Tough lilies — A lesson in survival

Last year while exploring an abandoned quarry, I came upon two clumps of what I took to be some kind of lily near a mound of dumped construction debris. (It is illegal to dump such material except for in the designated area, but people do it anyway. Shame on them.) The plants looked moribund, but I thought I might just manage to rescue them, as the leaves were still showing a bit of green. The clumps were rather heavy, so we only took one home. What with one thing and another, and with so many other plants that needed immediate attention, the clump did not get planted into the ground. I´d left it sitting near an olive, waiting its turn till I got around to it. Every so often I would give it some water, but not in a regular fashion.

Imagine my surprise when I saw what looked like a flower stalk just a week or so ago. And as the days went by, more and more stalks came springing up. What joy to behold these marvelous white blooms now gracing this former bedraggled clump. I thought they might be Pancratium lilies, but these look like something else entirely. I suspect they are a species of Crinum, perhaps a hybrid. If anyone can identify them, I´d really appreciate it.

Crinum lilies?.JPG

Well, seeing how lovely these lilies turned out to be, my cupidity was aroused, and so we went to see if the other clump was still there. And it was. While nosing around, I found yet another clump abandoned under the shade of a pine. While cleaning up the bigger clump, removing the dried up leaves, I spied a flower stalk two days ago. I hadn´t expected it to flower so soon. I thought it might need a year to settle down, at the very least. This morning, like a miracle, the whole clump seems to have woken up and decided to strut its stuff. Overnight, flower stalks have erupted all over. And this is a plant that has only received whatever rain has graced it over the winter. It has been baking under the sun as well. This is most definitely one tough plant!

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Strewn on the ground are the dried leaves that I´d cleared from the clump. The pot was only for transporting it from where we´d found it. It had been abandoned just on its own roots. Two flower stalks are peeking out.

The one that has been more sheltered from the sun is showing just one flower stalk. Its leaves are also not as robust. Perhaps it needed to be out braving the sun and being blessed by the rain.

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This morning both clumps were planted into the ground and watered. We shall see how well they take to a little bit of pampering.

Sowing with the moon

There are gardeners who faithfully sow according to the phases of the moon, firm in their belief that the tug of the moon’s gravity influences germination time. I have in the past tried to time my sowing of flower seeds as the moon heads towards fullness, but I have not kept a record of how much faster germination happened. This year however, I’ve actually noted when I sowed seeds and when they eventually germinated. The earliest to germinate was a green vegetable: mizuna (Brassica rapa var. Nipponica), also known as Japanese turnip greens (and sometimes as mustard greens). Sown on the 1st of July, they germinated on the 3rd, a mere 48 hours from sowing. I was truly amazed.

Mizuna early germination_6441

I was concerned that the higher temperatures at the end of June would deter germination. Another concern was the onset of summer heat for the next month — according to a local gardener, mid-July to mid-August is the period of greatest heat. I’d been away during what would have been the best time to sow seeds for summer crops, but now that I’ve sown the seeds, it would be interesting to see how they fare at the height of summer. Today the mizuna look like this, with their first true leaves — the serrated ones — up. I shall have to thin these out soon.

Mizuna first true leaves

The optimum soil temperature that triggers cabbage (and its relatives, such as mizuna) seeds to germinate at 99% certainty is 77ºF or 26ºC (from germination tables posted by Tom Clothier. On average at this temperature, cabbage seeds should germinate in 5 days. So, my result compares favourably. Could this be attributed to the power of the moon? Hmmm… I honestly don’t know, and I would need another sowing (if not more) of the same seeds when the moon is on the wane for comparison.

The runner beans, sown on the same day as the mizuna, took 5 days to germinate, and leaves opened out on the 6th day. Cucumber – a local variety with a pale green skin and a similar shape to snake gourd — took 3 days to germinate. This is the same number of days posted by Tom Clothier at 86ºF (30ºC), though I doubt it refers to the same variety of cucumber.

Tarragon and Thai basil germinated in 4 days, and the dill and salad burnet likewise. This herb gardening site  gives 10 – 14 days as standard for tarragon seed to germinate (no soil temperature given on this site; for basil, 5 – 10 days. If using a special propagation medium (and I did not), basil could germinate in 2 – 3 days, and tarragon in a week.

Okra germinated in 5 days for me, and the germination time given for it by the SF Gate (no soil temperature given) is within a week, so it has germinated well within the normal time expected.

I also sowed some flower seeds: cosmos sprouted in 4 days; and sunflowers in 5 days.

Whether the moon’s phase had an accelerating effect or not, the rapid germination of these seeds – some of which are quite old and have been in storage for the past 3 years – is nothing short of astounding. The air temperature at sowing time has been between 21ºC (69.8ºF) and 27ºC (80º F) during the day, and dipped by 3 – 5ºC during the night.

I’m too much of a skeptic to garden entirely by the moon, though it remains to be seen whether the seeds I sow from now on, i.e., during the moon’s waning or dark phase, will germinate as rapidly as those sown before.

For those who are curious about gardening by the moon: this site recommends planting annual flowers and vegetables that bear crops above ground during the moon’s waxing phase: that is, from the day of the new moon to the day of the full moon. Flowering bulbs, biennial and perennial flowers, and vegetables that bear crops below ground are best planted during the waning phase: from the day after the full moon to the day before the new moon.

A German gardening magazine, Mein Schöner Garten, and its sister publication, Mein Schönes Land, use a more detailed moon calendar published by the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland. This society also advocates Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic method of gardening. The society’s Mondkalendar (moon calendar) even goes into specific hours, not just days, for garden care of flowers, leaves, fruits, and roots. It also recommends when to trim hedges or to do weeding, so that the subsequent growth is slower or weaker, thus lightening these garden chores.

I leave you with the moon over our hamlet, the day before it was full.

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Walking in the midst of olives and almonds

It’s been over two months since my last post. Now back from Bonn and loads of physiotherapy, I am elated to be able to walk long distances again. My favourite walks at any time of year in our hamlet are those taken deep within the surrounding olive groves and almond orchards. It is now the beginning of summer, and the grasses and wildflowers that had been blooming since late winter and spring beneath the trees are now waist-high. Soon they will be mown down, not only to remove competition for water, but also more importantly to deter grass fires. There are enough remaining blooms though in the almond groves, mostly dainty pink thistles and yellow cat’s ears, plus here and there a rare bell flower (a campanula perhaps), in amongst the sere grass seedheads, giving a somewhat pointillistic effect.Olive grove grasses wild flora _6246.jpg

A blue bell flower.

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Between six and seven in the evening, the sun is still high. There is still a good hour, and perhaps more, till the sun sets, and for a brief respite from the heat, we duck under the long-spreading branches of olives, and enjoy the lemon-tinted light under the leaves.

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Further along our walk, in the low late afternoon light, olive trees’ leaf tips are burnished silver.

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Just as we head back home, I notice a solitary conifer, its leaves a rusty red. I hope it’s not due to some disease.

 

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Cherry blossom viewing in Spain

Te traeré de las montañas flores alegres, copihues,
avellanas oscuras, y cestas silvestres de besos.
Quiero hacer contigo
lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos.

I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
I want to do with you
what spring does with the cherry trees.

– Pablo Neruda

Not far from Villalonga, just a few kilometers up and over the ridge overlooking the magnificent semi-circular mountain range that is aptly called the Cirque de la Safor, is the Vall de Gallinera. ‘Vall’ is pronounced ‘Vai’, and I just realized recently that I had been mispronouncing it lo these many months. 😉  The Vall de Gallinera, partly in Valencia and partly in Alicante, is famous for its luscious dark-red sweet cherries that ripen in May. And right about now is when the cherry trees are in bloom. Although the online news mentioned that the best time for cherry blossom viewing is the end of March, spring this year has come rather early, and even the cherry tree in our garden is beginning to bloom. As we are a few hundred meters higher than the Vall de Gallinera, perhaps, just perhaps, I thought the cherry blossoms might be at their peak. If the online news pages turn out to be right, we can always go again, having seen for ourselves at which stage of bloom the trees are in.

And so off we went last Sunday. And what a splendid show of cherries in bloom [els cerrers en flor (Valenciano), los cerezos en flor (Castellano)] awaited us, from Benisilli through to Alpatro and beyond. So, best to go now if you wish to see this spectacle at its peak. The blossoms last about fifteen days, depending on the weather and temperature, naturally. Some orchards even had their trees starting to leaf out. I’m so glad we did get to do hanami (blossom viewing). And, unlike Japan, there were no tourist buses or parties of slightly tipsy revellers picnicking under the trees. No traffic, no crowds. Just us and the dogs. A few cars passed us by, but none stopped to take in the spectacular blossoms and admire them. I have to admit I rather prefer it this way. And, unlike the purely ornamental Japanese cherry blossom, there will be gorgeous fruit to look forward to in a couple of months’ time.

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Asparagus in Japan’s Snow Country

Asparagus is not the first vegetable that comes to mind when people think of Japan. Yet whenever I see or eat asparagus, I cannot help but think of that year that I lived on a surfeit – and oh, such a surfeit it was – of fresh asparagus. And it was all thanks to Okuyama-san.

Okuyama-san had an asparagus patch of his own, in a field just on the outskirts of town. Every morning and late afternoon, just before and after work at his printing shop, he trudged there with old Pochi (then barely able to see, his eyes clouded with cataracts). Of all the plants he grew there — a medley of stalwarts like giant radish (daikon) and Chinese cabbage (hakusai) and chrysanthemums — his favourite, and obviously his pride and joy too, was the asparagus. And he lavished it with attention and generous feeding with well-composted leaf mould and compost all mounded up into a soft and fluffy brown futon. And the asparagus in turn repaid his solicitous care with the fattest and most succulent spears.

The year we lived there he was gifted with another patch nearby – a larger one – that had belonged to the old woman whose field abutted his. She could no longer give it the attention it needed, she’d said, and so passed it on to him where she knew it would be in the best of hands. And with so much to spare, Okuyama-san had a bundle for me every few days, enclosed in a large leaf of giant fuki to keep them moist, left at my doorstep to greet me first thing in the morning.

When we had a group of science fiction translator friends come to stay with us one weekend in spring, a feast of Okuyama-san’s asparagus awaited them. Aspara tempura nante, shinjirarenai! (‘Asparagus tempura! Unbelievable!’) was their delighted response. There was so much asparagus, I’d made some into salad as well, with a dressing of miso (made by our neighbours across the road), walnuts, and mirin – from a local recipe (kurumi miso-ae) shared by another neighbour.

With the next batch that I hope to glean from my wild asparagus patch, I know exactly what I’m going to make with them. And if I find some sake (I may need to go to Valencia for this), it will be a fitting meal with which to remember Okuyama-san and our days in Yuzawa, Akita — in the heart of Japan’s snow country —  by.

As I write this, fog has come in from the sea and completely covered the mountain ahead, which was, just minutes ago, nice and clear.

I leave you with a photo of lovely wild orchids growing in a nearby olive grove. March came in like a lamb, behaved like a lion some days ago, and although it’s not roaring at the moment, it’s still far from its mild manner at the start. I’m not complaining — the plants that I’ve sown need the additional coolth to mature. Happy spring everyone!

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Foraged lunch

While walking around the back garden looking for spring wildflower surprises at midday, I spied several spindly stalks swaying in the light breeze. As I got closer, they turned out to be wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius; in Valenciano, esparreguera)! It took me back to the late 70s, to the first book that inspired me into foraging and gathering and eating wild foods – Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Well, the beauty of it is that there was no need to stalk these at all. They were just there underneath the pines, the ground having been cleared of the thicket of viciously spined smilax vines that had made that side of the garden a forbidding jungle about a year ago when we moved in. (Though ruthlessly slashed a month back to clear the ground, the reddish new smilax shoots are beginning to push through. Known here as zarzaparilla, they are apparently edible. Hmm… do I dare try them as well? We shall see.)

I was enthralled, walking from clump to clump of waving asparagus, breaking off only the tender top tips, and in no time at all I had a good handful. Just the ticket for lunch – freshly picked wild asparagus! They were brilliant with pasta and some home-made pesto (also from ‘foraged’ basil – actually plants that were past their prime in a nursery that had closed down last autumn) made with artisanal green olive oil from Catalonia. A generous amount of chopped garlic was stirred in at the last minute. And to my surprise, the asparagus tasted much sweeter than store-bought ones. Bliss! Casa Wild asparagus pasta_5605

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Early spring risers

With the weather warming up, early morning walks around the garden are rewarded by the sight of the earliest of flowers – wild and cultivated.

The earliest to awake from its winter sleep is shrubby germander or Teucrium fruticans. I love its silvery leaves and its blue-mauve flowers. We planted several bushes in the autumn, and they have survived the worst that winter threw at them – over 100 kph chill winds, torrential rain, snow, and hail.

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Out of the corner of my eye I caught a dark speck of blue in the back garden, and it turned out to be the first grape hyacinth or Muscari. This tiny flower, the whole of it no bigger than my thumb nail, is endemic to this part of Valencia.

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Here is one still in bud.

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Another miniature flower is this adorable unknown wild resident.

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Yet another unidentified mini bouquet.

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And yet another. These flowers are really tiny.

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And although most of the garden is still asleep and the height of spring bloom is still a few weeks away, nevertheless there is much to admire in the colour of awakening leaves. Fresh leaves nudged into growth with the gradually warming sun are showing signs of recovery from having been battered by hail. Here are fuzzy lavender leaves also recovering from being mauled by scaffolding and falling rubble while the veranda was under construction.

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Creeping rosemary suffered a similar fate to the lavender, having been side by side on the herb bed. Here it is on the way to full recovery.

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Here are spikey thistles with their amazing structure.

 

This normally bluish-green succulent was unused to being buried under snow and hail. Flushed red from the warming antioxidants it summoned to protect it from the cold, it is still pockmarked from hail, but looks like it will recover. There seems to be a new shoot growing on the right.

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That’s the first of the early risers in my garden. More to come soon!

Spring song

 

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

— Song of Solomon 2:11-12, King James Version

The flowers in Solomon’s song most likely refer to almond, as they are the earliest trees to blossom in the region of the Mediterranean. And when the almond blossom is out, you know that spring is just around the corner. There may still be the occasional days of chilling winds and even a hail storm, as we had unexpectedly for the third time this year a few days ago, or, like last year, snow at the very end of February. But these unseasonal phenomena are rather like winter’s half-hearted attempts to claw itself back in. But even it too is aware that it’s time to move on, and let spring have centre stage and reap its fair share of glory.

And after such an unprecedented winter, according to locals unused to extended weeks of rain and hail and thunderstorms and snow, this year’s spring blossoming is truly glorious. All along the lowland roads leading to the coast, and scattered hither and yon amongst the dark green of orange orchards and the silver grey of olive groves, beam gigantic bouquets of white and pale pink and brilliant pink. So cheering!

Up here in the mountains, spring blossom is always delayed by a couple of weeks at least. This year it’s obviously been a colder winter than last. I took this photo on the road descending to the Vall de Gallinera on the 4th of February last year.

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On the 5th of February this year, on the very same spot, this was the state of bloom.

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But just a few meters below, in a more sheltered spot, was this marvellous sight.

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The backdrop of this gloriously blooming almond — the Vall de Gallinera — is stunning.

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What other unmistakable signs of imminent spring have there been? I’ve been hearing the enchanting song of the Mediterranean golden oriole off and on over the past week. I haven’t got a photo as it’s extremely elusive. We were fortunate enough last year to catch a brief glimpse of it perched on one of the pines.

Other birds I’ve never seen in the garden before have been flying in in small flocks. They shelter in the belt of tall pines at the back of the garden and swoop down several times a day to peck intently at the grass and pebble path. For what? Surely not seeds — too early. Perhaps larvae of grass mites? (That would be a great help indeed. I’ve momentarily forgotten that with the hot weather come insects of all kinds — mites and mosquitoes, as well as the dreaded mosca negra.)

These could be passerine birds, here for a brief stopover to fatten up, before flying further northwards. One flock look remarkably like sparrows — same size, but with rust-coloured chests and greyish brown caps. Another flock has red-barred cheeks with bright yellow streaks leading to their tails. Beautiful! Those stayed only for a couple of days. The sparrow-like flock seems to love it here, especially since M has set up a feeder for them with mixed bird seed.

The seed mix was supplied by our favourite provisions shop in Gandia — a rarity nowadays. It looks like a grain- and spice merchant’s shop from previous centuries, with open sacks of beans and maize and all manner of nuts and grains in a high-ceilinged locale just off the Mercat del Prado. They had some prepared mixes for parrots and canaries, but when we said we were feeding wild birds,  the proprietor took a scoopful of lentils, another of hulled cereal, and another of cracked assorted grains, and mixed them all up. Perfect.

I haven’t seen nor heard a turtle dove yet — the ‘turtle’ in Solomon’s song. The only doves around are white ones kept by our nearest neighbour. And as for the rain being over and gone, the weather forecast for the weekend is rain; for which I and my garden are glad. I hope the rain won’t be over and gone yet for another month or so more.

Blat picat – a Villalonga specialty

Recently I came across a list of culinary specialities of Villalonga town, and I wondered how and when and, more importantly, where among the eating places in town one could sample them. On that list was Blat Picat. Serendipitously, that was precisely what was on offer for lunch at La Llacuna’s Hotel Bonestar the other day. What exactly is Blat Picat?

Blat Picat is literally ‘pounded wheat’ (pounded = Valenciano picat, Castellano picado; wheat = Valenciano blat, Castellano trigo). Rather unusual for Spain, this dish from the La Safor region of Valencia and northern Alicante features cracked wheat instead of rice. Blat Picat is a hearty stew cooked long and slowly over very low heat, and as with all stews, the longer it cooks, the better it gets. As with all traditional country dishes that for centuries have sustained poor, hard-working folk, preparing it is rather laborious. Whole wheat grains with their hulls intact are soaked overnight to hydrate, then pounded in a mortar the following day to be dehulled, leaving just the cracked wheat berries. (How curious — to call wheat grain a berry.) The grains then undergo long, slow cooking until they are soft, about 2 hours.

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Blat Picat, Northern Alicante style. Photo: azafrandehebra.blogspot.com.es

What else goes into Blat Picat? The version served at Hotel Bonestar (in La Llacuna, near Villalonga) is one that has been made in the proprietress’s family over generations. It is a simple and unsophisticated dish, she explained, but it needs cooking over several days. Other people add all sorts of fancy elaborations, she continued, waving a hand to denote neighbouring Alicante. But the authentic original dish, as cooked in my family, she said, was of the humblest, simplest ingredients. Whatever one had on hand or stored from the home garden’s harvest went into it. Of course besides the wheat grains, in go an onion, a handful or two of chickpeas, a cardoon or two, carrots, a tomato, a pig’s trotter or tail, saffron, salt, and olive oil. Her preference when cooking traditional dishes is to remain faithful to the way her mother and grandmother prepared them.  Hotel Bonestar’s Blat Picat is a very thick  stew — as thick as porridge — and the grains have the satisfying texture and flavour of pearl barley. It is very much a dish that a grandmother would have prepared — hearty, nourishing, wholesome. Just the ticket for a cold day.

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Blat Picat, Villalonga style

Blat Picat is rarely to be found in the well-known coastal cities, such as Denia or Benidorm, Gandia or Oliva. Nothing in it comes from the sea, besides salt. Blat Picat hails from the mountains of the interior, where winters are harsh and often snowy, a fact which comes as a surprise to many. This winter has seen weeks of torrential rain and freezing winds, hailstorms, thunderstorms, and more than 10 centimeters of snow in the mountains. But all these are considered blessings after several continuous years of drought in the La Safor region.

In northern Alicante, just a few meters beyond the mountain range that divides it from the La Safor region of Valencia province, the essential elements of Blat Picat are (besides cracked wheat) — chickpeas, white (navy) beans, cardoon stalks, carrots, turnips, tomatoes, blanquet (clove- and fennel-flavoured sausage or white bottifarra), and saffron. With its diverse charcuterie, Alicante-style Blat Picat is decidedly upscale, a far cry from the plebeian version I sampled. And rather than being simply called Blat Picat, it is referred to as Olleta de Blat Picat (‘Little Pot of Pounded Wheat’).

It is not inconceivable that Blat Picat is a throwback to a dish made centuries ago by moriscos or marranos (Moorish or Jewish converts to Christianity) dish. As Claudia Roden mentions in her book, The Food of Spain, many dishes regarded as traditionally Spanish are in fact Jewish or Moorish in origin. The small amount of pork added to a dish is a telling factor. To allay suspicious neighbours, marranos and moriscos would often serve their food with a small but visible amount of pork, later to be retrieved untouched. By 1609 however, most moriscos, as had the marranos before them in 1492, had been expelled (according to the official historical record, that is. But could there have been a possibility of not a few who had evaded expulsion?).

Blat picat is remarkably similar to contemporary slow- and lovingly cooked stews made elsewhere based on local grains and legumes, such as hamin or adafina for Sephardic Jews, prepared on the day prior to the Sabbath, and Moroccan hergma (chickpeas with lamb or calf or goat trotters), or even French cassoulet and Portuguese/Brazilian feijoada. When I mentioned to Hotel Bonestar’s proprietress that there seemed to be an influence of morisco cuisine in the cumin used to flavour Blat Picat, she agreed most readily. (Historically, Villalonga was a morisco village, as are neighbouring villages whose names begin with the syllables ‘al’ or ‘ben’.)

If you’d like to taste Blat Picat and other Villalonga specialty dishes such as Arros al Forn (Baked Rice) and Coques Escaldades (literally ‘scalded cakes’, but more like griddle-made flat breads), come to the 9th annual Villalonga Blat Picat Gastronomic Festival (Fira Gastronomica) on 4 – 5 March. The official opening is at 11 am on Saturday the 4th, with lunch from 1 pm  (purchase tickets beforehand). Lots of related events are on throughout Saturday and Sunday: a competition for the best Blat Picat; local foodstuffs on sale; games and activities for children; displays of local crafts, and live music. Check out the schedule (in Valenciano) of what’s on here. The Gastronomic Festival closes on Sunday evening. Below is a recipe for Blat Picat.

Blat Picat

Like all humble dishes, Blat Picat develops its full flavour not through costly ingredients but with the expenditure of time  — lots of it — and effort. It needs to be prepared at the very least 24 hours before serving. The principal cast, as it were, of grains, chickpeas, and meat can be made way in advance, frozen, and thawed when needed. The supporting cast of vegetables can then be added an hour or so before serving. Ingredients marked ‘optional’ are those found in Alicante recipes. The dish I ate at Hotel Bonestar did not include these. There is really no hard and fast rule as to what goes into a Blat Picat. Each cook makes do with what is in the pantry or home garden, or follows what his or her family has always done. As long as the base of cracked wheat and chickpeas are present, you may add whatever winter vegetable is in season.

Ingredients (To serve 4)

250 grams unhulled wheat grains (alternatively  wheatberries or cracked wheat), soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed.

150 grams dried chickpeas (garbanzos), soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed (alternatively 150 grams of prepared bottled, canned, or frozen chickpeas)

100 grams white (navy) beans, soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed (optional). (Alternatively 100 grams prepared bottled or canned white beans.)

4 (or more) tablespoons virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

250 grams pig’s trotter, tail, or ribs

150 grams white sausage (blanquet, a clove-flavoured sausage; or onion-flavoured white bottifarra, sliced (optional); or 5  cloves (optional)

4 rashers smoked country bacon (pancetta), diced (optional)

2 dried sweet peppers (ñoras, stems and seeds removed), sautéed in oil and pureed, or 1 teaspoon unsmoked paprika

200 grams winter squash, cubed (optional)

2 carrots, peeled and cubed

1 large tomato, diced

1 cardoon stalk, rubbed with lemon juice and salt, washed, and sliced into bite-size lengths

2 small white radishes or turnips, peeled and cubed

12 strands saffron, soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water (or white wine, if preferred)

1 – 2 tablespoons (or to taste) ground cumin

1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)

salt to taste

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

¼ head small cabbage or 6 chard leaves, sliced in bite-sized pieces (optional)

Procedure

Pound the wheat grains in a mortar to separate the hulls, rinse, and put in a heavy-bottomed pot with enough water to cover the grains. (Wheatberries and cracked wheat are ready to as is, simply rinse.)

Bring the grains to a boil then lower the heat to simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours, or until the grains are tender. Set aside, reserving the cooking liquid.

In a separate pot, put chickpeas with enough water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender. Drain but reserve the cooking liquid, let cool, then remove the seed coatings. Set aside. Do the same with the white beans, if using.

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil and sweat the onions until softened.

Add the pork, preserved meats if using, and the pureed ñora peppers or paprika, and the rest of the vegetables (except for the potatoes and cabbage or chard), the saffron with its soaking water (or wine), and spices.

Add the grains and chickpeas, stirring gently with a wooden spoon to prevent mashing the ingredients.

Add just enough of the cooking liquid from the wheat to come approximately two-thirds up the ingredients. (The consistency of this dish, in the style of Villalonga, is more like a porridge. It should not be soupy. You can adjust the consistency later by adding some of the cooking liquid from the grains or chickpeas, or water, if you find that it is too thick. You can always add more liquid, but it will be difficult to make it thicker without resorting to using additional ingredients.)

Bring all to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, until the vegetables are tender.

Taste, then add more salt or spices if needed. The preserved meats (if used) may be sufficiently salty.

Half an hour before serving, add the potatoes and cook until tender.

Add the cabbage or chard, if using, and cook for 10 – 15 minutes or until tender.

Serve piping hot in a large bowl, making sure that the meat and vegetables are distributed evenly among the servings.

Another way of serving this is puchero-style: that is, the grains and chickpeas as a first course, followed by the meat and vegetables as the main course.

As it is rather heavy, no accompanying side dish is served with Blat Picat.

The first botanical garden in La Safor

Last Saturday, we made a long-anticipated visit to the first ever botanical garden established in the comarca (region) of La Safor. An initiative of the municipality of La Font d’En Carros together with the Valencia provincial government’s tourism agency, it was inaugurated in mid-January. It was opened this past weekend as part of a guided walk through the town to celebrate the feast day of Saint Anthony. The garden, planted to diverse species of herbs and other native shrubs and trees, is set within the ancient walls of Barrio Rafalí (Muralla de Rafalí).

It took some time to find the garden. I had assumed there would be signs directing attention to this brand-new garden. There was no address given in the two announcements that I’d read. Two local residents we asked had no idea there was even such a place. “You mean the botanical garden in Valencia, don’t you?” A woman about my age replied. “A botanical garden here? Never heard of it!” Luckily, friend T spotted a friend who knew where it was.

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It is wonderful to have this new botanical garden close by. The garden is stocked with aromatic, culinary, and therapeutic herbs, numbering 54 species native to this region. They include, among others, herbs such as rosemary, lavender, sage, rue, santolina, several varieties of thyme and mint, as well as flowering shrubs such as geranium, Viburnum tinus, and Gaura lindheimeri. The herbs have been planted in generous groups along winding paved paths.

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This lovely garden is still in its infancy, but nevertheless, one can already imagine how much lovelier it will be once the new plants get going. The backbone of garden — and what give it something of the air of having been a lost, secret garden now found and restored — are several centenarian olives with picturesque gnarled trunks as well as an ancient fig. These venerable trees have been given rejuvenative pruning. At the lower level of the garden, reached through wide steps with safety rails over boulders, is a grove of old pines that provide cool shade.

The botanic garden is set high above the town, enclosed within ancient stone walls. From here, there are views of the belfry of the Parish Church of Saint Antonin the Martyr and parts of the town below. The stone ramparts (Muralla de Rafalí ) that enclose the garden have been declared of cultural interest (‘bien de interes cultural’) — they date from the 14th century and mark part of the fort that protected the first settlement in La Font.

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The garden was created by the La Font d’En Carros municipality with several aims — to restore and preserve the historic ramparts, parts of which have already deteriorated; to conserve and promote appreciation of local flora; and to provide an attractive site for visitors which will link up to another local attraction, the Castle of La Rebollet, just over a kilometer away. The garden will only be open occasionally, which is a pity — as the La Font municipality’s website notes, this is to prevent vandalism. Opening times can be confirmed with the municipality’s website or telephone  96 283 30 00.

How to get there: From the La Font Oil service station on the CV-638, it is less than 10 minutes’ walk across the roundabout, through Carrer Industria, right on Carrer Rebollet, and left on Carrer Calvari. Entrance to the garden is on Carrer Calvari (see map below). Best to find parking nearby, as the steep streets leading up to the garden are extremely narrow.

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