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.

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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jewel and the rascal

By jewel, I mean of course Lady Brown. She’s been a source of much joy and delight, it’s pure pleasure having her with us. How she survived being homeless for the past 5 or 6 years and yet retained her sweet, trusting nature is a wonder. But then again she combines the best of her mix of Labrador and Podenco (a Valencian hunting breed) genes — her robust frame and sweet nature from the former, and her small (in proportion to her body) pointy head and sad but wise eyes from the latter. From both lineages have come her intelligence and superb observation skills, that have enabled her to live for years on her own, bereft of food and permanent shelter and a caring family. Perhaps as a result she has learned to take things as they come. She is also extraordinarily perceptive and affectionate, using her tongue variably as greeting, endearment, detector for how anyone in her pack is feeling, and if she feels it is needed, a comforting and reassuring touch — her version of a hug. She’s not too keen on being hugged though, though she’s not averse to light stroking on her back or head. Occasionally she will lay one or both paws on my arm, or put her head on my lap when I’m sitting, especially when we’re in the car. If she doesn’t see me up in the morning, she’ll come to the bedroom and satisfied that I’m okay, will go back to her usual daytime spot on the veranda sofa. Because of her calm, all-accepting, sweet nature, I call her our Zen dog.

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Hunter, on the other hand, is just the opposite — ever the naughty rascal, mostly due to immaturity rather than intent. He’s likely younger than two years old and thus behaves no differently from an irresponsible, irrepressible, incorrigible teen. As well perhaps because of having been mistreated previously, he is extremely wary and fearful (less of women however), but once his trust has been earned, he becomes truly devoted, and his innate affectionate nature comes to the fore. He loves nothing better than being stroked lovingly on his head and body, and as his fur is so silky-smooth, it is as much a pleasure for the person doing the stroking as it is for him. He curls and shakes his body in unabashed delight when you do this — twisting his head towards his tail and pressing his body ever closer to you in what I call his pretzel pose. And when you stroke his chin, he gazes straight into your eyes with grateful affection. Throughout the day, he’ll come to see what you’re up to and gaze longingly into your eyes. He does know how to capture your attention and ultimately your heart.

hunter-portrait-fin

Both dogs were subdued and diffident when we took them in, and I suspected they might not have or had lost the ability to bark, particularly in Lady Brown’s case. But after a few days, Hunter assumed his self-assigned role as defender of the pack and its territory. However he’s unclear about the territory’s extent, so he barks indiscriminately: at the neighbours’ dogs, neighbours in their yards, and every vehicle that passes by. With his youthful energy, he can bark non-stop, and that gets a bit grating. Lady B rarely barks, but when she does, it is usually for support if she feels he’s being threatened by the dogs next door (M calls them the Hooligans). She’s that protective of him. Her barking voice is unexpectedly deep and gruff, pitched quite low. What we’d thought at first was Hunter’s bark turned out to be actually hers. His is much higher pitched than hers — tenor-like, if you will.

Hunter’s relentless barking was triggered, we suspect, by one of the older construction workers. The man, who has a cottage up the mountain, admitted to always being barked at by Hunter in the past. The man is also a hunter, and quite likely Hunter associates his smell with his previous owner who’d maltreated him. And so throughout the veranda renovation, Hunter had to be confined indoors. Even indoors, he continued feeling frightened and would stand unmoving by the door at full attention, letting out an occasional ‘hooff’ or full-on barking. Only long and patient soothing and stroking would calm him down. His compulsive barking is perhaps also due to short-term memory: it took a good month for him to remember who M was and stop being wary in the morning. I’ve nicknamed him Our Dog of Little Brain, to add to his first, Hattori (Hanzou) Hantaa, as he moves stealthily, rather ninja-like: he can be behind you without you being aware of it.

Hunter is like the little girl with the curl — when he’s good, he’s truly lovable. But when he’s bad, he gets on everyone’s nerves, including Lady Brown’s. After two months, we figured both pets were sufficiently attached to us that we could unleash them at the beach. What a joy it was to watch them running gleefully side by side along the wet sand. It was the first time we’d seen Lady Brown match Hunter’s rapid running pace. We’d always assumed she was incapable of much expenditure of energy, because she’d be panting heavily after an hour’s walk. But that day, she matched Hunter stride for stride and bounded and leapt with unexpected vigour. Amazing what improved nutrition can do. Hunter then headed inland towards the street, and of course she followed, turning our delight to worry. Fortunately a wall blocked their way and they headed back.

A fortnight later at another beach, we unleashed them anew. Both had such fun sniffing the sand and getting their paws wet. And once again seeing them — especially her — running with such gusto was so gratifying, until he began to race at great speed towards the high-rise condos in the far-off distance. Even she realized he’d gone too far. She stopped at once, looked in our direction, and came running back. Meanwhile he pressed on wildly, not sparing a glance in our direction. Admittedly, his running form is truly wonderful to behold, but we became anxious. Eventually he turned back, perhaps because he sensed she was no longer beside him. We assumed he was going to join us directly, but his eyes focussed straight ahead, and it was then that Lady showed a side of her we’d never witnessed before. She charged straight into him — a running tackle — and although muscular, Hunter’s young, lighter body didn’t stand a chance with her mature robust frame — several kilos heavier — ramming into him. That was a sight to see: our mild-mannered, sweet Lady B, roughly disciplining unruly Hunter. He was thrown up into the air and twisted and turned over into a somersault, clearly winded and subdued enough to be clipped to the leash. We were so relieved, but told him firmly he’d been a naughty boy.

He has since grown more wayward. I’ve read that his breed — the short-haired German pointer — is notorious for escaping, but I assumed he’d have no reason for doing so. Several times each night, Lady B comes into our bedroom voicing her unique high-pitched whimper-whistle to let us know they need the loo. But they almost always return: she with alacrity, because she loves being indoors and her bed; he, however, takes his sweet time coming back, often as much as half an hour. Until he’s back, she shows her concern by whimper-whistling and coming to our bedroom to make us call out for him. I’m guessing her whimper-whistle is also her way of communicating with him, but I doubt if he hears it when he’s out of range. The other night, it took nearly an hour before he came back, and until then she couldn’t settle, giving her squeaky whimper every now and then in her anxiety. Once back, he quickly went to his ‘bed’ — M’s armchair, protected with loose covers (he has used his own bed only once or twice) — and immediately fell asleep. She, on the other hand, came to our room some minutes later, continuing to whimper. What now? I got out of bed and stroked her back to calm her down. But she was inconsolable. Only then did I realize this was probably her way of venting extreme annoyance at Hunter’s late return. What a rascal that Hunter is. An irresistibly handsome rascal who knows how to turn on the charm and focus all attention on him, with his affectionate pretzel contortions and his adoring gaze. Of course that’s why she’d fallen for him, as had we.

Three days ago however he didn’t return. Normally he’s so eager for food that he dances on his hind legs around M as he prepares their bowls, curious to see what special treats are in store. (They get broth and bones, pressure-cooked until the bones soften, to supplement their kibble.) It turned out the gate had been flung open by gale-force winds during the night, and he simply took the opportunity and went walkabout. M took a turn around the hamlet to find him, but we had to leave soon for a meeting. Even Lady was too upset to eat her breakfast. We took her with us and, meeting over, introduced her to a lovely beach we’d been meaning to revisit since first seeing it a year ago — the Platja Rabdells in Oliva Nova. This is in a much more natural state than the other beaches: no multi-storey developments and a river teeming with fish (there are several fishing hideouts along the banks) that empties into the sea.

Although we were anxious about Hunter, it was a welcome change to have a calm and peaceful walk at the beach, just us and Lady. (Hunter’s curiosity about everything around him means that he does not walk — he runs around M or me in circles or else pulls at the leash really hard, that it is more the dog walking me or M than vice versa.) When we got back home, a contrite and guilty-looking Hunter met us at the gate. He’d cleaned up his bowl, but left Lady’s uneaten one untouched — so unlike his normal self, as he usually tries to filch from her bowl even when she’s around. Lady was clearly mad at him: she withheld her usual greeting lick, and ignored him completely, only relenting hours later. It was difficult for us to ignore his endearing apologies — he kept pressing himself to our knees, twisting head to tail pretzel fashion, and gazing imploringly into our eyes.

Lady B is more appropriate for easy-going, laid-back oldies like us. I certainly would recommend an older person to adopt an older dog, not an energy-draining puppy. In many ways, Lady B’s Zen-like behaviour — being in the moment, never in a rush, always gentle, self-contained — is more like a cat’s than a dog’s, which suits me just fine. I’ve always been more of a cat person, and this is the first time I’ve actually begun to understand and thereby grown to love dogs. Hunter, typical teenager that he is, thoroughly bursts with curiosity and vigour. He’s hardly ever still. Just watching this nervous hyperactivity can be tiring. When Hunter sees us preparing for a walk or a drive, he’ll leap and jump all around us, unable to contain his excitement at the prospect. She, meanwhile, eyebrows raised, observing calmly what’s going on, remains reclining until we say, ‘Come on Lady.’ It’s the same at meal times. Unlike Hunter, she doesn’t hover around M or me preparing their food. She waits, lady that she is, until she is called and her bowl is on the floor. And even then, she’ll come slowly, sniff at it, and not eat at once. Meanwhile Hunter will have wolfed down his food by this time. It’s as if Lady’s waiting to be asked three times before she’ll deign to eat, and when she does, she does so very delicately and slowly (hence her name.) Which is why, often, when she takes a bone out of the bowl and runs off to the garden to chew it, Hunter pounces on her bowl. But she can emit an uncharacteristically menacing growl from wherever she is, and that’s enough to stop him.

In contrast to Zen cat-like Lady B, Hunter is only too eager to please, particularly in a game of Fetch. Since he’s a Dog of Little Brain, it took several days for me to teach him there is nothing to fear and much fun to expect from a thrown ball. Even when he’s practically dead on his feet and aching for a rest, especially after a long walk, he’s still up for a game. Lady B doesn’t like Fetch: she doesn’t see much point in retrieving a ball so that it can be thrown again and again. What she prefers is being chased round and round by M in a circle.

Last night once again Hunter didn’t come back. Poor Lady B whimper-whistled her concern all night long, coming into our room several times for M to go out and call him, to no avail. He’s only now (10:30 am) just come back. Lady B, much relieved, wagged her tail happily, but immediately ignored him and won’t look at him. Oh, these two — so diametrically opposed they complement one another. How can we not love them to bits? But what’s to be done about Hunter’s nocturnal escapades? That’s a tale for another day.