Plan A: To relinquish this treasure trove of 10 acres and to base ourselves in South Norfolk, buying a smaller olive grove here and returning regularly to tend olives and beehives: to remain members of the cooperative and build on all we have learned and shared.
Plan B: To sell the cottage and half the farm, and keeping the old farmhouse and olive grove as our business base while spending the majority of our time in England, closer to family, renting somewhere, and bandwaggoning the Mother’s Garden olive oil message hither and thither.
We shall see what plan comes to fruition. If anyone would like to discuss one or other we would be happy to chat.
It seems now like we are in the eye of the storm, with the troubled waters of decision behind us and the unchartered upheaval ahead. We wait as news spreads, hoping that the right person will appear, appreciative of the magic and wisdom to be found here; someone who will love it.
And now that we are decided there is great optimism and certainty.
Without sadness but with immense gratitude to my family and with brimful fulfilment I see the momentous years everywhere I turn, and feel them; the shadows of tiny children running bare-footed after puppies; splashes of freedom and glee; shouts of adventure from the woodland; harvests of the garden, grove, vineyard and the wild; Maggie planting, pruning and choosing roses for the table, out there until dusk, then standing with me by the back door to feast upon the stars; the weight of my son on my forearm, his fist full of asparagus: And louder than all, the music of innumerable treasured evenings when our kitchen became a dance theatre and forever more the heart of everything that really matters in the precious feeling of this family, this life.
There – my heart thumps at the thought of leaving our kitchen. The head needs to prevail in the ubiquitous human wrestling of standstill wishes with relentless realities.
The immeasurable worth of nature is the most important thing we have learned above all. Seeded in it is sustenance, realistic values and fulfilments, the core roots of family. I make no apology for raising my voice now and in the future about the abject failure and greedy resistance of society’s single-minded economic dictators to change course.
Common sense and conscience: we all know what feels wrong, what is unfair, unsustainable, illogical, damaging, hollow and abhorrent. Heaven knows what our children and grandchildren will make of this woeful generation of leaders for not deal with the glaringly obvious home truths.
What will the legacy be?
In rambling to photograph the raging river I paused twice, once to ponder on the significance of the long-deceased Seat 500 on our neighbour’s farm, and then again to stare at another mountain we have just climbed.
Ella and Joe have been planning a fund-raising ascent of La Mola, the Snowdonia-sized limestone monolith that watches over us. If that wasn’t a great enough endeavour theypledged to their generous £800 Comic Relief sponsors that they would spend the night up there. Mmm.
We have done it now. A rare and unforgettable experience that I will tell you about soon.
Theirs have been relatively wild childhoods, freer than most if you dare to dwell upon the unbelievable pressure applied to the young these days in ways that families cannot hope to protect them from. Bean-counting pedlars who think it is fine to rob them of their innocence and herd them into anxiety-driven consumerism make me so very angry, but not as much as does the system that encourages them.
Sorry. I do this a lot don’t I?
On a positive note, I do sense an awakening of public conscience to the destructive, materialistic, blind path along which we have all be led.
Can I leave you with others’ wise words? I have just read the allegorical tale The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frenchman Jean Giono (1895-1971). If you don’t know it, let me tell you it is of the greatest beauty, something that simply gifts the notion, the hope, that we can renew the whole earth: That in the living force of nature humanity can rediscover the depth and harmony lost in urban life. The edition I hold, one of more than a dozen issued since Vogue first published it in 1953, has the added delicacy of woodcut illustrations by Michael McCurdy.
And then to Adrian Bell. All his books rise in a Pisa pile beside our bed. So much wisdom.
“We clutter the minds and call it knowledge. Why, if a man knew intimately the story of what lies between the soil in his right hand and the flour in his left, he would be splendidly, superbly, educated. In our so-called education we substitute written notes for memory. Notes are dissected bones, memory is alive, imaginative. We cram the youth with facts and figures and take away from the man the one thing needful for his manhood, the power to be alone with himself in nature.
“Britain has many places of wild beauty, and many gentle places of seclusion. He may stand on a height surveying six counties or in a corner of an orchard watching a bird building its nest. It is all one. If that power of vision were held intact through the difficult years from his childhood, he would need but few of those facts as a foundation on which to build a complete life. Multiplicity of materials does not build beauty but babel.”
Have you ever tried fresh olive oil? What does that mean? Olive oil is simply a fruit juice with the water content spun out of it. Freshness is vital for all the flavour and extraordinary goodness, and when it is fresh the taste and scent it amazing.
So how do you know it is fresh? All olive oils will have a best before date on them, sometimes very long, but do the labels tell you when the fruit was picked and pressed? Almost certainly not.
Mother’s Garden always tells you the harvest and bottling dates so you can be sure of the freshness. And we also tell you about our award-winning village cooperative mill, so you are in no doubt about the the provenance and quality.
That is why our olive oil is a multi-gold award winner in the Great Taste Awards.
We believe passionately in fresh quality olive oil, and do not think this essential food should cost the earth. It is not a luxury but a vital part of the diet.
Check out our online shop – or see below for delis and health food shops that are offering our fresh olive oil on tap, cutting waste and price. These are places full of wonderful foods.
The Nutmeg Deli, 3 Sayers Lane, Tenterden, Kent, TN30 6BW. 01580 764125
The Larder, Cobholm, The Medicine Garden, Downside Road, Cobham, Surrey, KT11 3LU. 01932 989649
Minkies Deli, Chamberlayne Rd London NW10 5RQ. 020 8969 2182
All Natural Health, 30 High St Sheringham, Norfolk NR26 8JR. 01263 825881
Back To The Garden, Letheringsett, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 7JJ. 01263 715996
Mmm.. 12/13 Grainger Arcade, Grainger Market, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 5QF 0191 222 1818
Do you know a good deli, farm shop or health food store that might like to work with us? Get in touch.
The year drifts in and out of consciousness. Is that the hour – the month? I’ve overslept and January and now February have evaporated.
There have been the dreams of countless dawn-jewelled spider webs and the daze of almond blossom adorned by the dance of white wagtails that flit from branch to branch through the majesty of the groves.
If I get that far. Just outside the back door I have positioned a chair in the lee of the south wall to lose myself in the song of the siskin that perches every morning at the summit of our largest fig tree.
There are chairs everywhere now, including the little blue one moving sedately through the vineyard. It and I are getting to grips with the pruning, and after an hour at the task I leave it there, marking the point where I will resume on the morrow. My habit in all things is to chip away at several tasks at the same time, moving from one to the other in seek of balance – my desk, the woodpile, the vineyard, my desk , the barn, the woodpile and so on.
Perhaps this is a consequence of being a writer who has learned the hard way that after three hours of being engrossed in composition my mind’s wanderings become unprofitable and often ridiculous (!). So I go and do something else, and in that meditation of manual labour I often find the words I was searching for.
Yes, Maggie’s vineyard. I am trying to complete half of it while she takes a short break with her lovely, supportive family in England, resting from the relentless tasks here and from a nasty fall, tripping on an electric fence and being met on the way down by the up-ending wheelbarrow she had been pushing. The clout on the bridge of her nose yielded two black eyes, and she pulled something in her lower back.
In her absence I declare to you my immeasurable appreciation of her. She grafts, tends, supports and ensures. I want her to finish her vineyard without the weight of starting it.
And there is more for her to discover on her return. A few more grey hairs on my head for starters.
I’m pretty sure she’ll spot the new view from the front door. Or rather the old view now reinstated by the removal of Robbie the Range Rover, who came to a halt beside the path to the chickens five years ago.
He had become a fixture, the largest piece of clobber we owned, pressed into service as an animal feed store until the rats moved in, and then left to sink an inch into the earth. I had another reason to keep him, though. I threw a bucket of water over him occasionally and kept the undergrowth from claiming him completely because from the road it always looked as if someone was home.
But enough was enough. Masked, I gave him a shallow clean inside with a dustpan and brush and then called Joe who fetched the tractor and tow cable. The car’s engine had seized in 2008 and there was every chance the rest of him had fossilised too. The half-deflated flat tyres weren’t going to make budging him any easier either.
My plan was simple. Park tractor behind him: Attach tow cable to tractor and Robbie’s towbar: Put capable 12-year-old behind the wheel of the Range Rover, then try nudging the wreck down the 50- metre track to the meadow. If Robbie wouldn’t go of his own free will I would push him all the way. I even remembered to put the ignition key in to ensure the steering didn’t lock.
No sooner had I nudged the old brute out of his resting place than he – and Joe – started to gather momentum. Alarming momentum. The cable jerked in surprise then sprang off the tow bar.
If he didn’t make the hair-bend halfway down he would plough into the holiday cottage. I leapt off the tractor and belted after him, bellowing pointlessly. What I saw as potentially catastrophic the lad lapped up as enormous adventure. He made the bend, just, and finally came to rest five metres from the road, hopping out of the driver’s seat full of the joys of spring. I, meanwhile, had folded in half out of shock and exhaustion and was as white as winter.
Robbie is now parked on the meadow awaiting his final journey, but still looks quite perky and I remembered what a good friend from Darjeeling said – “If we could just get him there my family would rebuild him. Oh yes. Nicely.”
My year was awakened by a flurry of visitors. Brazilian ecologists from Barcelona came to see the land, possibly to run a market garden from here as we continue to explore ways of reducing our workload.
And then there was the day a chauffeur-driven Chrysler pulled in.
In it was Shuaib Al Muwaizri, the former housing minister of Kuwait, with his wife Hanan and two of their six children, daughters Mneerah and Haya. Being an old hack I had done my homework after a very posh Barcelona hotel had called me to say they had a client who was interested in our olive oil, but all the same I didn’t really expect the name they gave me to turn out to be one of the most significant politicians in the oil kingdoms.
As soon as he got out of the car I realised it was him. Shuaib, the first elected member of the Emir’s normally family-controlled cabinet, who resigned last year and has been pushing hard for peaceful, anti-corruption reforms in his country, spent the day with me. We talked about olive oil but to a far greater extent about his life and his hopes for his country.
We have stayed in regular touch, and as I write a small consignment of olive oil has just landed in Kuwait. Goodness knows what will happen next.
Meanwhile amazing Ella and Joe, fresh from the Encamisada horse parade, are going to climb La Mola mountain at the end of our valley (Snowdonia proportions) and will sleep up there to raise money for Red Nose Day. More grey hair. They are going to have to pick their moment carefully. As I look out of my office window La Mola has a snowy crown.
Want to help them raise funds to help children in Africa? Click here.
Maggie is on another mission, posting more recipes on our website, simple good fare – and timely, what with the unpalatable food truths now being put in front of the public. Delia’s new online cookery classes are coming at just the right time.
Society is fast losing touch with goodness and core values and has been schooled to expect a neatly-packaged, nicely chilled simplicity that is neither real nor sane. Giving blind trust on something as fundamental as sustenance is, when you think about it, loaded with guilt. We all know it would never be appetising to get close to the production line, to know exactly what it took to feed us so cheaply and for corporations to still make a fat profit.
In this age of fingertip knowledge we don’t want to know even if common sense tells us it cannot possibly add up.
Gross financial and time pressures on the typical family mean there appears to be no choice but to buy the marketing pitch, to make choices based on price and to reach for convenience. Not true. All power to Delia’s elbow as she opens her kitchen to show us. Making and sharing food is an essential, wonderful aspect of life, family and health.
And as for how we have reached this point, the economy-worshipping governments of all creeds, grossly irresponsible to date, need to prosecute the fictions and spell out the truths – for every label to say in legible print what exactly one is buying: For the imperative to be the definitive sources, age (not just best before) and all the ingredients in understandable language – and why not an online link to a webcam of the production line? Difficult? Hogwash.
Buy local produce when possible and build your trust and loyalty on the foundations of sustainability, provenance, nutrition and freshness. On the question of cost, we need to remind ourselves what is real and what matters most. We cannot afford not to.
I believe this is just the beginning of a food revolution, when the nutritionists will unravel the puzzle of the omegas and suchlike and we will listen attentively, hungry for health and a long life. We need to gather around the table again, to talk, share, resolve, laugh and rediscover that goodness.
Chew the cud on that and tell me what you think.
And if you didn’t see it here’s a link to new medical research on why fresh olive oil and the Mediterranean diet is vital.
I have to share this. Maggie Whitman’s Mother’s Garden feasts deserve no less. Yesterday she sent my tastebuds into orbit again, this time with her hake and prawns, almonds and parsley dish. And for what it’s worth, it is loaded with omega-3 and omega-9 goodness.
Maggie says it is a simple dish, with easily accessible ingredients. It is bursting with lovely flavours.
4 hake or other white fish fillets (sustainably sourced).
2 tbsp (30ml) of ground almonds for dusting (our alternative to flour)
4 tbsp (60ml) of Mother’s Garden fresh olive oil
1 tbsp (15ml) lemon juice
4 cloves of garlic, crushed (less or none depending on taste)
Quarter of a pint (150ml) of fish stock
Quarter of a pint (150ml) of white wine
6tbsp (90ml) fresh parsley, finely chopped
Two thirds of a cup (75g) frozen peas
Cup full of small prawns
Freshly ground black pepper and salt
You will need a good-sized, open ovenproof dish and a sauté pan. (Be sure to give everyone a spoon to polish off the juices on their plates!)
While your oven is reaching 180 centigrade season the fish fillets and dust with the ground almonds.
Sauté them in half of the olive oil for about a minute each side then put them in the ovenproof dish and pour over the lemon juice.
Wipe the pan clean.
Now sauté the onion and garlic in the remaining oil until soft before adding the stock and wine, peas and 80 per cent of the parsley. Season.
This sauce can now be poured over the fish and the dish can be put in the hot oven for about 15 minutes (Cooking time always depends on the thickness/size of the fish, so adjust oven time accordingly). Add the prawns and then cook for another 4 minutes.
Sprinkle with the rest of the parsley and serve with steamed vegetables (although our children also like some mashed potato to soak up the juices).
Red in the morning, shepherds’ ….TAKE COVER! Clearly something dreadful is brewing. Yet again Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, has set the heavens alight.
Winter’s Catalan cocktail can always be relied upon to have a kick to it, with lashings of angostura, but as all seven billion of us know, the weather is going increasingly haywire.
From long before Christmas through to January 6, Dean Martin blared out of the village public address system. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow!” I stood and listened next to the ludicrously early flowering pear tree, hat on to protect me from the beating sun, watching our happy host of sparrows hop through the burgeoning grass and boldly steal the chickens’ corn from under their beaks.
You don’t necessarily want to know this, but day after day – November, December and now into January – the peace, clarity and daytime warmth (circa 12 degrees) of the Priorat mountains continued to beguile like sirens. Is the mantic truth that this is the future? That between the rains in autumn and spring all will be serene?
No. The bite will surely come, late on and deep. Or the goaded planet will store its anger for another season.
Meanwhile we try not to worry about what is brewing. We try to appreciate the moment, these glorious days, the chance to hang winter washing on the line. After all, “Let It Snow” was written in Hollywood in July 1945, when I bet my bottom dollar flakes were few and far between.
Most evenings the black, random line of distant ink-black mountains is backed by the warm glow of sunset. But on January 5 it was an exceptional panorama, as the enchantment flared with celebration. From the far-flung clusters of lights marking the villages there rose fireworks – tiny, colourful flares above a beguiling community in miniature, heralding the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts for the Son of God and all the Catalan children.
There is one particular place, on the return journey from town, where this little world is laid out before me. I stopped the car and stared, waiting for another distant burst of happiness. I’d been on a fruitless shopping trip to town where most doors were locked, people were rushing to get ready and the main square was roped off with a 50 metre red carpet befitting the Oscars.
At New Year the children decided we should trek up the land in the dark, to turn off the torches and sit on the brow of the hill and listen to the distant village clock strike midnight. As we waited our eyes adjusted to the gloom and we wondered nervously what the plentiful wild boar were making of our unnatural presence in their nocturnal kingdom. None appeared and neither were there New Year explosions, just the tolling of the bell. Given the general tightening of belts, the villagers were obviously keeping their powder dry for January 5.
On the first day of the year we celebrated with a feast among friends at the always warm and welcoming home of Conchita and Mac.
So what will the new year hold? The fresh olive oil business bounds on – another website, run writer Judy Ridgway, has just posted our nut roast recipe – and the new year challenge is get the farm up and running, including pruning vines, as well as almond, fruit and olive trees.
Ella is working so very hard, juggling her five-languages baccalaureate (Spanish, Catalan, English, Greek, Latin, philosophy, geography, history, history of art and a thesis on fashion) while pulling together a portfolio to support art college applications. Regrettably an arts baccalaureate is not a sixth-form option in her small high school here in the mountains, so all her studies have been ex-curricular, something many arts-minded children may face in the UK if the mindless axing of arts education rolls on.
While I am on the subject, let me get this off my chest.
British art, music, theatre, film, books, radio and television are national treasures of invaluable worth that shine in the world and, for those in the corridors of power, bring vast returns to the Exchequer. Both Maggie and I despair that any Government should devalue this, or, indeed, deny that path of fulfilment to children. The planet needs far more arts, not less, for people to be more creative (and we don’t mean in the accounts departments of tax-dodging major corporations).
Meanwhile Joe is getting into his stride in his first year at high school, and growing an inch taller every week.
Ella and Joe will be 18 and 13 come June, an emotional thought deepened by the arrival of a gift, a large grass-weave basket, just like the one Joe slept in aged 4 weeks when we first came to Catalonia and saw Mother’s Garden.
Ella’s final exams will begin on her birthday, but she plans on celebrating in May when she and four friends and her brother will see One Direction in concert in Barcelona.
We will be there too, parked outside the Olympic basketball stadium in one enormous parental taxi rank, me nodding my head to the Rolling Stones on the car stereo, turning up the volume to drown out the screams while counting my blessings that somehow I managed to get the tickets.
How, heaven knows. I just kept frantically clicking the BUY button on the event website like a Wild West telegraph operator in a tumbleweed railway station who has a gun pointed at him by Clint Eastwood, until – Hallelujah – it worked. Life would not have been worth living had I failed.
As countless households all over the world know, bleakly or joyfully, One Direction concerts have been selling out in a blink, with online and shop vendors besieged by frantic teenagers and panicking parents. Now I notice some seats for the Barcelona gig are being offered for re-sale for a small fortune, as much as, well, tickets to see ageless (alright, he’s 69) living legend Mick Jagger strut his stuff while the indefinably cool guitarist Keith Richards sways precariously behind him. Heroes.
One Direction can’t be that good, surely?
Once upon a time, like many parents of older teenagers, I have been an expert on four colourful, fat friends with aerials on their heads and televisions in the tummies. Their incomprehensive but somehow catchy gibberish were then wallpapered over by the likes of “doggydoo” Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers greatest hits until I now find myself unwittingly humming 1D’s “Little Things” while walking the dogs. Not that I mind. Suffolk singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, who penned it, is class.
It is, give or take a sunrise or two, a dozen years since we rolled up here with our Norfolk bandwagon, chattels, dogs and dreams. We staked out this Latin soil as an outpost of the good county, promising to keep close and tell all; to share it.
Incredulity at the rush of time is answered by the grey-gilled man in the mirror, now 54 years of age. I have spent nearly a quarter of my life here and have tentatively begun the process of growing old. I need to accept that. Just beginning, I rush to add, but I – we – also need to recognise that the time has arrived to ease off the throttle; somehow.
Running the holiday cottage and, hence, having people on the farm for nine months of the year while also farming, writing and trying to grow the olive oil business is now too much.
So we are talking to villagers and friends to see who might like to share the land. There is talk of food cooperative members growing crops here. We want to focus more on the olive oil and the writing, so this may be our last season with the cottage. We shall see.
In truth, I don’t really know how old I am. My head says go for it until my body argues back two days later. Then I read in London Sunday supplements left by visitors and penned by deluded writers of roughly my age that where forty was once the new thirty, fifty is now the new forty. ER…no. Admit it.
PS: Cancel your flights. I wrote the above a few days ago. This morning it is tipping it down, blowing a gale and there is now on top of the mountain. Never take a god’s name in vain….
NEW SHIPMENT LEAVING SOON – ORDER NOW
A new shipment of fresh Mother’s Garden olive oil will leave next week for deliveries in early February so if you would like some please get in touch as soon as you can.
And if you need some tips CLICK HERE to read cook Stuart Buck’s latest blog all about our olive oil.
“When you get oil as fresh as a daisy it has a spicy, grassy taste that’s really pleasing in winter cooking.”
We advise everyone to follow this foodie blog, particularly if you are in Norfolk where Stuart is based.
Meanwhile let us know what you would like to order from the shipment. There will be the usual selection of 500ml bottles (in cases of 6), 2 litre containers, 5 litre containers and 20 litre bag in boxes (as some food cooperative groups, ie our hubs, are now appreciating).
New labels are being printed but we will not use these until all the current ones have gone – why create waste?.
So we have also decided to delay the 2013 price rise for now too.
All olive oil now being offered is at 2012 prices – £39 for 6x500ml bottles, £17 for 2 litres, £35 for 5 litres and £140 for 20 litre bag in box.
SO HURRY WHILE LABELS LAST!! Click here to order or contact your hub if you are part of one.
It is the month of green and red, of course, although our shades may be a little different: the bounty of delicious new harvest olive oil and the miracle that is the red winter fruit of the strawberry tree.
We have been rushing hither and thither, completing our annual Christmas shipment of fresh olive juice to our key customers, preparing the farm for winter, planning the year ahead as sales of our award-winning cooperative olive oil in the UK, Canada and America climb at an ever increasing rate.
The word is spreading.
Just get in touch.
It is so necessary too, though, to find moments to stand and stare.
I see things differently come December.
Mistletoe appears from nowhwere, like the robin, holly berry and rosehip, and a friend’s garden in the lee of a great mountain is decorated with that indefinable delicacy of arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. It fruits a year after flowering.
And just yesterday – hallelujah – there was the flash of the kingfisher.
As the Iberian winter bites the tetchy cat has hijacked the little chair I salvaged from the rubbish tip. My plan was to perch on it while feeding the wood-burner, hence saving my creaking knees; but no.
So, just three days and counting….The Mayans ran out of chisels or stone when they got to December 21, 2012, and (as you are undoubtedly aware) the conclusion has been drawn that this signifies all of us have run out of time. KABOOOM.
I prefer to prescribe the ancient Greek definition of apocalypse – not a cataclysm but an unveiling, or revealing, in reference to a meaning of some kind previously hidden in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.
Let’s hope so.
The sense of change is heightened, though, isn’t it? Maybe humanity is unsettled by the compacted burdens of so-called advancements that weigh so much and have forsaken so much, from braking the core of being, the atom, to robbing family and community and the individuals of priceless time.
Or do I sense a longing for change more here, in Catalonia, an angry “state” within sick Spain now far larger in the world conscience after linking arms with Scotland and striding towards independence?
Catalan president Artur Mas risks having a ragged Christmas, because a month after the election his Moses-like posters are still hanging from ever lamppost and the wind is getting up.
He called an early vote in the region to pump independence air into the tyres of his middle-to-right of the road bandwagon, but it backfired. He lost some ground if not his crown, while left-wing separatists found a new gear.
The majority of Catalans voted for one of the pro-independence parties, though, and it is such a single-minded place to be right now that there is a real chance of left and right forgetting their differences, forming a coalition and defying Madrid by calling a referendum.
The right-wing Spanish government of starch-rigid President Rajoy has declared any such vote unconstitutional, which has had people openly pondering on the likelihood of tanks rumbling through these villages.
I can’t see Europe letting it come to that, but why the clamour in the first place? The Catalans cite their ancient and unyielding claim of sovereignty, for reasons of language, culture and brutal history, and now even moderates have added their voices and votes, spurred by the economic mess.
Our village has already voted and declared it is not part of Spain.
Many Catalans think they would be better off going it alone because they pay far more in tax than they get back from Madrid, with this north east corner, the cornerstone of the “national” economy, constantly getting what they see as a raw and offensively dismissive deal from central government.
Certainly the mandate is clear enough for Artur and those seated at his round table, with nigh on a quarter of all Catalans flocking to a September rally to wave independence flags.
Fundamental issues of massive bureaucratic costs, EU membership, currency and the subsequent stability not only of a Catalan nation but what would be left of Spain form the meat course in this debate and we are just coming to it.
Spanish austerity was one of the topics discussed in my Norfolk home town of a couple of weeks ago.
A Spanish friend, a teacher, went to define to a gathering of anti-austerity UK residents the gravity of the situation here. She added her voice to a multi-party counter argument to the UK Government’s stringent economic policies.
How strange to see a photograph of a face from the heart of here standing in the high street of my youth.
For weeks now the day and night skies have been clear and calm, down to minus 5 beneath starlight. Every morning sunlight bounces from dew drops and jet specks in the sky.
On a 40-minute afternoon drive into the mountains to fetch Ella from a friend’s home the three griffon vultures circling overhead outnumbered the cars we passed along the winding lane of timeless charms.
The rains of late autumn have filled the reservoirs and brought our spring to life again. There is ample grazing for the horses. The chicken run has been reinforced and although a grey male goshawk has been sighted we have stopped the slaughter I recounted last month..
And as I walk the land and think of what the future may hold I reflect on how Adrian Bell felt on his Suffolk farm. How we appreciate him. I quote -
“I thought, today, how the family and one small farm fill our thoughts from waking to sleeping. Yet the farm occupies merely a moment of a traveller’s time. What a concentration of concern there is all over the lands and cities of this island, and what an anomalously impersonal thing ‘government’ is by contrast. It will be superseded, surely, by something more personal, an intensification of the personal concern, not a denaturing of ourselves from it, which is present politics. It should be as personal an affair as the old heraldic rule of kings was; but adult in conception, a fusion and a sharing, not egotism splendidly strutting.”
That was his hope in 1946.
What do I hope for everyone in 2013? An open-hearted, hopeful discussion on how to counter the sense of overload. Now is the time.
Have a wonderful Christmas. Peace in abundance. Ready smiles and steady hearts. Keep warm. Keep well.
Oh – and remember, whether you are in the United Kingdom or North America, you can get a taste of this life. We would love to hear from you.
Nature whirls around us, vortices of leaves reminding of the turning of the year, and we are transfixed by the kaleidoscope of existence, and death, of colours that matter.
This November the vivid hues have been yellow – not all autumn mellow but fierce too – and blood red.
Feathers have been flying at Mother’s Garden and horror has been muddled with awe. It has been carnage, not of a cat among pigeons but a goshawk among chickens.
Our brood was decimated just over a week ago, between 9 and 10 in the bright morning, and we couldn’t fathom what or how. Three dead, one wounded and another missing. Two days passed and another was taken during daylight.
After the first shock we discussed the usual suspects; fox (plentiful in the valley, but the manner of the deaths was not typical); badger (we have seen one black and white nose this year), stoat and weasel (both distinct possibilities). We looked for openings and reinforced the stout wire where perhaps, maybe, the killer could have squeezed.
We never looked to the sky. Why? Because the run was netted with the green plastic fishnet designed for fruit cages. There were a couple of gaps but we thought it was comprehensive enough to deter an aerial assault.
Maggie spotted it. We had just returned from picking up our mail in the village and there, round-shouldered like a Dickensian villain, a female goshawk was in the run, feasting on yet another chicken. I ran to the house to get my camera. Maggie edged nearer, opening the gate and trying to urge it out. The mustard-eyed, audacious raptor merely dragged the half-eaten corpse under the henhouse.
“What is it for goodness sake?”
I went into the run. Fool. The bird circled, hanging from the wire for a few seconds to allow me to hazard a guess from the plumage that it was a goshawk. Then it stood and stared straight at me with those unmistakable goshawk eyes; a large, brown-backed, seriously disgruntled bird, possibly a female.
I backed out, leaving the gate as wide as possible so it could take its leave. We watched as it rose and burst through the weak green netting, flapping slowly away past the cherries towards the forest. Privilege wrestled with despair. What a rare and wonderful sight; what a mess.
Birders will be wondering, as have I, how one bird could be responsible for multiple kills. This is not normal and there is the possibility that another carnivore was responsible in part. All I can say is that three of our birds were taken on different days. After the first slaughtering of three, the dead birds had puncture marks like stabbings, not bites.
What do you birders out there think? Is it possible one bird could do so much?
Meanwhile, despite the loss and the new labour of erecting more defences, it was a rare moment of closeness to life as well as death. Thankfully the hawk appeared completely unharmed. Now a neighbour has called to say two of his hens have been taken.
This month the birds most in evidence have been the buzzards on the phone posts, the jays and ravens, the grey heron preying on our goldfish, murmurations of spotless starlings, charms of goldfinches, two great musterings of migrating storks high in the clear sky, and great quarrels of sparrows splashing in the stone bath that has been constantly topped up by squalls.
How good the rain: More than a foot in five weeks. It came early enough to help the olives swell, and the harvest has been better than hoped, though we shivered and dripped as we carefully combed the fruit into the nets then poured them into crates. Our cooperative mill chatters urgently as the olives are brought in from the surrounding groves, in contrast to the gentle click of the dominoes of the retired farmers in the bar.
They seem oblivious to the television flickering on the wall, telling of latest developments on the talked-of independence showdown (critical elections tomorrow) and the endless economic woes. And it seems that not even the roar of engines will distract them from their game.
The world rally cars have rushed by as they do for a day every autumn, preceded and succeeded by the bizarre entourage of lads who love speed and loud exhausts. The night before the “stage” the narrow lane clogs in one direction with the laughable mix of boy racers, desperate to burn rubber, stuck behind impassable, wallowing blancmange camper vans driven by more mature devotees. The next day back they came, leaving behind piles of rubbish … and worse.
There was one close call. Our neighbour, a shepherd from Andalusia, has a knackered horse. Just as the first tarmac adrenalin rush was starting it snapped its tether and decided to stand in the lane, on a blind bend. As I ran towards it three vehicles missed it by a whisker. It didn’t dawn on any of the drivers to stop, but to be fair, as I was nearing the animal, the last one wound his window down and shouted without slowing that there was a horse. I cannot repeat my reply.
The dear old nag, part cream part dirt, now wild-eyed but still rooted to the spot, finally let me lead it back to the shepherd’s farm and the debris of dead mopeds, rubble, an upturned barrow on broken pipes and a ram’s skull on a post. Goats and sheep were penned with geese behind a blockade of old pallets. Two passive sheepdogs barely stirred and there was no sign of the large black female hound that earlier in the year had snatched one of our free-ranging hens to feed her latest litter.
The shepherd, who lives in the village not the semi-derelict farm dwelling, was in the bar when he answered my call. His response was a colourful as the mosaic of his farmyard and I could hear his wreck of an old Opel rumbling down from the village, and imagined it trying to overtake the hotrods.
As for the rally, it is but one weekend a year, a toxic reminder of how much I have changed.
Today the dawn was priceless, as jewels of dew were illuminated by a cold sun filtering through the mists. For the first time we have wild asparagus in November as well as April, and one pear tree is convinced it is blossom time. The crocus blooms give us dreamy delicacy and saffron for paellas. Mulberry, poplar, oak, fig, plane and hawthorn scatter embers of autumn across the valley, crowding the ribbon of the river banks with their chorus of colour. How good for the heart.
STOP PRESS: The new harvest olive oil is tremendous, and we are taking UK orders now for unfiltered oil, available in 2 litre containers or cases of 6x500ml bottles.
Powerful stuff, packed with fruit and goodness, a gloriously fresh, rare treat for Christmas.
We are bottling to order, and so we need to hear from you by Sunday evening, December 2.
The target is to get this fresh arbequina Mother’s Garden olive oil to mainland UK customers by the festive holiday. Email us. The choice is for a 2 litre (£27.50 delivered), or case of 6x500ml bottles (£50.50 delivered), unless you are part of a hub or share a delivery with friends which cuts the transport cost.
We hope to have this fresh olive oil with North America customers, through our friends at Dos Cielos Privado in Toronto, early in the new year. Get in touch with them for more information.
Well, that’s done. A dangerous month, October; scary too.
The gilded gods awoke from summer slumbers in capricious temper, moving their furniture and throwing bolts between sunbeams. Walnuts rained down from the shaken trees and I popped some in my back pocket on damp dog walks, forgetting about them until I sat down.
Between torrents we took a nightfall stroll to the recently silent ravine and bone-dry swimming hole to hear the roar of the river and peer through the gloom at three delirious ducks. The summits of pink meringue storm clouds loomed once more from the east, the lightning flashed again and so we turned for home, hearing wild boar in the hazel shadows beside the puddled track.
I did the rounds of the animals, and in the quagmire of the chicken-run a rock had appeared. I skidded to avoid it and it lumbered away; a juggernaut toad.
Warmth and water – the first moisture since May – have transformed the parchment map of Iberia. Grass has grown several inches and the swelling olives weigh the boughs towards the sward a little more each day.
I have been flitting between farm and mill, my head clogged with the challenges or looming olive harvest, wine making and the battening down of hatches, but more so with family revelations from the past.
First, though, I promised last month to tell of our commitment to that vital creation, the “modern” cooperative and its inherent principle of pulling together and sharing, adopted in villages across these mountains a century ago where communities are now fighting to survive through the chaos of the pan-European recession. The village cooperative we belong to consists of about 40 families.
Cooperative is a word – an ethos, a way of life – rising rapidly in the public conscience even in the hot-house capitalist nations like my native United Kingdom, now the dusty, dated throne room of Thatcherism. Thank goodness.
Before this turns into an essay of angst about gross greed and excess, and the betrayal of core values not least the family, fundamental reasons for the current crisis both economic and social, I should look to the positive.
Cooperatives and the growth of social enterprises are showing they can help bring the vital reform of economics, globalization, and social justice. As John Restakis states in his book Humanizing The Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, the co-operatives form the most powerful grassroots movement in the world.
The cooperative is as vital here in the Priorat mountains, as anywhere in the world, historically so.
Curious, too, how it now swells with importance in Britain where there are housing initiatives and an increasing number of social enterprise endeavours, while on the high street The Cooperative, now a burgeoning bank too, grows in significance, alongside the largest employee-owned company in the UK, the John Lewis Partnership.
Maybe in this age of social re-evaluation the principals set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society will come to the fore a host of community ways, encapsulating as we have experienced here first hand a wonderful foundation for bringing people together.
I fear, though, that this UN International Year of Cooperatives, the championing of a society-saving idea, may have been lost amid the crush of bleak news. Did you know, for example, that there are more than 800 million members of cooperatives worldwide, providing more than 100 million jobs (20 per cent more than multinational “big” business)?
Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary-General, made the point. As the world witnesses growing public discontent as a result of the financial and economic crises, she made plain how the international community could learn from the cooperative movement, which balanced both economic viability and social responsibility, “offering a model for harnessing the energies and passions of all.”
“As self-help organisations, cooperatives are inherently people-centred. They not only meet material needs, but also the human need to participate proactively in improving one’s life.”
With the olive harvest just a few weeks away we are trying to tidy our lives. The great sunflower heads and crate-loads of nuts had been gathered and the wood store was half-filled before the deluge. In the farmhouse there has been a significant culinary development. Quico (Keeko) has finally left the building, replaced by Italian Guido.
For many a moon we have aspired to a new cooker. Maggie produced feasts on 45-year-old Quico, but both he and we knew his time was up. Getting him to light required me to kneel and beg with my head in the oven, the door to which (when he decided to play ball) never closed properly so had to be propped with something heavy. Now we are able to check our appearance in the reflection from the spotless stainless steel of a Smeg semi-industrial range. Blimey.
Notice I didn’t say Quico had gone completely. I was for a swift end, but compassionate Maggie thought he might be useful (the gas rings at least) for farm helpers residing in the old caravan, besides which he now stands. I am glad.
So to my abiding thoughts of East Anglia.
Beside me there is a box that we carried with us from Aldborough in Norfolk 12 years ago. Inside there is a small oil painting of a Suffolk glade with shepherds sitting on a log. I blew the dust off it to show two artists who were staying in our cottage and I have since been unearthing a little more of its story and, to my surprise, more of my family’s history.
But the fundamental mystery remains – who painted it?
It was gifted to my great-grandmother, Sarah Baker, in the 1880s when, as a young girl, she allowed an unknown artist to paint her portrait. She had been raised on a farm somewhere between Rushmere St Andrew and Woodbridge in Suffolk.
Sarah probably took it to London when she married a Devon shoemaker called Huxtable who ran a little shop in Peckham. They had a son and two daughters, but at the beginning of the twentieth century both father and son died of consumption in the same year, so Sarah and her daughters returned to Suffolk.
One of the daughters, Ellen, married a Tom Kirby in Woodbridge, where they settled and had a baby, my father. So what is the Norfolk connection?
Sarah had remarried and had another daughter. The marriage was, to put it bluntly, a disaster, so much so that my grandfather Tom deemed it necessary to give up everything and whisk his wife and newborn son, his mother-in-law and her daughter away in secret to distant Holt in north Norfolk, to start again, renting a council house, 4 The Fairstead, for £1 10s a fortnight.
There were further great ructions and estrangements that I will not bore you with, but in searching for any records about the painting I have unearthed from the bottom of one of the old leather cases of family records some faded postcards that have enabled me to chart the subsequent life of my great-grandmother Sarah and, possibly, the painting.
Her daughter from the failed married, Winnie, later ran the restaurant on Wymondham railway station. She and Sarah lived nearby, then moved to Norwich, and during the second world war and until Sarah’s death were at 60 Heigham Street, a stone’s throw from the first house I bought. Countless times had I sat in a traffic queue waiting for the Dereham Road lights to change, staring at that terrace, and I never knew. How much more do I still not know?
Next month – One of Ella and Joe’s teachers is to speak at a meeting in England.
What a Mother’s Garden month – scorpions, Royal yachts, hoopoes at the door, underwater wonder-world, and Alaska stories of a boyhood adventure that would grace a great novel.
The domes of the fig trees framed by our bedroom window and cast with the first blush of morning, stir in the stillness. Long-tailed tits, collared doves, sparrows and a raucous magpie feed on the fruit, while on the ground a bold pair of hoopoes strut about pecking at the debris.
These weeks of ripening teem with life and colour and more subtle hints of the seasonal cycle. The wheelbarrow handles are still too hot to touch if left out in the sun yet pony Petita’s winter coat is already half-grown. The soft nights persist and we continue to sleep with windows wide, but on daybreak-dog-walks Kirby diligently forages for logs, kindling and cones.
Stuart Dallas and James Proctor, now at Aberystwyth and Canterbury universities respectively, have been for their fourth summer sojourn on the farm, flailing axes at stubborn logs, chugging about on the tractor, stacking old bricks and catching up with all the news.
We gave them a day off and set off for the sea, to a secret cove, and the youngsters immediately went in search of sea cucumbers and other aquatic wonders. Stuart, with his mop of black hair like a young adventurer in an Enid Blyton novel, took underwater photographs of Ella and Joe in the deep blue, then we picnicked and talked of the Famous Five and W E Johns’ Biggles until ants invaded the food basket. I told them how in May we welcomed to the farm the grandson of the pilot on whom the Biggles’ character was based.
When we took our Norfolk helpers to the airport there was time for a detour, so I headed for the old docks of Tarragona on the off-chance of seeing a classic yacht or two. Goodness me. Nestling against the quay was Nahlin, the Clyde-built, 1930 blend of luxury (six guest staterooms with en-suite bathrooms, a special ladies’ sitting room, a gym and a library) and notoriety, now restored to the beauty of the days she sailed the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean with King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson aboard.
Just a month into his reign in 1936 the new monarch announced he was going to set sail for the summer on the Nahlin with Mrs Simpson – a voyage that abandoned protocol and on which Edward most certainly weighed the abandonment of the crown to marry his American mistress. That December he abdicated.
James and Stuart missed the scorpions, though. After 11 years without a sighting on the farm, two have appeared in a matter of days.
The first was seen crossing the lane on to our parched meadow. The second, dead as a Monty Python parrot, was floating in the spring water when I descended the shaft to check on the level. As far as I can tell it is a Buthus occitanus or common yellow scorpion. What next I wonder.
Now for tales stranger than fiction.
I told last month of Maria Soler Benages and Joan Barceló Castellvi who lived and farmed here for 40 years, and of the joy of gleaning seeds of the past. It is hard to believe what we have since learned of the man who built the end tower of this house, who blasted with dynamite to create the great water reservoir and who had a devoted pet pig called Chucha he’d fattened but couldn’t bear to slaughter.
He was, I fairly assumed, a village-born lad (correct) who had followed the typical rural path into agriculture, happy with the horizons of the sierras and with little knowledge of what lay beyond. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Before I tell you, can I say that the revelations, told to us by his grandson, have rekindled an aspiration. Both back home in Norfolk and equally here in this Latin backwater I harbour a hope. Maybe one or more of you share it and, somehow, a lasting and inspiring solution can be found.
Throughout life we encounter people but we rarely have the time to understand them or to appreciate their lives. Is it not so? The light in their eyes shines all the brighter in their frailty, in the Indian summer of reflections, yet frequently we don’t delve and all too soon they leave us. How I wish I had asked.
New generations surge, riding vast waves of technology that seem, with all the focus on communication, to curtail conversation, social contact, recognition and respect between young and old. The immediate and transient is drowning out enduring wisdoms and fascinations. Life journeys and the hearing of them have little value until it is too late.
Gentle, rosy-cheeked broad-Norfolk Reggie would wander into our former village garden and we would pass the time of day across the teapot. As we sat Geoffrey might shuffle determinedly past en route to the community centre, a man dedicated to public service and deemed a tad too officious because of it. They were anchored in that community and the simple assumptions of their character and accomplishments stemmed from what was obvious. They had lived rooted, rural lives and were notes in the vital rhythm of quiet Norfolk.
How humbling to hear, subsequently, of Reg’s time as the master builder entrusted with the care and endless upkeep of Norwich Cathedral, and of Geoffrey’s bravery and endurance as a Chindit, fighting behind Japanese lines in the unforgiving jungles of Burma.
My idea is simple. I call it The Life Chronicles, and it is something we can entrust to the young people across the United Kingdom and these valleys. For a small sum we can give young people in the last years of schooling, in those days and weeks after exams and before summer holidays, the guidance and the fulfilment of asking, listening to and recording life stories.
For example; one school, one camera, ten lives recorded annually, 15 minutes each; a digital almanac to be held by the library service; hundreds of lives each year, thousands in a decade; a simple, fascinating communication between generations; an invaluable record.
Back to Joan Barceló Castellvi. He was a fiery boy, by all accounts, and his conflict with the village teacher came to a head when he was nine, circa 1895. He ambushed the schoolmaster and pelted him with eggs.
His parents sent him to Barcelona to work in a bakery. He stuck to the task for a year and then vanished. Nothing was heard of him for 15 years. Joan had headed north on foot and, working here and there to earn scraps, he walked for two years until he reached Marseilles. He joined a ship and sailed the world, and within a few years was a seaman on the US Coast Guard Cutter The Rush, patrolling the Bering Sea off Alaska.
He visited his family here, told of his adventurers, brought them gifts, then returned to Barcelona, set on continuing his life in America. As we waited for the ship, he met and fell in love with Maria. The ship sailed without him.
So, how can we begin the English and Catalan – global even – life chronicles? Think on, where ever in the world you may be.
Oh – a thought. Do you know anyone who might be interested in my blog? Send them the link – http://mothersgarden.org/blog-2.