A sense of balance

I always think of the equinoxes as perfect points of balance, a few moments of equilibrium between dark and light before we tip into longer or shorter days. Looking around the garden, fields and woodland this week there is certainly a sense of balance in all things, as though we have one foot planted firmly in both seasons.

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The swallows and their friends are still piercing the evening skies with their arrowhead silhouettes but the garden resounds with the robins’ autumn song once more. We are still enjoying sitting out and eating on warm, sunny evenings but the mornings creep in a little cooler, a little mistier, a little later.

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The fields around us are still lush and green . . .

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. . . but the woodland whispers of a subtle shift in seasons.

There are plenty of sights that still sing of summer . . .

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Young carrots, Florence fennel and French beans: could this be June?

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Our third crop of dwarf beans this year.

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. . . and those that hint at the changes to come.

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In terms of what we are eating from the garden, a game of blindfold ‘guess the season’ would be interesting at the moment. A salad from the last outdoor tomatoes, a young cucumber, several types of sweet pepper, a yellow courgette, young Florence fennel, mint and chives was a crisp and colourful palette of summery flavours. A tray of roast vegetables – more courgettes and peppers, onion, garlic, aubergines – felt summery in a ratatouille sort of way until the starchier heavyweights of potato and butternut squash made their presence felt. Spiced red cabbage braised with pear and toasted walnuts and a dish of buttered leeks . . . ah, now that definitely suggests autumn is in the air. What a wonderful, delicious time of year it is!

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Season’s eatings.

It’s a busy time of harvesting. We have spent several hours picking and podding kilos of beans for the freezer. These will be one of our main staples in the months to come; they are such a versatile and nutritious food, whether cooked and cooled for salad bases, thrown into soups and stews or made into hummus-style dips. We love fabada, the regional pork, chorizo and bean stew, and it’s comforting to think that this winter’s version will be all the more authentic for having grown our own crop of creamy white Asturian fabas.

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Bean counter: French dwarf, borlotti and Asturian.

The first walnuts are falling and it’s a case of beating the wild boar to them, not easy when our main stand of trees is across the meadow and out of sight. They have certainly been partying like pigs if the rootlings and snoutings under the trees are anything to go by but we don’t begrudge them their nightly feasts, there is plenty for all!

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We have  a tremendous crop of pears this year, the branches are drooping under the sheer weight of fruit. Research tells us the best way to keep them is in a very cold fridge and as we just happen to have a spare one of those under the house (one of the more useful things we were left here) we have been filling it steadily over the last few days. Having tried and failed to grow decent pears in the past, these are such a treat and will be our main hard fruit over winter.

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Mind you, we are still enjoying a good crop of summer fruits and of course, the mighty kiwi harvest is waiting in the wings.

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Something else which has been waiting in the wings is our new stove, aka Beast III. It has been installed for several weeks now, sitting proudly beneath its new state of the art slate-clad chimney (a final little creative flourish from our builder!) but we still need to finish decorating around it and obviously it has been far too warm to even think about lighting it. Cue one blown element in our electric oven this week and suddenly the Beast has taken centre stage, warm weather or not. Oh my goodness, what a difference to the old stove and chimney set up we have been struggling with. Here’s a novelty: all the smoke goes up the chimney, all the heat comes out into the room, it is hot enough to cook on within minutes of lighting and maintains a steady heat. Gentle enough to simmer a rich slow-cooked sauce, hot enough to bake bread and crisp homemade pizzas, constant enough to keep the kettle singing merrily. I’m singing, too; I don’t want to rush towards cooler weather but we are going to be so snug this winter, it makes me smile just to think about it. 🙂

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Returning to the theme of balance. One of the things I love about travel and living abroad is the opportunity they offer for cultural exchange, opening eyes and minds to new possibilities and broadening horizons. It fascinates me how similar human beings from different parts of the world can be whilst at the same time, even the tiniest cultural differences can define us in interesting ways. Seeing and experiencing the ways in which different nations live and work helps to put everything into perspective, to maintain a balanced view of my native country and others I have spent time in. I have never understood the view that just because someone does something in a different and unfamiliar way, it’s wrong. No, it’s simply different . . . and maybe we should try it ourselves? On our long car journeys of recent months, Roger and I have often joked that if you could take the silky smooth surface and camber of a French road, add the super-visible road markings and signage of a British road and the courtesy and patience of Spanish drivers, you would have the perfect car journey!

So where is this going? Well, one of the things I have noticed since moving to Asturias is the distinct lack of litter compared to the other countries in which I have lived; yes, there is some in places but on the whole, people here work very hard to keep their beautiful principality clean. Rubbish bins and recycling points are plentiful in public places and are used and emptied regularly, even in more remote areas; popular beaches are litter-picked and raked daily; you simply don’t see people throwing litter down on the street or out of their cars and that’s what makes the difference. There is a deep pride and respect for the environment that I feel is sadly lacking in other places. Stopping for a picnic lunch near Bordeaux last week, I couldn’t help but take a photo of a bag of rubbish that had been dumped on the grass in a litter-strewn picnic site. The site had an empty, lined rubbish bin that no-one seemed capable of using. The irony of the message on the bag can’t be missed. What a strange species we are.

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Over the finish line

‘A comfort zone is the most dangerous area anyone can stay in. It is a place of no growth and no challenges.’ Brian Cagney

The older I get, the more I agree with the quotation above. Turning fifty last December gave me the opportunity to ponder the dangers of slipping into a comfortable middle-aged stagnation, just allowing life to pass me by in a predictable march of time. Life is such a precious gift and I am determined to live it as fully as I possibly can. So, during a sunny birthday walk along our local coast path, my plan was hatched: time to run a half marathon and raise money for a charity very close to my heart.

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Older but possibly not wiser . . . time for a challenge!

When choosing which half marathon to enter, Lake Vyrnwy was the obvious choice for several reasons. First, apart from the first mile and last short stretch, it is almost completely flat or downhill (sometimes I’m not quite as daft as I look!). Second, we lived locally for many years so it’s familiar territory and a much-loved spot; we have spent many happy hours walking, cycling, having picnics and even wild swimming in a deep pool at the top of a waterfall there. So many happy memories! Third, it would be a beautiful place for my support team to pass a few hours and if all else failed, I knew I would at the very least have a long walk in stunning scenery.

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Ironically, it all looked rather more stunning than I’d expected at this time of year. The water thundering over the dam wall is a tremendous sight but can only mean one thing. Water. Lots of it, pouring out of the sky and filling the lake to overflowing. Good job I’d had my Drowned Rat training run at home in Asturias because the land of soggy trainers was beckoning once again. Well, I’d wanted a challenge . . .

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Trying to keep dry and not look too nervous before the race . . . and failing miserably on both counts.

The race was pretty much everything I’d expected it to be: pre-race nerves jangling and a long queue for the portaloos – I don’t want to do this; a slightly claustrophobic feeling in the starting crowd – I really don’t want to do this; very soggy running shoes within minutes, thanks to the sheer amount of surface water on the road – yuk; hitting a bit of a ‘wall’ between nine and ten miles and feeling some serious self-doubt creeping in – count to eight over and over, sing ‘King and Lionheart’, picture Lewis’s sunny smile, tell yourself you can do this, come on, come on, come on; losing all sense of what my body was doing at 12 miles – just put one foot in front of the other . . .  and repeat, don’t think – just move; an enormous sense of relief as the finish line came into sight – I’ve done it! and an overwhelming sense of joy at the sight of family and friends (and a completely delicious chunk of chocolate brownie!) – I am very blessed to be so loved (and so well-fed!).

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And we’re off: just 13.1 miles to go.

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The finish line: made it!

Soaked to the skin, cold, aching from head to toe, tired and very footsore . . . not a comfort zone in sight. It felt fantastic. Truly fantastic.

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Piece of cake!

Back in a noticeably less soggy Spain and reflecting on this personal challenge from start to finish, what do I feel? The overwhelming initial feeling has been one of gratitude to all those wonderful people who have supported me with their unstinting encouragement during training and braving the awful weather to be there on the day. I am indebted to everyone who has sponsored me so generously with their donations: the amount raised for Rachel House Hospice currently stands at £752.50, 150% of my initial target and more than I ever imagined possible. Thank you!

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My coach!

I feel a deep sense of achievement but not in a boastful or big-headed way, more a feeling of fulfilment and contentment and self-belief. If I can run a half marathon, anyone can – please be inspired! If I can run a half marathon, what else can I do if I try? What has surprised me during the last week more than anything is an incredible feeling of balance and calm, as though the hard physical and mental challenges of the past months have picked me up, shaken me out and set me down on firmer ground. It’s hard to express adequately in words but I feel stronger and tougher yet more relaxed and pragmatic. This shift has already changed my outlook. I’ve always been a nervous flyer and was secretly dreading our return journey  – the first time I have flown for seven years – until I stopped and asked myself why I was nervous. If I can run a half marathon, surely I could cope with a 90-minute flight? Yes, of course I could . . . and I did. I’d even go so far as to say I enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to next time! Perhaps I’ve grown up at last? What a great gift!

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Running in memory of Lewis has changed me for the better!

So what next? I will certainly carry on running a couple of times a week as the benefits can’t be denied, but I don’t plan to run another half marathon, just enjoy it as recreational exercise. For now, I’m planning to catch up on things I’ve been neglecting during training – gardening, walking, yoga, Spanish study – to name but a few. However, part of me suspects when early December comes round once again, there will be another whiff of madness in the air and new challenges taking shape. Well, I don’t want to let myself get too comfortable now, do I? 🙂

Harvests and handbags

Our trip to the UK is almost upon us, how the time has flown by these last weeks. It seems ironic that after waiting so long for the new roof to be done, we now have to tear ourselves away from the renovation work but such is life: it will still be here when we return!

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There always seems to be so much to do before we go away, much of it outside and relatively last minute. We leave jobs like strimming and weeding as late as we can to give the garden the best chance of not being too overgrown when we get back. However, harvesting what we can before we leave has been top of the list for several days now.

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I love the way we move through different phases of the peach season here and it’s interesting how they are so much earlier this year than last. We have frozen many kilos of the fat and juicy yellow peaches (now over), and turned plenty more into preserves. We are not great jam eaters but a simple peach jam made with a good dollop of lemon juice makes an excellent alternative to marmalade. This peach relish Peach and chilli chutney is far and away the best chutney we have ever tasted. The white peaches now coming thick and fast are smaller, firmer and less furry (a bit like apricots) than the yellows so I have been freezing them in their skins. They have the prettiest rose blush inside.

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We also have green peaches which look under-ripe but are delicious and there will be apricots ready on our return. It’s a shame they don’t travel well (we tried to transport them last year with little success) but we will certainly be taking plenty of pears with us.

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Peach jam, peach and chilli relish and Jairo’s honey

Jairo brought us a jar of the most delicious honey fresh from his hives, something I absolutely love drizzled over my breakfast toast or oats and yogurt. His bees have had a good year but are currently under siege from Asian hornets who lurk around the hive entrance ready to pick off the unsuspecting inhabitants; in Jairo’s words, they are literally too scared to come out. Poor things. Almost every house in the village has a few hives and it is certainly partly thanks to the foraging workers that our fruit blossom has once again been so well pollinated. What I have found fascinating this week is that those honey bees who are managing to run the gauntlet of the hornets are feeding greedily on the rotten peaches around the garden. I’ve never seen honey bees do such a thing. Amazing.

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I apologise if I sound like a bean bore in these posts but goodness me, do we have a bountiful crop again this year. As we are freezing them there is no need to let them dry out, it’s simply a case of timing the harvest just right so that they have matured. This was the haul from the tripod of climbing borlotti beans with a few ‘Czar’ runner beans thrown in for good measure.

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I must admit, I’m not sure about those runners. To be fair, there are still a few more pods to come and the beans are everything they were said to be in terms of big and buttery; however, in comparison to the climbing borlotti and certainly the Asturian beans still to come, the yield is very disappointing. I’m not sure I’ll bother again.

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It’s interesting, too, how much more prolific the bush borlotti beans are than the climbers – the latest row yielded over six times the amount of beans (nope, we won’t be short!). Next year I think we will need to look carefully at just what is worth growing up poles and perhaps changing our planting ideas a little.

Something else we will not be short of are squashes: at the last count, there are at least three ‘Guatemalan Blue’, eight ‘Crown Prince’, almost twenty yellow butternuts (either ‘Hunter’ or ‘Harrier’ or maybe even both) and too many of the green and soon-to-be orange striped ‘Barbara’ to count. No problem with having our first taste of the yellows this week, then!

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Butternut ‘Barbara’ takes the prize for being the most prolific variety: the fruits are everywhere!

Another of our autumn and winter staples is leeks. These are without doubt one of my all time favourite vegetables and like the beans and squashes, they seem to thrive in the conditions here. We have grown the ever-reliable ‘Musselburgh’ with a few ‘Blue Solaise’ thrown in, and –  even though it seems so early – with over 200 plants galloping away, we couldn’t resist the first picking of those this week, too.

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Of course, in the garden it’s not all about what’s ready to eat – there is always one eye on what’s still to come. I love self-set seeds, I always think they deserve the best of chances and tend to thrive where they have chosen to grow. It’s lovely to see little plants popping up all over the garden at the moment: coriander, chervil, parsley, French marigolds, nasturtiums, borage, beans (as if we need those!), Californian poppies, calendula and quite a crop of little pea seedlings. I thought it was worth giving the latter a go so I carefully lifted them into a couple of rows and pushed in hazel stick supports. We might not get too many peas or else they could well run to mildew but at the very least we can eat the shoots in salads.

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The sprinkling of komatsuna, golden pak choi and spinach that I planted last week were through the ground in no time and the earlier sowings of ‘Autumn King’ carrots and Florence fennel are looking grand. Mmm, good food to come.

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This trip is a little unusual in that we are only driving one way; we are taking our British car to be sold in the UK and then flying home with cabin luggage only. That means I have a single suitcase of dimensions 55cm x 40cm x 20cm weighing no more than 10kg packed, to hold enough clothes for nine days including my running kit. Talk about putting my minimalist money where my mouth is! Clothes are no great problem; I’m not a fashion victim and will be quite happy in jeans, t-shirts and my comfy boots. However, making room for my trainers and several layers of running clothes seemed slightly problematic so I decided to have a bit of a practice pack.

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On the case of minimalist packing . . .

All was going swimmingly until I double checked the airline’s regulations and discovered that my handbag – my one and only handbag, in fact – is bigger than the permitted size, so I can’t carry it on as extra luggage to stow under the seat. At this point I have to confess to a few moments of air rage as it dawned on me that I would have to manage without my trusty bag during the whole trip just for the sake of a 90-minute flight. Nooooo! Obviously, I can’t shrink my bag but I did wonder if it would be possible to squeeze it last minute into the case. Now Roger has long referred to my handbag as the Bag of Doom and steadfastly refuses to go into it unless there is a dire emergency. Mmm, he might mock, but the truth is that bag has saved his bacon on more than one occasion; you know, those ‘Have you got a pen / tissue / euro / safety pin /nail clippers, etc, etc?’ moments. The problem is that rather than having a pen, I have a complete stationery department. Would you like a black biro or a blue fineliner or maybe a fluorescent green highlighter? Alternatively, there’s a handful of pencils, with a sharpener (or two) and eraser, of course. The nail clippers come with complementary use of tweezers and nail file, and I also have a sewing machine screwdriver and a corsage pin, because naturally I could need those things at any time. Tissues? No problem, how many hundreds would you like? Honestly, my bag is like the Tardis.  Maybe Roger has a point, after all. So, I took a very deep breath, emptied it completely onto the bed and started to sort the contents on an essentials-only basis.

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From Bag of Doom to Bag of Room!

My goodness, it was so ridiculous! I realised I’ve been carrying several gifts around with me simply for the sake of it: a cosmetics purse without any cosmetics but stuffed with a miscellaneous jumble of bits and pieces ‘just in case’ (of what, I’m not sure); a birthstone keyring without a key; a pretty little ‘bag in a sack’ (some kind soul obviously thought I might need overspill bag accommodation) and several pieces of jewellery I never wear. I’m still trying to work out why in the deep, dark depths I found my engagement ring (now back on my finger), a pack of paracetamol which is something I never take yet alone buy, an ancient turquoise eyeliner possibly dating back to my New Romantic phase circa 1983 and a protractor (?????) along with several unidentifiable objects which might have interested a desperate archaeologist (or pathologist) before I committed them to the bin. Phew!!! Get me and my new super-lightweight bag which will easily slip into the suitcase now, contents and all. The only question is: how long will I last as a not-so-bag lady . . . and what happens in the next safety pin emergency? 🙂

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Time to run for my life

Oh my goodness, is it really nine months since I first had the crazy, crazy idea of running a half marathon to mark my fiftieth birthday? It feels like it’s been quite a journey since then and with just days to go before we start travelling north in readiness for the big day, I think it’s time for a little reflection on the ups and downs of the last few months.

For starters, I’d like to say that no-one warned me running could be such an extreme sport. Living where we do, I always knew the training would be hard because there is no way of running from home without encountering hills. Steep ones. Lots of them. What I hadn’t bargained for was the effect of the weather. Take the last week, for example. First, I found myself getting up at 6am to go out and run before the sun crept over the mountain and temperatures soared into the thirties. I don’t mind an early morning but I prefer them when running isn’t in the mix. I have also been out on several short runs in unbelievably high humidity where it felt like there was a hot, wet rag covering my face; it was hard to breathe properly and so energy-sapping, I felt nothing but admiration for runners who train in similar conditions all the time. Then today, for my last really long run before the race, the heavens opened and rain poured down in torrents for the entire two hours.

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How can there honestly be any water left up there?

Now funnily enough, running 10+ miles in a non-stop torrential downpour doesn’t appear on my official training programme but after today, I think it should because in lots of ways, it was a really good experience. Whenever Roger has run the Lake Vyrnwy half marathon the weather has been perfect but having lived in mid-Wales for 17 years, we know what the weather is capable of and there’s a chance it will be pouring with rain . . . and several degrees colder . . . with a driving wind just for good measure. There is no way I can poke my head out of the door on race day, see horrendous weather and wimp out so it’s better to be prepared. I don’t intend to take up distance running with several litres of water sloshing about inside my running shoes any time soon but I do at least know now that it is possible to keep going under those circumstances. Ditto soaking wet running clothes (and underwear!). At least the great thing about skin is that once it’s wet it can’t get any wetter. After the initial yuk! moment, it doesn’t get any worse. Honestly, it doesn’t. 🙂

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Emptying the water out of my squelchy running shoes!

In a very strange way, I actually enjoyed this run because it reminded me why I wanted to do this in the first place and how far I’ve come in the process. I wanted a personal challenge and I certainly got one: this has been SO hard, physically and mentally. I have managed to find the self-discipline to train which has surprised me, but I still don’t ever look forward to a run. There have been days when I felt like I was running in concrete boots through treacle and others where my feet had wings. There have been low points with aches and self-doubt and tears, but like all bad times in life, they have passed; equally, there have been high points and surprises and things to celebrate and smile about. Have I changed? Well yes, I have. I am certainly much fitter than when I started (Roger says faster, too, but I’m not so sure about that one!) and if nothing else, I have proved to myself that with the right attitude, determination and effort, it really is possible to achieve what I thought was beyond me. That alone is a great lesson for life.

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Luarca 5k, my first race in Spain . . . so happy to see the finishing line.

In a former life I would have spent several days this week in an empty classroom, putting up wall displays, sorting out piles of new books and generally organising my plans, materials and thoughts for the new school year. Nowadays I run in torrential rain in northern Spain, causing some bemused looks from the cows and many smiles from my neighbours. Yep, there’s another deep notch carved into the post of Crazy Inglesa but you know what? It feels so good, so free and ridiculous, that several times during Drowned Rat Run I found myself laughing aloud at the nonsense of it all. Mad? Maybe, but it feels like living and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing. So I’m fifty and a granny but I still have plenty of living left to do. Here is a gift I hadn’t expected from this challenge, an even deeper zest for life and all its opportunities.

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A training run on the flat: bliss!

Of course, this challenge has been all about fundraising in memory of Lewis and he has been foremost in my mind on every run. I have been truly touched and thrilled by the generosity of others – not just in terms of donations, but also in messages of encouragement and support. I am completely delighted that over £500 pounds has been raised so far, money that will I hope bring some comfort and pleasure to the children and families in Rachel House Hospice. A HUGE thank you to everyone who has supported me – you’re all brilliant! I can’t say how excited I am starting to feel about catching up with friends and family on race day: there will be CHAS balloons and badges, fun and laughter, probably a few tears, too . . . but most of all, a celebration. Of Lewis. Of love. Of life. Am I ready? I think so. Bring it on! 🙂

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Gorgeous smile, gorgeous boy: this one’s for you, Lewis.

My JustGiving page

The Heather Moon

I love the Native American way of naming moons according to the season. Certainly, Corn Is In The Silk Moon would be a very apt name for this time of year here . . .

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. . . but for me, this is the Heather Moon. It is everywhere, purpling the banks around the house, the verges in the lanes, the woodlands, the rocky places and the mountainsides in every shade from palest lilac to richest magenta.

PICT0448 (2).JPGTaking some time out from renovation work, we followed its colourful trail high into the mountains a little further up our valley; so high, in fact, that we ended up in the clouds. Still, the views remained stunning and I am always in awe of the ingenuity and resilience of generations of human beings who have settled areas such as these, building houses and farms on the steepest and narrowest of ridges.

 

PICT0381 (2).JPGHigher still, and it was amazing how quickly we were in wilderness: no doubt in our minds that this was wolf country. We didn’t see any wolves but instead, sitting at the top of a high pass with awesome views down to the coast, we were treated to the magnificent sight of a pair of vultures wheeling over us with their mighty wingspans. The trip down was all heather and hairpins . . . oh, and a rather charming and relaxed traffic jam!

PICT0382 (2).JPGThere has definitely been a subtle shift in the colours of the landscape this week, a gentle reminder that we have tipped into the last month of summer. There are more golds and browns amongst the greens now as grassy hilltops burn up and maize fields wave pollen-heavy flowers like golden banners.

PICT0457 (2).JPGSomehow the change in light has made colours in the garden more intense, the French marigolds, rainbow chard, sunflowers and borlotti beans showing off their bright hues under sun or cloud.

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There are vibrant colours in flowers I have planted . .

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. . . and those that have appeared by themselves.

PICT0415.JPGRoger described the sunflowers in the veg patch as looking like a fountain and it’s a very apt description as they shoot skywards in a starburst of yellows and browns. One over-enthusiastic plant, too tall and top heavy in the dry ground, toppled over the fence into the lane and broke its stem completely. Sad, as there were still so many buds to come, but we have been enjoying the casualties as a splash of sunshine on the kitchen table. They are such incredible structures, almost surreal, which never fail to make me smile.

PICT0405 (3).JPGThere are some new delicately tinted beauties in the garden, too. The morning glory that grows wild in such abandon here is rich and velvety in imperial purple and indigo; I was slightly disappointed to see the long-awaited first flowers on the ones I planted couldn’t have been more different . . . but I suppose they have a simple charm in their pale hues.

PICT0419 (2).JPGWe have been enjoying the deep purply-black French ‘Bonica’ aubergine and the marbled green Spanish ‘Berenja de Almagro’; now it’s the turn of the rather beautiful Italian Rosa de Bianca – ciao, bella!

PICT0425.JPGPale beauty, too, in the new crop of peaches. The large juicy yellow ones more or less over, now it’s the turn of their smaller, more delicate cousins, white-fleshed with a rose blush around the stone. Small and sweet, these are perfect little dessert peaches.

PICT0440.JPGThere’s a little seasonal nuttery going on amongst the fruit trees.

PICT0437.JPGIt’s funny how fragrance has changed along with colours this week. One of my greatest pleasures this year has been the perfume of sun-warmed lavender from plants raised from seed last year. We have never been able to grow good lavender anywhere we have lived but at long last I think we’ve cracked it: the flowers and scent have been heavenly bee magnets for several months. However, recent days have seen a change in the perfume pecking order and now the garden is full of the heady fragrance of Japanese quince. I’m not complaining, it’s like nothing else and completely gorgeous!

PICT0431.JPGYesterday was a day of sunshine and high humidity which turned to rumbling thunder and short, sharp storms in the late afternoon. Having been driven in from the garden by a particularly heavy cloudburst, I witnessed a lovely scene through the kitchen window: a family of wagtails – seven in all – splashing and bathing in the barn troughing, literally using the run-off water like a power shower! They’re very well camouflaged in the photo – grey on grey –  but it just goes to show not everything in nature needs to be bursting with colour to be wonderful. 🙂

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Double, double, treble trouble

My Coast blanket is finished and I am soooooooooo happy with it. 🙂 It is soft and ripply and colourful and gorgeous and I just want to wrap myself up in it – which, given the current weather, would be a pretty unintelligent thing to do. In fact, I really wanted to rush it down to the beach for another Attic 24-esque photo shoot but given it is the height of the holiday season here and there are a lot of happy people trying to go about their beachy business in peace, I thought maybe that would be a step too far along the Mad Englishwoman path. So, I went to the beach for a cooling swim and left the blanket relaxing in the dappled shade of a walnut tree instead.

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Now I know it’s unlikely that anyone out there is counting the ripples in the photo but it’s just possible that someone in the know might want to point out that the pattern calls for 84 ripples and I’ve only done 66. Um, yes. Confession time. I’ve been having such a lot of fun in recent months immersed in my second go at crochet that it wasn’t until I needed to sit and follow instructions to the letter for the first bower bird that I realised I have been doing my treble stitch all wrong. Somehow I manage to put an extra stage into it and I’ve been doing this forever. I know there’s a difference between UK and US crochet terms so I wondered if maybe I’ve been a secret American all my life? Well, no I haven’t because I can’t find this particular stitch anywhere masquerading under any nationality: it’s not a treble or a double treble or a treble double or a treble treble or any combination of the above . . . so I’ve decided to call it my Trouble Stitch.

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By the time I made this somewhat alarming discovery, I had already worked several ripples of Trouble and wasn’t inclined to undo them so on I went; given that the stitch stands an extra loop taller than UK treble, it only took 66 ripples to reach the required length of 180cm, hence the missing few. Never mind, I’ve lived and learned and at least I can feel like I’ve put my own little stamp on the blanket – even if it is one born out of confusion!

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So what now? Well, time to get cracking on the patchwork blanket I dreamt up when weeding leeks some weeks ago. I’ve ummed and aahed a bit over this, especially when I discovered there was a pile of Parma Violet left and thought maybe I should use it for a joining colour as in the Harmony blanket . . . but no, I decided to stick with my original plan and joint the colours directly. The only change I’ve made is to back off from the all-in-eclectic-mix-of-every-colour idea: I know, I know, I’m being a bit of a wimp with that one but when I saw that the vast majority of the colours I had left were blues, greens, purples and neutrals, those reds and golds and screaming pinks (plus grey and khaki) just begged to be left out. I did manage to stop myself going down the colourwash mood blanket route, tempting though that was, and so I am having great fun pulling balls out of my basket and whizzing up the little squares.

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Having weighed and measured, the maths tells me there should be enough yarn for 160 squares, putting aside enough to work six or seven rounds of border. I’m going to err on the side of caution and aim for 15 x 10 squares to start: I can always add a 16th strip if there is definitely enough yarn left. This is such a lovely, gentle activity, requiring next to no concentration and so easy to pick up and put down in odd moments.

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Unlike my next project in the pipeline . . .

Just look at this yarn, isn’t it beautiful?

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This is Manos del Uruguay lace, a gorgeous luxurious blend of baby alpaca, silk and cashmere. Cashmere! Wow, I’ve never worn it in my life so I’m feeling a bit decadent to say the least. I have never spent so much money on two skeins of yarn either, but this project – my summer wedding shawl – is going to be a very special one so I think it’s justified. In my opinion, this yarn has a lot going for it: not just the obvious fact that it’s 100% natural fibres but also because it brings economic and social benefits to rural artisan women, too. The yarns are hand-dyed in large kettles and no two skeins are the same; the colour choices are rich and beautiful and I was very torn when choosing but in the end went for ‘Nixie’ which sings of summer skies and meadows to me. In fact, the photos really don’t do it justice because there are gorgeous strands of yellow and lilac marbling the blues and greens.

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Oh, it is exquisite! I have a shawl pattern designed specifically for this yarn (I’m taking no chances) and I have invested in a 3.5mm circular needle with shiny brass tips . . . so all I need now is the courage to start. Ah, there’s no rush, surely? At the moment I’m a very happy little bunny just gazing at the yarn and stroking those soft silky skeins. 🙂

Healthy neglect

The builders have finished, the scaffolding is down and all is peaceful once again on our mountainside.

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Rubble shifting over, and I suddenly realised how much I’ve been neglecting the garden over the past weeks; just a quick whizz round with hoe or watering can to keep everything together from time to time is all the attention it’s had. Definitely time to get stuck in to some long overdue maintenance.

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Apart from the usual weeding and cutting back, there were a few bigger jobs that have been waiting. I pulled the old pea and broad bean plants out weeks ago but never got round to digging the patch over properly . . . and of course, the weeds have had a bit of a field day in the interim. I love jobs like this: take one messy patch, dig it over, remove weeds, pick out stones and there’s a lovely patch of bare earth ready and waiting for the next crop (probably some winter kale).

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I’ve also been neglecting the poor summer calabrese and broccoli plants. They have been cropping well for several weeks but I haven’t been keeping on top of them enough and they had started to flower. I know the bees love those flowers, but it’s amazing how quickly the plants will crop again if the flowers are cut back. Sorry, bees . . . your turn will come!

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One thing I did manage to do a couple of weeks ago is a little more planting for crops later in the year: a row of ‘Autumn King’ carrots, some Florence fennel and then more beans. This is bean country: if all else fails we will never starve because there will always be a bean mountain. The speed at which they germinate and grow is quite incredible, you can almost sit back and watch it happening. So, I’ve planted another half row of bush borlotti and dwarf French beans (can’t remember which variety) and a full row of a cannellini bean for late autumn harvest.

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The climbing beans have got away from me once again and Roger is now having to use a step ladder to pick them. I threw a few sunflower seeds in next to them (more of my ‘frivolous’ flowers!) and they are quite spectacular – at 3.2 metres, definitely the tallest we’ve ever grown and they’re certainly giving the beans a run for their money. Gorgeous, gorgeous things!

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I can’t find words to describe the state of the squash garden: in fact, it’s got to a point where I’m almost too nervous to go and look because to say they have taken over is the understatement of the year. They literally meet me on the path and have completely blocked the steps up to my salad patch. Cutting them back from around the leeks, purple sprouting broccoli and winter cabbages (all of which are thriving despite the encroaching jungle) was almost a machete job, not helped by the fact they have sent down strong little roots from their stems and anchored themselves down everywhere.

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Not that I’m complaining (much) because rummaging about with the hoe under those huge leaves revealed a plentiful crop. The ‘Crown Prince’ and ‘Guatemalan Blue’ are lounging about in full view on the terraces like sunbathing beauties but the butternuts are hidden in a sea of green . . . and what a crop there is lurking under there!

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After a slow start, the peppers have all burst into life and look set to crop for many months like they did last year. I have to confess to a complete pickle where plant labelling was concerned earlier in the year so I’m really not sure what we’ve got (actually, one of the reasons I keep a garden blog is so I can look back and check what I’ve planted!) but we are eating a yellow ‘Sweet Banana’ and a bell variety which I think is ‘Carmagnola’, with what looks like Red Marconi’, ‘Golden Cal Wonder’ and ‘Padron’ to follow.

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Our beat-the blight tomato experiment has been interesting. We have kept all the plants out of the garden soil and instead planted them in sterile containers and placed them in several different positions around the house and garden. The good news is that we have certainly enjoyed far more tomatoes than last year, not a huge glut but enough for regular pickings for salads and the barbecue; the best performers have been the cherry variety ‘Sungold’ and the plum ‘Roma’. The bad news is that, even though it took much longer to happen this year, they have all succumbed to blight (although they are continuing to send out new growth and ripen fruit). I think we will give it one more try next year, focusing on some blight-resistant varieties and hiding some plants away from the mountain mist in a polytunnel. At the end of the day, if we never manage huge crops of toms here, it really doesn’t matter: the local shops and markets are bursting with sun-drenched tomatoes in every shape, size and colour imaginable. We might not be able to grow them well here, but we certainly live in a country that can!

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Something that is growing very well is our little patch of sweetcorn and I am so thrilled as it’s years and years since we grew any. It’s looking very majestic next to a tripod of Asturian beans; not quite ‘three sisters’ although believe me, the third one would be in there if I hadn’t had my machete moment! There are some rather lovely self-set nasturtiums tangling themselves around the corn, I love it when things like that happen all on their own in the garden.

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Despite my neglect, a number of things I’ve raised from seed this year are making an impact in the garden now. There are several patches of hyssop, which is a plant I love; I’m not keen on the smell, which I would describe as ‘herbal with an undercurrent of fox’, but it is such a beautiful colour and bees can’t get enough of it.

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I’ve never grown asters from seed and they have been sooooooooo slow to get going but now they are making pretty little splashes of colour all over. I’m very excited about the morning glory, too; I planted it very late but it’s up and running and hopefully we should see the first flowers in the next few days.

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One lovely little surprise was a flower on the ‘Polish Spirit’ clematis we planted months ago as the tiniest stick on a root I’ve ever seen. Well, it’s obviously happy here!

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In truth, looking around I see colour and food everywhere. Despite my neglect, the garden has carried on merrily which is no great surprise, really. Nature knows what it’s doing . . . and that to my mind is a wonderful thing! 🙂

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The need to knit

Having reduced my woolly projects sensibly (and unusually!) to one – the crochet Coast blanket – it’s amazing how much progress I made over a couple of weeks. This is quite surprising given that I didn’t have time to sit around doing serious rippling, there were just too many other things going on. It’s still a case of five minutes here and there, usually with a mug of tea or coffee, but I’m now over two thirds of the way through and it really is starting to feel like a blanket. I can’t wait to see how it’s going to look dressing up our old blue sofa but I need to be patient: the sofa, which we brought back from France a few weeks ago, is still sitting on the trailer on account of the fact that we can’t get it into the house because of the scaffolding all over the steps! Ah, all in good time.

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Much as I really, really love this crochet project, I suppose it was inevitable that eventually my knitting fingers would start itching and twitching for something to do. Despite the fact I have more than enough to occupy my hands – crochet, gardening, harvesting, cooking, painting and decorating, shifting building rubbish, etc, etc – there’s nothing quite like the feel of those woolly little stitches slipping off the needles and I was missing it. Face it, I needed to knit. At times like these, my default project is always socks because they are relatively quick and easy, and forever useful . . . and I had just the project in mind. It’s been a fact of our lifestyle for many years that we spend a lot of time wearing wellies, and in winter that tends to leave Roger with cold, sore feet. He won’t wear the hand-knitted socks I’ve already made for him, partly because he doesn’t want to trash them in wellies but also because he is sensitive to ‘wool itch’ and prefers to wear them in very cold weather over thin cotton socks – not practical in wellies as it makes them too tight. So, I am on a mission to try and create a pair of itchless, hardwearing socks that he will wear.

My starting point obviously needed to be the yarn. Most commercial sock yarns are a blend of 75% wool and 25% nylon (for strength); when I spin sock yarn, I replace the nylon with kid mohair or silk as I prefer natural fibres. Trying to find a reduced wool sock yarn without going down the 100% synthetic route wasn’t easy but in the end I chose this Rico Superba Bamboo. I really rate bamboo as a fibre: it’s natural, renewable, biodegradable, silky and antibacterial – but perhaps a little on the ‘soft’ side for welly socks? However, I was hopeful that this combination of 25% bamboo, 50% wool and 25% acrylic would hit the spot, although I had a slight doubt about elasticity. Nothing for it but to knit and see.

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For a pattern, it was back to default mode once again. When I first started knitting socks many years ago, I found a free knitting pattern calculator on the Violet Green website and printed off several basic sock patterns which I have used so many times that I practically know them off by heart. Just look at the state of that pattern! The website has changed a fair bit since then but the pattern calculator is still there and it’s an amazing resource. Sock pattern calculator No fancy stuff planned for these socks, just a case of plain old stocking stitch all the way and letting the self-patterning colours do their thing.

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Creased, dog-eared and coffee stained . . . the signs of a much-loved pattern?

At the beginning of the year, I challenged myself to try new skills . . . which is how my whole crochet adventure began. One of the things I have continued to back away from is knitting socks on a circular needle so I decided that the moment had finally arrived to bite the bullet. From choice, I like to work with a set of four very short double-pointed needles, but having cracked the ‘magic loop’ method when knitting Annie’s hobby horse head, I know it’s time to give it a go. No toe-up business for me, though; I’m definitely sticking with top-down socks for now – there’s only so many changes a person can make to her favourite routines! The first few rounds were really tricky and I could feel the negative vibes beginning to buzz . . . but they’re always a bit tricky on double pointed needles, too, so it was only fair to plough on (even if my teeth were ever so slightly gritted).

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So, this is what it looks like now and in some ways it’s going rather well. On the down side, I’ve found the needles make my fingers quite sore – just a different way of working, perhaps?  It also felt strange working the instep gusset decreases on two needles rather than three, meaning that I needed to use markers which I wouldn’t usually bother with. (In fact, I don’t even own proper knitting markers, I tend to improvise with small safety pins which seem to do the job.)

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Otherwise, it’s been plain sailing: the yarn is beautiful to work with, so soft and knit-able and the one thing that has really surprised me is how much faster I’m working. So fast, in fact, that I was halfway along the foot before I really stopped to think about size: didn’t this sock seem a bit small for a mansized foot? I went off to find a sock from a pair I’d previously knitted for Roger in order to compare . . . PICT0309 (2).JPG

Mmm, now this always fascinates me in knitting: same weight of wool, same gauge of needle, same pattern, same knitting nit and yet two different sizes of sock appear! I can’t believe it’s the magic loop method, I think it must be the yarn. Roger suggested I carried on and knitted theses socks for me which defeats the object really but I have to admit I really don’t want to undo it all and start again. I suppose I can at least test-drive the finished socks in wellies on his behalf but I have a sneaking suspicion they will be too soft, so it’s back to the drawing board once again.

I also feel slightly guilty at walking off with his socks because when I bought the wool, somehow another ball fell into the basket. Well . . . I couldn’t remember the last time I knitted myself a pair of socks from commercial yarn and this is super budget stuff (King Cole Zigzag).

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I love this colour combination which I think will look great in my cosy winter boots: I could have chosen ‘Summer’ or ‘Harmony’  but in the end, I had to go for ‘Wacky’ which probably says it all, really.

On which theme . . . I’ve had a slightly crazy idea knocking about my head this week, one which a huge part of me hoped would fade away as I know it is pure madness on my part. Why don’t I knit myself a beautiful lace shawl as something a little different to wear to Sam and Adrienne’s wedding? It’s a knitting project I’ve thought about several times over the years but always backed away from and in all honesty, if I go for it then in personal challenge terms it will be the woolly equivalent of running the half marathon. I’ve never knitted any kind of shawl before. I’ve never followed a shawl chart, and have always preferred written instructions to any kind of chart, anyway. I’ve never knitted with laceweight yarn. I’ve never had 400+ stitches on my needle at once. I have never ever ever got on with or enjoyed lace knitting; in fact, in my experience it would be better to call it ‘lace unpicking whilst muttering loudly and looking for a different pattern’ as that is what I spend most of my time doing. A sensible person would walk away now, but . . . I am so in awe of the gorgeous creations on blogs and websites, I dream about making something from a truly luxurious yarn and I love a good challenge. So, something I have been doing this week is having a little trial run – after all, if it turned out to be a non-starter, that would be that. Armed with a slightly bigger gauge needle than the pattern requires and some spare merino/silk yarn from my leaf lace socks, I settled down with a pattern chart . . . and fell at the first hurdle. ‘Cast on 3 provisional stitches’, read the instruction. Three what????? Thank goodness for the internet, I say (why have I never done provisional cast-ons before, it’s such a clever trick?). Anyway, I must admit I was truly surprised at how it all went: of course, there was a bit of unpicking here and there, but on the whole, I managed to follow the chart without any problems.  I only increased from 3 to 69 stitches which is a far cry from the 405 I will need in the real thing, but I worked far enough to start repeating blocks of pattern, making little mathematical jottings on an old envelope as I went.

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I think I might go for it. After all, I have plenty of time and it would be something so different. Now all I have to do is find the courage to order the rather beautiful, totally luxurious and astronomically expensive hand-dyed yarn I have fallen in love with. Well, it is a wedding after all!  Happy knitting! 🙂

 

Reasons to be cheerful

I’ve read a good deal about ‘runners’ high’ but I have to confess over the last couple of weeks or so I have been experiencing what I can only describe as ‘runners’ low.’ It’s a strange and horrid thing which is quite difficult to define but ever since running 16k (10 miles) in France, I seem to have lost all sense of rhythm, energy,  stamina, motivation and self-belief. Of course, I’m still training  – with just under five weeks to go, I have to – but I’m finding it incredibly difficult and I’m backsliding into my old ‘resistance’ ways. I’m not moaning: after all, I wanted a personal challenge and there’s a clue in the definition. If it were all plain sailing, there would be no challenge: I just have to find a way of overcoming it and getting back on a happier track. Roger often reminds me to lift my head and look up when running and it’s great advice; focusing on the beauty of the landscape and wonders of nature around me help me to forget I’m running at all. So, with that in mind, I decided that perhaps it was time to stand back, forget running for a while, and spend a little time reflecting on some of the things that have made me smile this week.

🙂 A wonderful abundance of vegetables from the garden. Wandering around with my trusty trug each day and gathering colourful and delicious ingredients for our meals never fails to please me. Even after all these years of growing veg, happy harvesting still thrills me no end!PICT0124.JPG

🙂 The start of peach season. What an amazing luxury to have such a glut of these gorgeous fruits. So beautiful, sweet and juicy, they are as good as a drink.

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🙂 Peaches are not the only fruit . . .

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🙂 A new roof (well, almost!). It’s the last week of building work: we are finally tarpless  rather than topless, and waterproof; suddenly, it’s all starting to look a bit smart.

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🙂 A riot of red in the garden.

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🙂 A parade of purple in the woodland.

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🙂 A little beauty softening the new fence we made earlier in the year . . . this is surely better than those rusty old bedsteads?

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🙂 Some quiet tea and crochet moments.

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🙂 A rather large escapee heading off across the lane (Guatemalan Blue banana squash)

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🙂 Noticing that one of our neighbours has an even worse squash situation than us!

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🙂 A new freezer. Mmm, this is a good one. We used our move here last year as an opportunity to downsize; in a few short years we had gone from being a family of five with several pets and livestock to only the two of us with  . . . well, just each other. One of the pieces of equipment we decided to leave behind was a large chest freezer which had done sterling service over the years; when we were both working full time, feeding three growing teenagers and running a little smallholding it was an essential piece of kit. In latter years, though, it had been half empty much of the time – inefficient, uneconomical and taking up too much space – so we put it on Freecycle and off it went in a jiffy to start a new life elsewhere. Since then we have been coping with a small three-drawer upright which is fine for basics but leaves no room for us to freeze anything from the garden, so this week we finally got round to investing in a new small chest freezer. Yay! It hasn’t taken me long to start filling it.  First to go in were bags and bags of peaches for jam (which we eat as marmalade), relish and generally fruity things. Next, the first row of borlotti beans which yes, we could dry, but freezing them is more useful (we don’t have to remember to do the whole soaking the night before thing).

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We have the best basil for years, so I’ve been picking, chopping and freezing it in ice cubes which will be perfect for tossing into sauces, soups and stews. This is such a great way of preserving soft summer herbs; coriander is another top candidate, although it carried on growing outside here all winter last year. Simply pick and wash the leaves, then chop finely and pack into ice cube trays – it’s amazing what a huge amount goes in when packed down. Top up with cold water and freeze. The cubes can then be turned out and kept in a labelled bag in the freezer until needed.

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How I love this squirrel behaviour . . . but the greatest joy is the fact that there is room once again for making ice cream. We very rarely eat desserts but there is something so good about homemade ice cream made from wholesome ingredients.  It’s a habit I started when we had an abundance of fresh free-range eggs from our own hens and although I know ingredients like yogurt make great healthy alternatives, I have to admit I just love a decadent creamy, custardy base to work with. It seemed to me that peach ice cream just had to be tried so here’s my recipe which – as always – comes with fairly vague quantities . . .

Peel and stone several ripe peaches and whizz the flesh into a puree. Take 4 yolks from the freshest eggs possible and mix to a paste with a tablespoon of cornflour and 2-3 tablespoons of caster sugar. (Two notes here. 1. I keep a kilner jar of sugar with a few vanilla pods in it specially for making ice cream – I just add a few extra vanilla seeds or extract if I want to make plain vanilla ice cream. 2. We don’t have a sweet tooth so other people might prefer to add more sugar.) In a pan, bring 250ml of milk to the boil and pour carefully onto the egg mixture, whisking thoroughly until blended. Return to the pan and heat very gently, stirring all the time, until the mixture thickens into a custard. The cornflour helps to stabilize the mixture so it won’t curdle, I promise! Remove from the heat, allow to cool (stir occasionally to stop a skin forming) then fold in 250ml double cream (as it comes or lightly whipped). This is my basic custard – great as hot custard, by the way –  which can be frozen plain like this as vanilla ice cream. Stir in as much peach puree as you want, depending on taste (and capacity, if you are using a machine – ours holds 800ml). Allow to cool, then churn in an ice cream machine or freeze in a container, breaking down the crystals several times during the freezing process. Like most homemade ice creams, it freezes pretty solid so needs to be removed from the freezer and allowed to soften a little before serving. Any remaining peach puree makes a good sauce for the ice cream and is also great with oats and yogurt for breakfast.  So simple, so delicious . . . and obviously, the peaches can be replaced with all sorts of other fruits depending what’s good and seasonal.

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🙂 Sam and Adrienne announcing their engagement. Ah, that’s the biggest smile of all. Congratulations, Monkeys! 🙂 🙂 🙂

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So back to the running and if I’m still struggling physically, then at least I’m feeling a bit more positive about things now. On reflection, I didn’t do too badly in July: I ran 119k (74 miles) in 14 runs, with an average run of 8.5 k (5.2 miles) and a total climb of 2440 metres (8005ft). I learned to cope with running on consecutive days. I ran my furthest ever distance and took part in my first Spanish race. I also – totally unbelievably and probably never to be repeated – ran all the way up Christa’s Hill. Now, I don’t look for any running rewards – just seeing the donations on my JustGiving page is enough, each new one makes me smile all day – but Roger had promised me a bottle of bubbly if I ever ran all the way up that hill, and although I’m having a ‘reduced wine’ month ahead of the race, I was happy to accept my prize graciously. I have so many wonderful things in my life to be grateful for, so many reasons to be cheerful . . . so let’s raise a glass. Here’s to the ups and downs of crazy personal challenges. To a new roof. To a lovely garden and great fresh food. To the simple joy of cooking. To the beauty of flowers. To Sam and Adrienne and a sparkly ring. To health and happiness. To life and love. Cheers, everyone! 🙂

My JustGiving page

 

 

No lettuce? No loss!

Oh, happy, happy days: look what is ripe and ready to eat! We have so many plans for these beauties this year which is good as there is going to be a mountain of them in the coming days.

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At the opposite end of the scale, we are almost out of lettuce in the garden: having had an ongoing glut since the end of April, we are down to the last couple.  I have tried to be very diligent where successional sowings are concerned but for some reason, the latest bunch of seedlings is not quite as enthusiastic to get going as earlier ones. Exactly the same thing happened last year and to be quite honest, I’m really not bothered because where salads are concerned there is life beyond leaves.

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The last ‘Red Rosie’ for a while.

One of the joys of this time of year is the sheer choice of ingredients from the garden to make delicious salads, and I particularly love to spend some time in the morning creating something tasty for lunch with whatever looks good and ready (so much more interesting than a cheese sandwich!). I am definitely not a cookery writer or photographer – there are many, many people out there who do both so brilliantly – but occasionally it’s nice to share ideas and the happiness that simple fresh food brings to our lives. It’s great fun to create dishes from complex recipes using a long list of ingredients and many cheffy processes but sometimes a little simplicity is all that is needed. Eating well and healthily doesn’t have to be difficult, expensive or time-consuming but should always be enjoyable; isn’t it, after all, one of life’s greatest pleasures? 🙂

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A plate of lunchtime salads – quick, colourful and tasty.

Roger has questioned the logic of planting six cucumber plants this year when four were too many last year (I suppose he has a point!) but I’m quite enjoying the little cuke fest we have going on here at the moment. I actually love picking a sun-warmed baby and munching it as a piece of fruit as I wander around the patch. If you peel and de-seed a larger cucumber you don’t have a lot left, so it’s easy to use up several at a time. Chop the remaining flesh, sit it in a sieve over a bowl sprinkled with salt to draw out excess moisture, then dress simply with olive oil, lemon juice, a sprinkle of fresh herbs (whatever takes your fancy) for the simplest, freshest, daintiest salad going.

With hotter weather on the horizon, I have also been experimenting with recipes for chilled cucumber soup. I am hopeless when it comes to carefully measured quantities as I tend to cook by eye, feel and taste: just throw it in until it seems right is my favourite approach. That said, I really don’t think you can go wrong with this kind of recipe. We have grown two varieties of cucumber this year – ‘Green Tasty Burpless’ and ‘Diva’ – so I opted for a mix here; I also used Welsh onions (grown easily from Sarah’s seed last year) which are a great perennial bunching variety, every bit as versatile and flavoursome as spring onions, and went for mint and dill as my fresh herb choices as both are currently thriving in the garden.

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I peeled and de-seeded the cukes (I found two and a half the right quantity for our blender) and chopped the onions, then whizzed both in the blender along with the herbs until smooth. I added three pots of Greek style yogurt (375g), a slosh of lemon juice, a good slug and then some of olive oil, and plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and whizzed the whole lot up again. Job done in under 10 minutes. My goodness, does this even count as cooking?  It went into the fridge overnight and made a fabulous lunch in the heat of the following day, topped off with a little diced cucumber, shredded mint and olive oil. Unbelievably delicious. Can’t wait to make some more!

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I also have gazpacho in my sights as soon as we have a glut of green peppers; after all, what could be easier than whizzing up a pile of fresh ingredients in a blender and calling it lunch?

We always keep a good choice of grains and pulses  – bulgar wheat, pearl barley, quinoa, lentils, brown rice and a variety of dried beans at the very least –  in the store cupboard and these make fantastic bases for salads when mixed with garden goodies. There are no rules here, it’s just a lot of fun making it up as we go along and adding raw or cooked veg as we like. It’s interesting to experiment with flavours, too: for example, homemade spice mixes add a completely different dimension to fresh garden herbs; sesame oil in place of olive oil changes things totally; garlic and chilli warm things up; nuts and seeds add crunch; citrus zests and juice bring zing. I love the sharpness of capers, the saltiness of olives, the sweetness of roasted red peppers, the tang of cheese slivers, the crunch of croutons . . . mmm, where to stop?

When the oven goes on for bread baking, we often throw in a tray of veg to roast specially for salads; when we barbecue (always over wood), it’s amazing how an extra pile of courgettes, peppers, aubergines, onions and tomatoes finds its way onto the grill. Eaten cold – nude or dressed, alone or combined – these salads are the food of kings.

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Cooked green and yellow beans, new potatoes and courgettes dressed in a harissa-based dressing: delicious hot or cold.

Roger doesn’t like beetroot very much (he remembers it being served as a hot vegetable with gravy for school dinners  so it’s hardly surprising he’s not a fan) but I love it and always grow a row to enjoy. It is such an easy and forgiving specimen in the garden, hugely nutritious and, in my humble opinion, better off kept well away from pickling vinegar. Young raw beets grated and simply dressed (I love orange zest, coriander, olive oil and walnuts) or  thinly sliced or shaved for something more sophisticated are superb; bigger ones wrapped in foil and roasted in the oven are softer and sweeter and keep in the fridge for days. Dress it with a swirl of yogurt to create a piece of pretty art work!

Speaking of yogurt, we love it as a lighter alternative to mayonnaise in coleslaw. Although this has a reputation as a winter salad, it’s a lovely one to enjoy in summer, too; after all, we have crisp summer cabbage, sweet carrots and flavoursome onions to hand, so why not?

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Green summer cabbage ‘Greyhound’ . . .

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. . . and red ‘Kalibos’: summer coleslaw in waiting.

In the same vein, a salad of new potatoes boiled with slices of lemon then cooled and dressed in olive oil, lemon zest, shallots, mint and parsley (a trick we learnt when living in Cyprus) makes a lighter, fresher alternative to the norm which is truly delightful. This is really saying something as I adore a classic mayo-heavy potato salad.

On the subject of lemons, they are one of my favourite foods and we are so lucky to have them in cheap abundance here. As well as chilled soups, I’m playing around with ideas for homemade drinks to enjoy in hotter weather and this week I’ve had a go at good old-fashioned lemon barley water. This is so easy to make it’s ridiculous, especially as I used the cup measuring jug that Roger’s Canadian family gave us many years ago which makes recipes very easy to remember. I simply put 3/4 cup (about 200g, I think) of pearl barley in a pan with 6 cups of cold water and the peel of 2 lemons, simmered for 30 minutes, strained and added the juice from both lemons to the liquid.

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As neither of us has a sweet tooth, I added the tiniest amount of caster sugar to literally just take the edge off: a bit of tasting and adjusting were needed at this point. I think a light floral honey would be a great alternative to sugar but the one we have here at the moment has a pronounced flavour which I didn’t think would be quite right. Once the sugar had dissolved, I cooled the barley water, bottled it then chilled overnight in the fridge. So refreshing! The real beauty of this recipe is that the leftover tender lemon-scented pearl barley, far from being waste, makes a perfect salad base as described earlier. Two birds with one stone . . . now that is my kind of cooking! 🙂

 

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