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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Time for marmalade

It’s that time of year when oranges and lemons and other citrus fruits are in season — so plentiful and at their best, that it is inevitable that my thoughts should turn to marmalade. I adore the flavour of marmalade — that combination of tartness and sweetness with a sharp undertone of bitterness. And as well, for its perfume and colour that evoke a brilliant summer’s day. It’s stormy and foggy outside with intermittent claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, and the hail that fell thickly this morning still blankets the garden. But with a couple of spoonfuls of my freshly made marmalade over good brown bread, well-buttered, to snack on while I think and write, I have my own little corner of summer in midwinter.

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This is actually the first time I’m making orange marmalade. It is interesting that this is regarded as the most quintessentially English of conserves, despite the fact that oranges are not native to England. Curiously, in contemporary English, the word ‘marmalade’ refers exclusively to conserves made with citrus fruits. All other fruits preserved with sugar (or other sweetener) and intended for spreading on bread are referred to as jam (those which contain fruit solids) or jelly (those which only contain the juice). The Spanish language does not make the same distinction: jam and marmalade are both referred to as mermelada (melmelada in Catalan/Valenciano); jalea is jelly.

The word ‘marmalade’ has its origin in ancient Greece, but it did not then refer to citrus preserves, but rather to quinces boiled in honey (melimēlon, ‘honey fruit’). The word made its way to Portugal (carried by the Romans), where the quince is called marmelo, and its preserve, marmelada. (Btw, the quince was brought to Japan in the 17th century by Portuguese Catholic priests, and thus in Japanese, marumero マルメロ refers to quinces.) Initially the word ‘marmalade’ (marmaladoo/marmalado) in 16th century England referred to a solid quince preserve, akin in consistency to the Spanish membrillo or French cotignac. By the 17th century however the word was used in a recipe for a preserve made with oranges (‘marmelet’ of oranges). By adding more liquid, the Scots created a spreadable preserve, thus popularizing it, and by the 1800s orange marmalade had become a fixture of the English breakfast table. Nowadays while orange marmalade is what we first think of when we hear the word ‘marmalade,’ other citrus fruits such as lemon, grapefruit, tangerine, ortanique, clementine, mandarin, and even yuzu, can certainly be made into marmalade.

To make my own marmalade, I consulted a number of recipes. The first is Roy Andries de Groot’s in his book, Feasts for All Seasons. It was while perusing the book (a faithful companion from my university days) recently that the idea came to me to embark on marmalade making. Particularly apropos as I’m in just the perfect place here in Valencia to have access to reasonably priced or, better yet, free (that is, scrumped or given by friends) citrus fruits.

I also looked in Mary Slater’s Cooking the Caribbean Way, and a compilation of British country recipes in Farmhouse Fare. Of course I could not ignore Delia Smith’s marmalade. I remember watching her preparation of fool-proof marmalade on television when I still lived in England. And finally there’s Felicity Cloake’s quest to find the perfect marmalade .

What additionally prompted my marmalade experiment were several oranges that M had scrumped from an abandoned grove. To his dismay, the oranges turned out to be exceedingly bitter. Actually the preferred ingredient for English marmalade is bitter Seville oranges for their higher pectin content. And so, I set to, fusing Andries de Groot’s, Delia Smith’s, and Mary Slater’s recipes. I had a little over a kilo of fruit — consisting of bitter oranges, one sweet orange, and one large lemon.

Day 1. The fruits were washed, any discolorations removed, sliced into quarters, and pips set aside. The quarters were then sliced crosswise (I found this was easier to manage than lengthwise), some quite thinly, others a little thicker as I wanted a varied texture. The pips were wrapped in a piece of muslin and tied with string into a bag, and together with the slices, left for 24 hours in a ceramic bowl with water to cover.

Day 2. Fruit and soaking water were transferred to a stainless steel pan (aluminium or bare metal react badly with citrus, causing discoloration) to simmer, the muslin bag with pips tied securely to the pan handle, and 500 grams of sugar added. Once the sugar had dissolved, I raised the temperature to let the mixture come to a rolling boil. I turned the heat off at once, and let the mixture rest for 24 hours.

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Day 3. I tasted the mixture for sweetness. At half the weight of fruit (500 grams sugar to 1 kilo of fruit) it was just right for me. Other recipes recommend an equal weight of sugar to that of the peel and pulp, and this is the time to add more sugar. This greater amount of sugar will preserve the marmalade longer. With the lower sugar content of my preserves, I usually keep them refrigerated, or else top them up with any alcohol I have on hand (vodka, brandy).

I removed the muslin bag with the pips, then simmered the mixture until it reached gelling stage. It took just over an hour. By this time too, the pieces of peel were just the perfect consistency for me. The thin ones were meltingly tender and the thicker ones were tender but still chewy.

There are two ways to know when gel point is reached. One is by dropping a teaspoonful of the marmalade mixture onto a chilled saucer (place saucer in the freezer for 10 minutes). If the mixture wrinkles when a finger is drawn on its surface, it is done. The other is by taking a spoonful of the mixture and letting it fall back into the pan. If the mixture falls into a sheet, that is, if two or three drops coalesce into one as they fall, then it is done. I tried both, just to be on the safe side.

While waiting for the mixture to reach gelling stage, I prepared the jars — washed them in hot, soapy water, put the jars and lids to simmer in water to cover for over 20 minutes. I kept them immersed in the hot, simmering water until I was ready to fill them.

Using tongs, I then took the hot jars and as a further sterilizer swooshed two tablespoons of vodka in them with the lids on. (I returned the vodka atop the hot marmalade.) The jars were filled, sealed, and then upended to cool.

My verdict? As a first attempt, I give my homemade marmalade 8 points out of 10 for its varied consistency and just right tart-sweet-bitter flavour. Next time however my aim is to get a jewel-like transparency. If you have any tips for achieving a transparent finish, I’d love to hear from you.

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Our hamlet is white

Yesterday’s grey skies and rain gave way to snow that sprinkled the northern flanks of the mountains framing our hamlet on three sides. I’d thought that if the low temperatures held overnight, the garden would perhaps get a sprinkling of snow. Well… it wasn’t just a sprinkling but 5 centimeters of snow had fallen and was still falling when I got up this morning. We had breakfast in the veranda looking out over our Mediterranean garden transformed into a polar landscape. The sun is still trying to make up its mind whether to come out.

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There is something rather incongruous about a palm tree’s fronds weighed down with snow. There is something incongruous, to me anyhow, about a palm tree among olives and pines, to begin with. Though there is an endemic palm quite common here — Chamaerops humilis — of which there are three long established in the garden and many more growing wild outside. Because it is winter-hardy, it is often used in English gardens to lend an exotic touch. It has fruits which turn dark red when ripe, and one of the workmen told me that as a child he and his friends used to snack on them on mountain hikes. There wasn’t much to taste of it: it was rather astringent with very little sweetness or any flesh at all. “No hay mucho carne,” he said, but he obviously enjoyed this nostalgic taste of childhood and went on to eat a few more. But I digress as usual.

Lady Brown and Hunter refuse to go out on their own. I wonder what they make of all this cold white stuff. Apparently it’s been years since they’ve had snow here, though it must’ve been a frequent occurrence in times long past, regular enough for people to establish a nevera — an underground storage chamber for packed snow to serve as ice over the summer months. No one relies on this nowadays of course with modern refrigeration. Hunter definitely and Lady B most likely has not experienced snow at all. M had to walk with them out to the back garden so they could do their business. Only Hunter was brave enough to come with me later to walk around the garden. He’s still feeling a little tender, since his snip yesterday. We’re hoping that this will deter his frequent escapades whenever there’s a female in heat in the neighbourhood. It remains to be seen whether this will calm his hyperactivity as well. Lady B was extremely upset when M and Hunter set off to the vet’s early yesterday morning, leaving her behind with me. She refused to look at her breakfast bowl, and did not touch her food at all, even when Hunter and M had come back. All day long she kept giving me sad, baleful looks.

One of our garden’s resident red squirrels came down from his perch up in the pines, going down gingerly along the trunk trying to avoid the patches of snow on it. He was obviously not pleased and he scolded the largest patch, shaking his tail at it furiously. But of course despite the scolding it refused to budge, so he was forced to circle around the trunk to find drier, warmer footing. Once down, he started merrily skipping along his usual path along the stone terraces but turned directly back after the first shockingly cold steps and ran up into the nearest snowless surface — one of the spiny yuccas. Ouch! From there he bounded off onto the tops of the reed fence. Poor Paleface. He’s got a white patch that runs from his head down to his belly, hence his name. I don’t know whether he made it to his usual breakfast nook somewhere in the pine forest behind the house, as I had to put another log on the fire.

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I give thanks again for the veranda, glassed in just in time. In it, with the fire blazing, we feel as if we are outside yet warm and protected from chill winds. Lady B spends most of her days here as well, lying in the sun on her favourite sofa. The sun appears in fits and starts as I write, still not quite sure this is a day for it to be out.  For me it’s a day for staying in and writing while looking out onto the snowy landscape, enjoying views of red-breasted robins and the occasional female blackbird foraging on snowless ground. And to think just a few days ago, we enjoyed daytime temperatures of 20ºC and took the dogs to the lovely Sant Antoni beach in Cullera, a short drive away. What a contrast, eh? Keep warm, my friends.

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