Giving thanks — a novice farmer’s harvest

Having been away in Germany during April and May, it was only in July that I was able to sow vegetables and herbs. Rather late, I know, but none the less, over the summer, we enjoyed Asian vegetables, such as mizuna and pak choi (bok choy), as well as purple-podded beans and purple kohlrabi. (I was aiming for a jewel-coloured veggie bed.) I also grew dill, salad burnet, Thai royal basil, and an unusual pale green, fuzzy-skinned cucumber, known as Armenian cucumber. I also planted three Pink Fir potatoes bought in a supermarket for Christmas that had been left in the fridge. (Professionals advise to use only seed potatoes, but being new to potato-growing, I thought why not take a risk.) It was my first time to plant these. And, moreover, in a Mediterranean climate (plant hardiness zone 10, with winter minimum temperatures ranging from -1 to 4ºC). For the second time I raised local tomatoes and Bishop’s mitre peppers from seedlings bought from Viveros Agave, the nearest plant nursery. I was warned by our gardener that watering tomato plants before they´ve set fruit will lead to splitting, and indeed some did. They were still edible though. Valuable lesson learned. I also discovered that the Bishop´s mitre peppers, which I´d assumed were fiery hot, turned out to be sweet, with a complex fruity taste, with only the occasional one possessing a bite, and a mild one at that.

The mizuna greens made a nice last-minute addition to stir-fries and soups, and we ate the purple kohlrabi raw in salads. It’s a pity to have had to peel the kohlrabi’s brilliant skins. The purple-podded beans turned green once cooked, though their taste was outstandingly sweet. The runner beans did not take kindly to summer heat. Their orange flowers were decorative, and the occasional bean, like the purple-podded beans, was intensely sweet. The flavour of vegetables cooked just minutes from being harvested is truly incomparable, and the depth and range of flavour can tempt an omnivore to turn vegetarian. Now that it’s cooler though, the runner beans have set more pods. My gardening book (attuned to the English climate) says bean vines should be dug in at the end of summer, but they seem to be just getting into their stride.

Miraculously, a crop of daikon (Japanese giant radish), appeared, though I don’t recall having sowed any. Their origin remains an unsolved mystery. I’m leaving most of them in the ground over winter, as their flavour apparently improves with the cold. I might try making daikon kimchee (Korean hot peppery pickles), from a recipe by Holly in Beyond Kimchee.

The Turkish rocket that I´d grown last year on one of the raised beds seeded itself on the ground below. Since we have two dogs who are rather diligent in marking their territory, we haven’t harvested any. Luckily, the ants have been busily moving seeds about, and rocket plants appeared near the Thai basil on a nearby raised bed. Their leaves have lent a peppery note to several salads. Another crop, the Peruvian fruit physalis, has also appeared elsewhere in the garden, doubtless disseminated by the ants as well.

Last year’s crop of Italian kale (Nero di Toscana) continued to grow throughout winter, spring, and summer. I harvested all the leaves recently, but there are new shoots sprouting from the stalks. I shall wait to see what happens to these. I am learning that some vegetables regarded as annuals in a temperate climate, such as the Bishop’s mitre pepper for example, can overwinter here successfully. I’ve also read that Thai royal basil is a perennial in subtropical conditions — it remains to be seen how it fares with our winter cold. Perhaps the Italian kale will get more leaves….

One of my interests is neglected and under-utilized indigenous food crops, and this year I grew Amaranthus cruentus (variety ‘Velvet Curtains’), as much for its stunning colour contribution to the vegetable and ornamental garden, as to find out what this traditional cereal grain from Mexico tastes like. The tender leaves can be cooked like spinach but I have not tried this. I’ve now harvested the seed heads, leaving some on the plants for the birds to discover and tide them over winter. (The bird feeder with peanuts that we set up last year hasn’t been patronized at all. Perhaps because hunting is rife in our area, the birds are extremely wary.) Amaranth seeds have a nutty taste and were once used in Aztec rituals. The drawback is that they are tiny, and separating them from the chaff seems a formidable task. It is no wonder then that these and similar indigenous small-seeded and highly nutritious crops such as Ethiopian teff (Eragrostis teff) are being supplanted by larger-grained maize and easier-to-process wheat. Such a pity and what a loss of biological and nutritional diversity and culinary history. (That said, amaranth grains, as well as teff, are available in certain health food shops.)

Amaranth harvested in basket fab

Amaranthus cruentus ‘Velvet Curtains’

Not least of this year’s bounty are the olives. The olive tree is alternate bearing, which means it bears plentifully only every other year. Next year we expect very little or no fruit at all. We are elated to be able to taste our own extra-virgin olive oil — 13 precious litres of yellow-green gold — and to have been able to watch the process of its extraction. In months to come we look forward to gradually sampling our home-made preserves of green and black olives.

For the bounty from this year’s experiments in veggie growing and the lessons learned thereby, I am deeply grateful. It has been amazing to discover and appreciate how truly and astonishingly full of flavour organic, homegrown, and just-harvested vegetables are. Bought vegetables, even organically grown ones, simply cannot compete with fare directly from the plant and straight into the pot.

The origin of Thanksgiving is to give thanks for the harvest, and in times past in temperate climates, the harvest referred to wheat and other grains which matured in autumn. The word ‘harvest,’ I was surprised to recently discover, comes from Old English hærfest, meaning ‘autumn.’ A close relative is the German word for autumn, Herbst. What splendid and magnanimous timing indeed is harvest in autumn, enabling the laying of food stores, for humans and wild life alike, for the wintry months ahead.

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Our own olive oil, finally

When well-laid plans go awry, often Providence steps in with an unplanned proxy, way better than any we could have thought up ourselves. And that is precisely what happened with our first venture into pressing our own olives into oil.

Our oil on plate w olives zaatar

For breakfast this morning: our own extra virgin olive oil, cold extracted, with last year’s pickled olives, za’atar, and sourdough rye bread.

When my gardener went ahead to have his olives pressed three days earlier than we had agreed upon, I thought I had no other option for our olives but to pickle them, as our meager harvest would most likely not meet the minimum required by a press. It would probably require buying more pickling jars, unless I could convince friends to come and get some off our hands.

So what could be more miraculous and providential than my friend Roselie phoning me that she’d just found an almázara (olive press) near her farm? M and I at once set about feverishly harvesting for a day and a half. We left the ones unreachable even with a ladder for the birds, and some fully ripe black ones for later salt pickling. Our harvest came to 2 large crates and a quarter of a large trug. We estimated about 40 – 50 kilos.

Shortly after noon on Friday the 10th, we drove to the 2-hectare farm of Roselie and her husband Lambert. Their lovely house at the end of a stonewall-lined lane peeped through a diversity of fruit trees — olives, persimmons, quinces, and citrus — backlit into shimmering gold by the autumn sun. It was their neighbour who had told them about the almázara run by a cousin. Our group then headed for the village of Benicolet, driving through orchards scented by ripening persimmons, oranges, grapefruits, and olives. There, near a grove of baby olive trees on one side and a citrus orchard on the other, stood the press.

Benicolet Almazara L'or del Xiu

The Benicolet olive press. The man facing the camera is Victor Climent.

View from Benicolet Almazara fab

View from the olive press towards Montixelvo.

The guy in charge of the press, a tall young man, greeted us, and introduced himself as Noé. I had telephoned for an appointment for 1 pm the day before, and he apologised that we would have to wait, as there was still a batch going through. I said we were perfectly content to observe the process while waiting. Noé and his assistant Javi (Javier) were relaxed and pleasant as they showed us around the machinery, explaining the process at the same time that we took photos. Roselie and Lambert then left. They would be bringing in their olives at a later date.

While we waited for our turn, Noé pressed cold beer cans into our hands, and there was no way we could refuse, as we’d already refused once before. They also offered us tiny cups of a herbal liqueur, scented with anise and other sweet-smelling herbs. I was glad to see the previous batch finished before we got totally inebriated. The machinery was cleaned of debris and spent paste (pomace), ready for our turn.

Noé and Javi helped us carry the olives from the car. The olives were weighed, still in the crates and trug, and they came to 51 kilos. ‘Limpia!’ Noé was happy at the state of our fruit. The previous batch had been chockfull of twigs and leaves. ‘We picked by hand,’ I said. There are short harvesting rakes which we could have used, but only learned about later, being absolutely clueless about olive harvesting. In any case, olives meant for the table are best harvested by hand. Those for oil are usually stripped with narrow-tined plastic rakes.

Our olives were then poured into the input chute for sorting and washing.

Our olives into input chute2 fab

Our olives into input chute copy

The leaves and the fruit stems are separated, leaving the fruits to drop into a swirling cold water bath. They then proceed to be crushed into a paste, pulp and seeds together, with steel blades. (The traditional cold press method involved grinding in a stone mill with the ground paste wrapped in layers in straw or jute to be pressed.) The olive paste moves to a large horizontal tank to be mixed gently at 27°C (this is the maximum allowable temperature under cold extraction). This low temperature allows the oil content in the paste to be easily separated from the water content. It is not hot enough to affect the quality and taste of the resulting oil, and the process still qualifies as cold extraction. The term ‘cold pressing’ is now reserved for the traditional stone mill method. The crushed paste is mixed slowly, to allow enough time for all the oil to accumulate while the water drains off to pipes that lead outside.

Olives in macerator stirrer

Ground-up olive paste; the greener the olives, the paler the paste.

Mixing tank olives

From the mixing tank at top right above, the oil then slowly trickles through — a stream of molten gold. ‘Bueno,’ Noé and Javi both comment on our oil as it flows. We are quite chuffed. I am tempted to taste it, but restrain myself.

Our own oil at last fab.jpg

The first trickle of cold-extracted oil

Meanwhile the temperature in the mixing tank drops gradually — to 26, then 25 until it is at 23°C when the last drops of oil trickle through to a sieve and on to a stainless steel collector.

The oil proceeds to a large stainless steel tank for mixing, and is then bottled into appropriate sized jugs. Our oil went into 3 jugs, each containing 5 liters. The last one only came to 2/3 of the jug. The total for our first olive oil came to 13 precious liters. And the oil content? At 28%, Noé and Javi reckoned it excellent.

Javi filling jugs

Javi bottling oil from the previous batch (13% oil content).

 

Finca Oropendola olive oil copy.jpg

Our oil at 28% oil content

The standard oil content for the variety of our olives — Villalonga Manzanilla (distinct from the Sevilla Manzanilla) — is between 22 – 25%; 28% is brilliant and totally unexpected. The price of extraction is 18 cents for each kilo of input fruit, and 55 cents for each 5-liter jug. In all our 13 liters of extra virgin olive oil cost us 10 Euros to process. (Prices vary from almázara to almázara. Some charge as low as 14 cents per kilo, others as high as 80 cents. Other mills also expect a portion of the extracted oil in addition to, or instead of payment.)

The high oil rating is, I assume, thanks to the generous organic amendments of stable and chicken manure over the past year, and timely drip irrigation at three critical periods: flowering, fruit set, and seed maturation. The yield of 13 liters of oil from 46.5 net weight of fruit is quite good too. Normally it takes about 6 kilos of fruit to produce 1 liter of oil. Ours came to 3.6 kilos of fruit to 1 liter. For us novice organic olive farmers, this is an encouraging beginning. And we’ve still got a good 20 – 30 kilos of fruit in various stages of being debittered for pickling. Not all our 33 trees have borne fruit this year, as they’d been neglected for years, and only received water and good nutrition since we came.

I cannot end without mentioning another incredible bit of our olive oil adventure. Because it was the team’s time for lunch (between 2 and 3 pm), we were invited to share the partridge puchero slowly cooked into deliciousness over 9 hours by Noé. The partridges were courtesy of Javier’s father who had hunted them in the surrounding mountains. As evidence, Noé warned us to beware of any remaining shot, showing us one that turned up in his serving.

What joy and undiluted pleasure it was to partake of a meal so generously and freely shared by people who an hour before had not known us at all. We sat outside at a table in front of the press in the gentle afternoon sun, drinking red wine, soaking crusty fresh bread in the savoury broth flavoured with parsley and lemon quarters. The mixed olive pickles were from Olives Sanjuan, Javi´s family firm. Across from our dining table were oranges and grapefruits ripening on their trees in the nearby orchard. Could life get any better? This is precisely the kind of experience we had wished to come across while living in Spain.

While we waited for the cold extraction to come to an end, Noé’s father, Victor Climent, was graciousness itself as he recounted the history of the olive press, designed by his eldest daughter, an architect. I note, from the framed certificates on one wall of the press, that both of Noé’s older sisters had undertaken training related to extra virgin olive oil accreditation. It is only the second year that the press has been in operation, and the very first year that it is open to the general public.

The almázara, I gather, was established as a joint venture by the Sanjuan and Climent families in 2015. The Sanjuan family specializes in preserved olives and other pickles, and has branched out into ecological olive oil production under the label L’Or del Xiu. The word ‘Xiu’ comes from the former Moorish stronghold, Castell del Xiu (Xiu Castle), which was captured by Christian forces under King James (Jaume) I of Aragon in 1244. The ruins of the castle are a tourist feature of Llutxent, a town not far from Benicolet. Both Llutxent and Benicolet belong to the comarca (administrative region) known as Vall d’Albaida.

So what is our oil like? First of all, its colour immediately after extraction was a cloudy olive green. It has now settled into a brighter yellowish green, though still fairly cloudy. In time we are assured the particulates will settle and the oil will be less opaque. When poured onto a white plate, it is a distinct yellow. Its scent is intensely fruity, like that of freshly sliced green apples. This scent is characteristic of the Villalonga type of olive. Other scents associated with the Villalonga variety are freshly mown grass and almonds, but these I did not detect. There is also a strong scent of raw olives — after all, extra virgin olive oil is none other than pure olive juice. And what about the flavour? It is, like its scent, intense, mildly bitter, and peppery, and the taste lingers long in the mouth after swallowing. We love it! Not only because it is our very own, but it is just the kind of olive oil that we like, and what we had, rather unknowingly, hoped for. We aim to harvest a little earlier next time. Perhaps even two or more weeks earlier. The Villalonga variety ripens earlier than most other varieties, and ideally for the very best oil flavour, it should be harvested at the point when some fruits are already taking on a purple blush, even when most are still green. There is a trade-off between quantity and quality. The riper the olive, the greater the quantity of oil, but we would rather have less, and enjoy the best tasting oil we can produce.

A resounding thank you to our angels, Roselie and Lambert, for introducing and guiding us to an amazing almázara! And of course to Noé Climent Bosca and Javier Sanjuan Pascual for being so nice and hospitable. We shall certainly be back with our next harvest. Thanks also to Miichan and Satchan, our cats, who helped with the harvesting.

Benicolet Almazara Noe Javi.jpg

Noé Climent Bosca, on the left, and Javier (Javi) Sanjuan Pascual.

Contact details: Noé Climent Bosca, Almázara L’Or del Xiu, Benicolet, Valencia. Tel. 655 523 567. Call ahead to book. I understand pressing is only till the end of the November.

 

 

 

Time to plant bulbs

It´s a lovely cool day today at 21ºC. Everyday now I´ve been expecting rain, as it is usually grey and cloudy first thing in the morning. And so I´ve been holding off watering the garden. But so far, no rain. Which is fine, as I can continue to garden without getting wet.

These are what met my eyes this morning as I sipped my coffee and began to write.

Morning light on olive cosmos lavenders fab

Morning light on lavenders with blue-grey Russian sage, yellow euryops, pink cosmos, blue salvias (to the extreme right in front of the boulders), and in front, creeping verbenas.

Morning light on lemon verbena herb bed lavender fab

Flowering lemon verbena surrounded by various herbs — thyme, santolina, sage, creeping rosemary, and lavenders.

Ten am view from veranda

The mountain beyond is often wreathed in fog and mist, but not this morning. It is lovely at all times.

Since we got back from our holiday, I´ve been busy planting bulbs that will bloom sometime in February or March. Cyclamen — one of my favourites — have been nestled among the boulders in front and the back. The fuzzy photos are from the bulb packages.

Cyclamen from packet.png

I hope to outwit the squirrels and hedgehogs, and possibly mice, who are partial to cyclamen bulbs, whose common (and rather ungainly) name is sowbread, as it was once used to fatten up pigs.

Cyclamen bulbs for planting

Cyclamen bulbs — plant with the bowl facing up and smooth side down. The leftmost bulb was an indeterminate shape, and I am hoping the leaves and roots will find their own way.

Rocks under pine for cyclamen planting

I hope that the cyclamen will spread under the shelter of this pine and among the boulders.

Under the large cherry tree have gone muscari bulbs, and I envision their blue spikes up at the same time as the pale pink of the cherry´s blossoms. Some more muscari are going under the young cherry tree, a housewarming present from my friend T, who lives just over the mountain from me. I´m recreating a similar planting from the Bonn Botanical Garden, only there it was a flowering cherry, not a fruiting one like here.

Muscari from seed packet

Muscari

You can see where I´ve parked the wheelbarrow with my soil improvers — vermicompost (humus de lombriz; lombriz are earthworms, in the white sack) and organic humus (enmienda humica organica, in the blue sack), ready to scatter around the bulbs. These are to be found at the agricultural coop shop in Villalonga. Both are rich, black, and sweet-smelling, and I mix the two together with a bit of grit (limestone chips) from the gravel path and my poor garden soil to ensure good drainage so that the bulbs don´t rot when the rains flood my garden´s sticky clay soil. When I read ´poor garden soil´ in gardening books, my unimproved garden soil does not even qualify, and I always mix compost or humus to my impoverished soil.

Wheelbarrow wild olive ready for planting bulbs

Muscari waiting to be planted under the spreading boughs of a wild olive and young cherry tree. My wheelbarrow with humus sacks marks the spot and reminds me to get cracking, instead of writing.

Incidentally, when it rains for a few days, the gravel path spawns gelatious green-black blobs that look rather like the fungi called cloud ears, often used in Chinese cuisine. I think (but have yet to confirm) that these are nitrogen-fixing single-celled photosynthesizing bacteria called nostoc. And by incorporating these gravel chips (and the invisible dried nostoc) into the soil when planting, I hope to boost the chances of survival and longevity of my new introductions to the garden.

Casa Nostoc Sep2017.JPG

Deciding just where to plant these bulbs, which are naturally of Mediterranean origin (Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Greece, Turkey, etc.) is a bit tricky. To naturalize them, it is best to plant them 3 to 4 times deeper than is recommended on the packet to prevent them getting dry in our hot Mediterranean summers. For more temperate and wetter climates, planting them at 3 times their height is, conversely, to prevent them getting soggy and, subsequently, rotting. And, moreover, I want to make sure there are no endemic orchids that will be displaced. I shall be planting the rest of the bulbs in the next few days — Scilla hyacinthoides, Scilla peruviana, and scented tazetta narcissus.

Scilla hyacinthoides from seed packet

Scilla hyacinthoides

Scilla peruviana from packet

Scilla peruviana (misnamed as it is not from Peru)

Narcissus tazetta seed packet img

Tazetta narcissus

I missed out on the flowering of the autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis, although I call them pink orchids) while we were away, but their developing seeds are also worth a look.

Seedheads of autumn squill pink orchid fab.JPG

I came across Umberto Eco´s heartening and inspiring words on gardening this morning.

To rebuild a little chunk of the flowering earth: This should be every gardener’s goal. You must begin with a light heart and open eyes — as one does when entering a forest — while keeping in mind, at the same time, how tortuous and tiring is the path that lies before you. To become a gardener means to try, to fail, to stubbornly plug away at something, to endure serious disappointments and small triumphs that encourage you to try and fail again. But it means, above all, perking up your ears, sniffing, identifying the rhythm and the secret voice of a place, so that you may abandon yourself to and indulge it. To make a garden is to surrender so completely that you forget yourself. It is to obey.

I believe that a person cannot plant and remain bereft of hope. Putting a seed or bulb or plantlet into the soil is to see in the mind´s eye its eventual flowering and fruiting. And it doesn´t matter if it doesn´t turn out as expected. The very act of preparing the soil, enriching it with nature´s own and not with chemicals, and laying the seeds or bulbs or seedlings to rest into that thoughtfully made bed, is more than enough to keep dark clouds at bay.

 

 

 

Purple in the vegetable garden

Color is something I’d never considered as a criterion for choosing which vegetables to grow… that is, until this year. It’s not that I hadn’t appreciated the lovely blue-green of cabbage leaves before. Or the equally gorgeous silvery grey and majestic structure of artichoke leaves. But this year I decided to go with purple. In particular, purple kohlrabi. I confess I’ve never eaten much kohlrabi before, neither green nor purple. But the photo on the seed packet was so irresistible, I just caved in.

As a plant, purple kohlrabi, did not disappoint. It started out with purple stems, and its leaves are veined with the same exquisite colour. Even if it bore no fruit, it is such a beautiful plant, it made me so happy just to be able to grow it.

 

Casa color in the veg gdn kohlrabi seedling zoom g.JPG

And of course when the ‘fruit’ started to swell up just above the roots, it was almost unbelievable!!! I harvested it at the size of a plum, but I couldn’t stop gazing at it. It was so stunning in all its parts — its stems, its leaves with their purple veins. How could I cut into such beauty, or even contemplate eating it? Just cutting off the leaves pained me. I reluctantly peeled off its lovely purple coat to put it in a  salad. It was sweet and extremely crisp. I shall definitely be planting more.

Casa Kohlrabi 1.JPG

 

 

The other contributor of purple to the vegetable garden are purple-podded beans. I’m growing them for the first time as well. The stems, similar to the purple kohlrabi, also start out purple. And the flowers are divine.

Color in veg gdn prpl podded pea flwr vine gYou can see the bean developing below.

Color in the veg gdn fab 3 stages of pea fab.JPG I love the way the purple-podded bean tendril and new leaves go well with the kohlrabi leaf with its light purple veins.

Casa color in the veg gdn kohlrabi lf pea leaf fab.JPGIn the same veg bed is Amaranth ‘Velvet Curtains’. The amaranth’s seeds are edible, as are the young leaves, though I have yet to try them.

 

Amaranth seedlings2Given lots of water, they grow very fast and quite tall.

Casa amaranthus stems zoom vg

 

 

The amaranth looks great behind the purple-podded bean. On the left is a bean leaf, which has purplish tones as well. The frilly leaf in the middle is kale.

Color in veg gdn prpl pea brassica amaranth1.JPG

 

Casa color in the veg gdn amaranth curly kale g.JPGI’ve sown orange Tagetes all around the perimeter, not only for the colour contrast, but as well to deter nematodes A bit brassy, but quite cheering.

Color in the veg gdn cosmos w brassica leaf g.JPG

 

Casa color in the veg gdn purple pod pea & tagetes.JPG

It’s great to see what works and doesn’t work in terms of color and texture. I’m not too sure brassy Tagetes is in the right place, but as long as it deters nematodes, it can stay right where it is.

 

 

 

 

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!

Pink white orchids olive grove fab_5639.JPG

 

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

Casa wild aspara from garden_5603.JPG

Casa wild aspara soaking blue bowl_5604

 

 

 

 

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.

Marmalade on bread cropt1.jpg

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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Kaiseki a la Valenciana, Part 2

Someone, I forget who, once said that cuisine is a way of eating the environment. Our meal at Ricard Camarena’s Restaurant certainly brought to our table the seas, mountains, and surrounding fields. Combining the best products of the seas and the mountains (mar y muntanya) is not only a Valencian/Catalan gastronomic ideal, but also a Japanese one — umi no sachi, yama no sachi (the joys of the sea, the joys of the mountain). Needless to say these are all at their best in season. The Japanese term ‘shun’ (season) takes the concept further, because in kaiseki, it is usually the earliest products of the season that make their appearance.  Often, just when summer is at an end, autumn is foreshadowed by the earliest of chestnuts for a late August kaiseki.

What are the gastronomic delights of a Valencian autumnal feast? From the seas — the sweetest mantis shrimp, octopus, squid, oysters; from the mountains — aromatic fresh truffles and wild mushrooms, freshly gathered almonds and walnuts; from the fields — the tiniest, tenderest of artichokes, just ripened olives, root vegetables and Brassicas (cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) gathering sweetness with the cooler temperatures; and fruits that straddle summer and autumn such as avocado, mango, lemon. Included as well were exotic elements from afar: from Morocco, fiery harissa (chilli-lemon condiment); from Southeast Asia, galangal (a ginger relative); and from Japan, shichimi tougarashi (7-spice chilli blend).

Here are a few from our twelve preludio (appetizers) — every single one a gem.

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Roast cauliflower with black olive-harissa topping; radish, beet with mantis shrimp and dill topping

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A closer view of the beet, radish, and mantis shrimp appetizer.

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Courgettes with steak tartare filling; turnip with salmon caviar

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New potato with roast chicken and almond filling; roast Brussels sprouts with sheep’s cheese and onion; onion with anchovy and black garlic.

Today marks the 300th post in my grace journal. It was supposed to rain today — a blessing for this region that has suffered from drought for several years — but instead we got very dense fog. So dense that outside the house, all was white. Still, it is something to be grateful for, as leaves can absorb this form of precipitation. Tomorrow rain is predicted at 100% probability. Fingers crossed. What else to be thankful for? Lady Brown and Hunter are now accustomed to sleeping in their beds in the sitting room — just in time, too. It was getting too cold for them to sleep out in the open veranda. As always, it is Hunter, who was so wary of us in the beginning, who braved entering the house, with Lady B taking a good two days to be persuaded. We’ve been slowly introducing both to the idea of riding in the car. And again Hunter took to it after being rewarded with tasty treats. Lady Brown still isn’t convinced. She entered once, two days ago, but today she wouldn’t. We’re hoping she’ll get used to the idea soon.

Kaiseki a la Valenciana

What if you were to take the Japanese concept of kaiseki — that is, the full panoply of its gustatory and aesthetic sensibilities –- and transplant it to Valencia, Spain? I don’t mean simply taking Valencian ingredients and using them to produce derivatives of sushi and sashimi that have become globally representative of Japanese cuisine. That would not be too difficult to achieve, because Spain’s eastern coast is blessed with such a wealth of fish and other seafood with which to create these. In fact, the Balfego Group based in Ametlla de Mar in Catalonia, just a few hours north of Valencia, exports its offshore-raised tuna to Japan. What I mean is devoting the same meticulous attention to the minutest detail that is the hallmark of that epicurean Japanese dining tradition known as kaiseki (懐石、also 会席).

And that is precisely what our exquisite meal the other day at the Michelin-starred Ricard Camarena Restaurant in Valencia city called to mind. Although not exactly a Japanese meal, it embodied the very spirit of kaiseki. We chose the 7-course (for M) and 5-course (for me) tasting menu that came with an array of diverse appetizers (Preludio). Every single dish was a gem — melding colour, flavour, texture, and adornment with a surprise twist in the subtle use of a spice or herb that normally would not be associated with such a dish. And what’s more, they were prepared from local ingredients in season. Befitting frames for such jewels were diverse hand-made vessels by a Valencian female ceramicist, Mónica of Per Amor a L’Art. I wanted to find out more about her work, but her website is still under construction.

The interior of the restaurant itself was true to the Japanese aesthetic of shibui — simple, serene, unostentatiously elegant. The kitchen was open, and there was none of the noisy flurry of hectic activity usually associated with restaurant kitchens. It was surprisingly quiet, the staff conversing in low, modulated tones. It was almost like the calm performance of tea masters at a tea cerony. It helped that we were the first guests and had the place to ourselves for a good while.

But over and beyond these, what marked this as a truly satisfying experience was the kind and solicitous attention of the staff — from immediately taking charge, as soon as we entered, of M’s heavy backpack (we’d been stocking up on Japanese food items in Valencia’s Chinatown) and my scarf, to producing a stool expressly for my handbag. The demeanour and behaviour of the staff are elements I always make a note of wherever in the world Japanese restaurants have been established by non-Japanese. The restaurants can, to a certain degree, approximate the taste and look of iconic Japanese dishes such as tempura and sushi and sashimi. But what they cannot quite so readily pull off is that uniquely Japanese way of warm welcome and devoted attention called motenashi, all accomplished without any hint of condescension or effusiveness throughout a meal.  Although Ricard Camarena’s Restaurant is not a Japanese restaurant, what was astounding was the way the staff achieved a similar manner of welcome — motenashi Valencian style.

I shall highlight just a few outstanding aspects of that repast, and cover others in a later post, beginning contrary-wise, with the sweet offerings. The shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice chilli powder) sprinkled on fresh mango slices in the dessert surprised me. I had erroneously detected galangal, and asked the waiter (whose name I later learned was Carlos), who then put me right. I’ve had chilli with mangoes before: in Chiapas, Mexico, ground dried chillies and salt are sprinkled over ripe fresh fruits, including mangoes. So why did I taste galangal? Could this have something to do with terpenes from the mango?

Looking up mango terpenes, I came across an interesting bit of trivia. Apparently eating a mango beforehand heightens a cannabis high (read more here). How? Because both contain high levels of a specific terpene called myrcene. Incidentally myrcene is also found in lemon grass (and basil, ylang ylang, and hops among others; see the list here). That would somehow explain the galangal, whose flavour is not too far removed from that of lemon grass.

Mango with sweet curry sauce, shichimi togarashi, and herbs

Another eye-opener was rosemary pollen, which I’d never known of nor read of being used for flavouring. Rosemary leaves yes, but pollen? Or perhaps they were actually seeds? A brief online search didn’t uncover any reference to the pollen’s or the seed’s culinary use. A sprinkling of the brown granules topped the fine-as-snow lemon crumble dessert. Their faint hint of rosemary complemented the lemon and honey very well.

Iced lemon crumble with honey and rosemary pollen

Iced lemon crumble with honey and rosemary pollen

With my coffee came a selection of petits fours all whimsically fashioned from seasonal fruits and nuts — figs, melon, peach, pistachio. I was glad there were no baked pastries among them. Not that I have any objection to pastries, but they would have been too rich and somehow out of keeping with the preceding dishes that focused on freshly prepared ingredients. Notwithstanding the number of dishes we’d enjoyed, we came away feeling not at all over satiated, perhaps because the majority were based on local vegetables and seafood — only two on beef and wild duck.

Petit fours of pistachio, melon, fig, and peach

Petits fours of pistachio, melon, fig, and peach

This first experience of dining at Camarena’s restaurant was aesthetically satisfying on a number of levels. As someone who adores hand-thrown pottery, I was impressed with the table ware. I especially found it pleasing that, as in the Japanese way of dining, there is not just one uniform set of dinnerware employed, but a diverse array of receptacles of various shapes and colours and textures. I don’t know whether Ricard Camarena specially commissioned the ceramics to his specifications, but whoever coordinated the vessels to the food reminded me of the unerring eye of one of my food heroes, Rosanjin (1883-1959), a Japanese chef-aesthete who created table ware with forms and glazes intentionally designed to complement the food they would eventually hold. If Rosanjin were alive today, I imagine he might be pleased that the spirit of kaiseki can be found in even so far removed a place from Japan as Valencia. In Camarena’s restaurant he would find himself among kindred spirits whose discriminating taste encompasses all aspects of a dining experience — from exquisitely prepared and presented seasonal food, surprising seasonings, handcrafted ceramics, and a quietly elegant space — to the elusive art of welcoming a guest extraordinarily well.

Ricard Camarena Restaurant, Carrer Dr. Sumsi 4, Valencia 46005. Tel. 96 335 54 18reservas@ricardcamarena.com

On becoming a dog parent

How quickly a new pet, like a new baby, changes one’s daily routine! We’ve just had Lady Brown and Hunter for a week, and already they’ve become so much a focus and highlight of our days. Mornings begin with M giving them breakfast. (He’s also been busy concocting dog treats — from chicken liver mostly, see recipe below.) After the dogs have eaten their fill, we go off for an hour’s walk. That’s about as much as Lady Brown can manage without panting too much. Once back home and they’re settled, we then sit down to our breakfast.

This week has definitely taught us a great deal about canine communication. It’s actually the first time we’ve had two dogs, and a couple at that. And an excellent opportunity to observe how two dogs, intimate with each other, communicate. The first two days, Lady Brown refused to go up the steps to the veranda, even though Hunter was brave enough to do so on his first evening here. She sat within sight of us out in the garden, calmly looking on as we sat on the veranda with Hunter at our feet. We were hoping he would settle down for the night onto one of the beds newly bought for them, and by doing so, convince her as well. But as we retired for the night I saw her walking ahead of Hunter in the direction of her nest in the far corner of the garden where she’d spent the first two nights. How did she manage to communicate all that? In the end of course, nature proved the greater persuader. In the middle of the night, rain must have begun to fall, and we awoke to the two of them sleeping on the veranda, each curled up in their own bed. From then on, Lady Brown no longer had any qualms about being or sleeping on the veranda.

She naps in various places — on her bed, partly on the veranda sofas, or out in the garden. Her favourite spot is just in front of the crocuses, among the daisies and crocuses. How does she know to avoid lying on the crocuses? In contrast Hunter did not feel safe enough to nap out in the open, until over a week had passed. While Lady Brown almost immediately found herself spots to nap in the sun or shade, he would only sit, on the alert, close by. For a brief while he disappeared on his first day. But Lady Brown let out a high-pitched almost unvoiced whine, and immediately he came out from behind the low-growing palm near the hedge. That was such an excellent hideaway he’d found — there was no way for anyone to tell there could be anything behind there. And it occurred to me that that was how he’d managed to survive for perhaps a year, maybe more, since being abandoned (brilliant survival strategy). She walked towards him from the veranda to meet him by the crocuses and lay herself down on her favourite spot. And when he approached, he solicitously sniffed her face several times, and then lay down close to her. And they stayed there companionably for quite a while — she napping, he being the lookout.

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Lady Brown and Hunter amidst crocuses and daisies

Later I saw them running leisurely side by side alongside the hedge. She had not even walked along the hedge when she’d been on her own. Were they looking for a hideout? Was he looking for somewhere to spend the night? Perhaps somewhere she could have her pups if, as we suspect, she may be expecting them? It is truly a wonder how messages get across from one to the other.

It occurred to us that Hunter may have been abandoned because of his extreme sensitivity to sudden loud noises, particularly gunfire. The hunting season is currently in full swing and will last until the first week of December. Fridays to Sundays, and holidays too, hunting is permitted in the mountains surrounding us. When we took the dogs out for a walk on Monday morning, we almost ran into the path of two hunters with their shotguns carried across their arms. In the low brush of the maquis around us — what quarry could there be other than small birds and rabbits? We decided it was wiser to cut short our walk and head back.

Hunter went into such a panic the first time he heard a gunshot — shivering and trembling, heart beating wildly. And this is repeated each time there is gunfire, which starts sporadically from daybreak until midmorning, then goes on again at late afternoon until nightfall. We alternately sit with him until he calms down. And then of course it all starts again with the next gunshot. At such times, Lady Brown, who is not bothered by the noise and can sleep through all the racket, will come and lick his face to reassure him as well.

The other day, a lady stopped by who obviously knew the dogs. For a moment I thought oh no, she’s come to take one or both dogs back. When we used to feed Lady Brown, I noted there was a pan of water on the veranda of the empty house where she used to hang out, and wondered whether she might belong to someone. But our neighbours had all told us Lady Brown didn’t have a home. The lady said she already had 4 rescue dogs, and she couldn’t take in another as she had other animals and chickens as well. The least she could do, she’d thought, was to feed Lady and make sure she had water. And when Lady wasn’t there for a whole week, she’d begun to worry until someone told her the dogs were seen in our yard. And so the lady came to see for herself and she thanked us profusely for giving the two dogs a good home. We’d made her day, were her exact words. She’d made our day as well 🙂

Chicken Liver Treats (adapted from the Ultimate Dog Treat Cookbook)

These have become M’s specialty (he’s made them twice now) and Lady Brown’s and Hunter’s favourites. We use them as rewards when training them not to pull when we walk them and to come when called. Chicken livers are sold together with hearts at Mercadona in small packs.

400 g fully cooked chicken livers (or a mix of livers and hearts), finely chopped

1 cup wholemeal flour or cornmeal

1 cup oatmeal

2 eggs

¼ cup vegetable oil

¼ cup bone stock or water

Procedure

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and flour a cookie sheet.

Mix together all the ingredients to a stiff dough.

Pat the dough to a ¼ inch-thick layer on the cookie sheet.

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Turn off the oven.

Remove cooking sheet from oven and cut into small squares or rectangles.

Loosen slices from the tray.

Return the sheet to the oven for the treats to cook further in the remaining heat.

Store treats in a closed container in the fridge.