March already? There is a mountain to climb
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. Er.... 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. “JOE!” 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. Why? 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. Keep well.