The last day of November: how on earth did that happen? I know we have been busy and spent ten days away but somewhere I seem to have lost a couple of weeks along the way. Time, then, for the quickest of updates on life in our little corner of Asturias before the year tips into its final month.
For much of November the weather has been warm, sunny and very dry; in fact, this time last week Roger was outside soaking up the sun in just his shorts. The last few days, however, have brought a distinct change as the wind has swung into the north and heralded the first frosts of the year and slightly whiter stuff on the peaks of the distant mountains. It fascinates me the way we can stand up here and watch the frost travel up the valley through the morning, before the sun melts it in moments. The good news is that with our new roof, chimney and stove we are as snug as extremely warm bugs in the house and a daily session with the chainsaw sees the log shed grow ever fuller – we’re getting through the huge pile of old roof timbers and there will be something quite satisfying about ‘recycling’ them into warmth.
With Sam and Adrienne flying in tomorrow for a few days here, Roger has been going flat out to get the stairs made. As carpentry is absolutely not his favourite thing and there was nothing I could do to help (except supply mugs of coffee and sympathy now and then), I have been spending my days outside. I’ve never been one for a big ‘autumn tidy’ for several reasons (I like to leave stems for wildlife shelter and a bit of structure over winter, apart from anything else) but a few areas of the veg patch have needed a bit of attention if they are to do the business again next year. After a couple of seasons of cultivation and feeding, the soil is wonderful – rich, deep and loamy and a joy to turn over. After much hard work, we had reached exactly the same stage in our last two gardens at which point we moved house and country (Roger points out we always do that when the log store is full, too) . . . it’s a lovely, reassuring feeling that this time will be different!
The soil lightly forked and raked, I planted a couple of long rows of early peas and broad beans for a spring harvest; these grew so well last year that it makes sense to grow a few more. I love this time of year when traditionally we look back over the year and decide what was successful, what not so good and make our plans for the new season. Florence fennel will definitely be on the list again, it is still flourishing and truly delicious in so many dishes; komatsuna, golden pak choi and spinach are providing a reliable crop of mixed greens – the secret here is to plant them very late (as in late October).
Something I have really struggled with this year is kale: last year, I couldn’t stop it growing, this year has been an uphill battle and one I truly thought I’d lost. I know that’s how gardening goes, it’s all part of the ‘fun’ but a bit disappointing if we are left without what is usually a pretty reliable vegetable. I love kale: it seems to ooze good health and nourishment in the darkest, meanest months and it’s such a versatile veg, too. We eat a lot of it braised in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but it’s great fried like crispy seaweed or shredded and stirred through a risotto or pasta dish, too. What I don’t understand is the trend of piling it into a posh blender with blueberries and pulverising it to a gelatinous pulp; call me a dinosaur, but I’d rather chew on my veg than drink them any day. Aaaaaanyway . . . this is how the sad story of our kale has gone. First sowing (in seed trays way back in the summer) – nothing germinated at all; second sowing (in seed trays, fresh compost, later in the summer) – only one variety germinated very sparsely, then most of the seedlings died. The valiant few then sat in their tray doing nothing for several weeks, despite much encouragement from the gardener; eventually (heading rapidly into autumn), said gardener became fed up at looking at the miserable little things and planted them (all six) in the ground; cue every bug and beastie from miles around deciding that tiny kale seedlings were their very, very favourite food and despite the gardener’s very best efforts (honestly, short of putting up a tent and sleeping with them, I couldn’t have done more to protect them), only three remained. Having reached the ‘Okay, I give up . . . we didn’t want kale anyway’ stage a couple of weeks ago, how very happy was I to find this on our return home last week . . .
. . . yay!!!! 🙂
Something we don’t have any problem growing here is leeks and once again we are luxuriating in a tremendous crop of monstrous beauties. They are a mix of ‘Musselburgh’ and ‘Blue Solaise’, both giving the other a good run for their money in the Best Leek in Patch award. Some are a spot of rust, others are a tad slimy on the outer leaves but overall they are fantastic and pretty much appearing daily on the menu. This little haul was heading for the soup pot . . .
Talking of soup, our other very favourite ingredient is squash – roasted in spices then combined with leeks, borlotti beans and chillies (both from the freezer) in a homemade stock, they produce a soup to die for and one that we are very happy to eat for lunch or dinner, especially with walnut bread and melting cheese. There is something so very satisfying about eating a meal almost completely made from homegrown ingredients. The squash enjoyed their few weeks of sunbathing on the horreo and emerged with wonderfully cured skins, so we have moved them inside now, tucked up on crumpled newspaper to keep them aired and hopefully prevent any rotting over winter. We decided the time had come to tackle one of the giant Guatemalan Blues to join the leeks in the soup mix and I can confidently report that it is a terrific variety with lovely firm, orange flesh and truly, truly tasty.
Keeping the squash company in the horreo is the first picking of kiwis – yes, it’s that time of year again already. Unbelievably, we seem to have an even bigger crop than last year and some of the fruits are huge. I’ve picked as many as I can reach, but most of them are high up on the pergola so I need to wait until Chief Carpenter can help as I’m not a fan of wobbling around on ladders. Still, I’ve made a good start with nearly 200 picked – just several hundreds more to go!
At the end of the squash sunbathing balcony is an area where we put walnuts to dry after harvesting and then overwinter; it’s a bit of a wriggle getting to them, but the system works perfectly. Shimmying up there this week, I was, however, reminded of just how big a project we have taken on here and how much we still have to do. There should be an unfettered view up the meadow to the woods where the chestnut leaves are a blaze of gold against dark, glossy holly and silvery-blue eucalyptus but instead there is this . . .
When we were told by the previous owner that it was to stop birds from stealing nuts, my imagination went into overdrive wondering what on earth could be such a threat. A squadron of vegetarian griffon vultures swooping down like something from The Dam Busters? Giant killer ostriches with a nut fetish (and very lost, obviously)? Or maybe wild boar with strap-on wings doing a Daedalus and Icarus number? Roger has started to remove the layer upon layer of welding mesh, chicken wire and plastic netting but it is a painstaking job given how everything is twisted together with miles and miles of rusty barbed wire; the irony is that the area is now completely open to avian terrorist attack at one end and the only thing helping themselves to the nuts is . . . us.
Good nuts they are, too, and we use them often in the kitchen (in fact, Roger is sprinkling some over the top of a pear streusel cake as I speak). I have put them in our mincemeat this week and they are also playing a starring role in the granola I’ve made for the weekend – I love having visitors, it’s a great excuse for cooking.
Now for the final piece of news and I think this ta -dah! moment requires an imaginary drumroll because . . .wait for it, folks . . . yes, we have STAIRS! Hurrah for the cake-baking carpenter! I know they aren’t exactly finished yet as in there are no spindles or handrails and they need painting (as does the stairwell) but now we no longer have to climb up and down a ladder and for the very first time we can have visitors to stay without us having to camp out on the kitchen floor. Oh, happy, happy days!
Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to make a batch of mince pies in order to celebrate. 🙂