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.

teucrium-tip-flwr-g-angle_5500

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.

First wild muscari.jpg

Here is one still in bud.

First muscari in bud_5486.JPG

Another miniature flower is this adorable unknown wild resident.

Brassicaceae? _5488cropped vg.jpg

Yet another unidentified mini bouquet.

Tiny white flwrs_5475.JPG

And yet another. These flowers are really tiny.

Wild flwr stalk white purple spot_5495.JPG

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.

Cropped lavender shoot g.jpg

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.

Creeping rosemary cropped vg.jpg

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.

succulent-on-rock-cropped

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

Advertisements

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.

almond-in-bloom-lorxa-fab

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

Lorcha almond cropped.jpg

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

Lorcha pink stunning almond cropped.jpg

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

Pink almond vs dark dry mtscape vg_5408.JPG

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.

Jardi botanic wall & planting_5355.JPG

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.

jardi-botanic-planting-centenarian-olive-duo_5354

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.

Church steeples La Font nr botanic garden_5356.JPG

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.

la-font-den-carros-botanic-garden

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.

Marmalade boiling cropt.jpg

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.

.marmalade-cropped

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.

Snowy palm g_5314.JPG

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.

Snowy front garden g_5310.JPG

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.

Cullera beach palms lifegd sta vfab_5300.JPG

 

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.

lady-b-portrait1-cropped-fab

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.

The enchanting castle town of Adsubia-Forna

Like a simple sketch for a fairy tale, there’s a castle that we always glimpse driving down towards Villalonga. It is a plain pale-coloured rectangle. No whimsical turrets mar its stark geometry. An equally pale winding road leads up to it, the edges sharply defined against the dark green mountain side as if drawn by hand. It is in a dramatic setting —  atop a low green mountain, in the midst of taller ones rising in gradual slopes a good distance from it, as in an ampitheatre. Beyond the castle itself, from our viewpoint, is a vast open space extending far out to the distant sea. And the vapour that rises from the surrounding pine and oak forests often casts a misty blue haze, flattening all depth and definition between the castle and a viewer from afar, so that it all looks rather unreal — like a gigantic billboard illustrated with a simple castle and its winding road.

Every time we see it, M says, I really want to climb up and see that castle. As a matter of fact, every castle we see — and just about every strategically sited mountain peak in southern Valencia has one — tempts M to scale it. I am just as enchanted with these medieval castles, mostly in ruins, but I am not tempted to clamber up rocks over prickly cactus- and bramble-overgrown slopes to see them up close. It’s become quite an obsession with M, climbing these romantic castles. I am content admiring them from afar.

We discover that this one is called Castell Forna. It’s walkable from Villalonga, M says. Ah, I say, but how high up is it? (I am mindful of my right heel which has been bothering me for months and which I’ve been ignoring in the hope that the pain will go away of its own accord. It’s rather like the needles that the little mermaid walks on.)

It’s not that high, he says. It’s just a tallish hill. (It is not. It’s a proper mountain.) We can take the dogs with us. It looks nice and lush, he continues. Not rocky or cactus-strewn at all.

We’ve only ever seen it from afar and often shimmering with a misty haze, so it’s hard to tell. Hunter, perhaps, but Lady Brown and I? We’re not quite up to it. Lady B could barely run when we took her in. Years of living rough, all exposed to the cold and wet have made her quite arthritic. She could hardly climb up the steps of the veranda at first. Perhaps we can drive up there, I say wistfully. I’m a romantic but not that romantic.

Just after Christmas we go for a drive through the stunning Vall de Gallinera and its countless cherry trees, some of them surprisingly still holding on to their coppery leaves. On the way home we come upon the turn-off to Castell Forna. Shall we take it, M asks. We’ve passed it several times before. This time we take it. Nothing prepares us for the unexpected beauty of the secret valley that gradually unfolds before our eyes.

We take the winding road and it leads straight to a car park just below the castle. There’s a paved path up to the entrance. From there, I manage to make my way up the remaining few meters along a gravel path to the castle gate. There are helpful metal rails to hold on to beside the few broad steps carved from rock as you climb up. And M lends his arm where there are none. The paved path is wheelchair-friendly. The rocky steps are not, however.

forna-castle-cropped

forna-castle-window_5206

Up close, the castle walls are darker than when viewed from afar. To M’s disappointment, it is closed until October. But the unobstructed view from the castle grounds  — all the way to the azure blue sea on one side and inland to neatly terraced orange groves on dark green mountain slopes on the other — is so satisfying and so splendid, that I do not feel in any way deprived. Through the cracks in the wooden castle gate, if you wish, it is possible to peep through to catch a glimpse of the interior courtyard.

View to sea Castell Forn cropped.jpg

inland-adsub-forn-cropped

The town below, called Adsubia-Forna (from the union of the two towns of Adsubia and Forna) is exceedingly charming, with narrow streets and well-preserved traditional houses with whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs. It looks a lovely place to explore on foot, with several cafes and restaurants, as well as inns (casas rurales).

Streets houses Adsubia Forn cropped.jpg

We ask at the diner called Xiringuito de Forna (pronounced ‘Chiringito’) below the castle if there’s a direct road back to Villalonga.  Only a footpath, one of the diners replies helpfully. If you’re driving, you’ll have to take the road back to Oliva, he continues. (By the way, the Xiringuito is reputed to serve good food.) We make our leisurely way home through lush orange groves, their ripening fruit set aglow by the low winter sun.

Adsubia-Forna is certainly one of Alicante province’s hidden treasures. It has the magical air of having been frozen in time, and it is all the more enchanting to us, who discovered it quite unwittingly. I would like to return and savour it slowly. I am even tempted to hike all the way there from Villalonga. Lady B and I can bring up the rear, pacing ourselves gently. Did I just say I wasn’t that romantic? I take it all back.

It takes an entire village

 

My first post for 2017 is a note of gratitude to some good people of Villalonga who rallied to enclose the veranda before Christmas. It’s not completely finished, as there’s still some tweaking to be done. But what joy it was to sit there and have coffee and stollen on Christmas morning as I gazed out, sheltered from the wind, to the mountain and forests ahead. It was as I had envisioned a perfect winter day to be. Bright sun, blue sky — could anyone ask for more?

So a well-deserved toast to Jesus Rosell (of Obras Villalonga, our building contractor, whose name is pronounced He-suss’). He’d had some crazy days over the weeks of non-stop rain when the stone cladding fell off a multistorey building, a family friend’s kitchen needed rebuilding after a fire, someone’s septic tank overflowed, and his crew had to be judiciously deployed to sort these out. So I had not expected the veranda to be enclosed before Christmas, but Jesus assured me that by the 23rd it would be, and sure enough it was. The entire yard was crowded with plasterers, tilers, electricians, window installers, and their vans, and there was such a convivial fiesta atmosphere that someone suggested getting a paella started in the outdoor kitchen. When I commented that it seemed as if all Villalonga were there, the reply I got was solamente el mejor (‘only the best’). And I heartily agree.

All hands on deck electricians wiring lights_5196.JPG

It was not only the veranda that Jesus took charge of, but when the back-up generator for the solar panels failed just the week before, he went out of his way on a Sunday (with wife and two small kids in tow) despite the raging storm to bring us a spare. The next day, as promised, he brought Enrique, a retired mechanic who takes care of all of their company machinery, to sort out our generator.

Being neophytes to sustainable energy, we’d assumed that after replacing the existing photovoltaic batteries with higher spec German ones, there would be no further glitches with the solar energy system. We hadn’t realized that the back-up generator, rated at 10kW, does not actually deliver all that power. Why? Because it is triphase rather than monophase, and so only delivers a third, or 3.3kW, we were told. Nevertheless that should have been sufficient to meet our modest consumption needs. Enrique managed to find the culprit. Although the Italian-made Lombardini is an excellent generator, its subpar performance had been caused by an inadequate battery (whether the previous owners were aware of this we do not know), which he immediately replaced for the correctly rated one. I’m glad he managed to bring new life to what we’d thought was a moribund generator, and saved us considerable expense as well. A new 12 kW one was priced at over 5000 Euros, including installation, by the Gandia-based Baterias Ingenieras, BAINGA). And just to give you an idea of the quality of service provided by Obras Villalonga and Enrique the mechanic:  the generator sales, rental, and repair company Maquinal, based in Gandia, whom I’d contacted initially, refused to send a technician. Instead they insisted to bring our generator to them. When I said it was quite impossible as it was solidly fixed to its foundation, and was 2 meters long and weighed at least a ton. Their dismissive answer: hire a camion, a lorry.

Now interestingly, it turns out Enrique owns Taller Pons, an auto repair shop, which his two sons operate with his nephew Jose Poquet, an electrician. Jose and his crew installed the lighting in the veranda. Another Villalonga family enterprise, also referred by Jesus, supplied the glass windows and doors for the veranda — Celso and Vicente of B & B (Barber and Barber). The floor tiles and woodburner were supplied by yet another Villalonga resident, the manager of the Gandia branch of Bricosafor (BigMat) which supplies construction materials.

If it hadn’t been for a mishap, we wouldn’t have gotten to know these good people. It all began with topsoil I’d ordered from San Felix Excavaciones in Gandia. While unloading, one of the lorry’s back wheels sank into the ground, opening up quite an enormous hole. Luckily, the driver deftly manoeuvred so that the lorry didn’t tip over. From the ensuing stench, we realized it had broken into the septic tank. We considered it a fortuitous accident, nonetheless, as we needed to know where the septic tank was for a planned additional bathroom.

The following day, the local plumber, Pepe Rocher, came to advise on the drip-irrigation system and suggested Juan Rosell, who like him, has a cottage (caseta in Valenciano) in our hamlet. Juan said his construction company, Obras Villalonga, now run by his two sons, Jesus and Juan Enrique, would sort it out. And it was fortunate that Jesus took on the job, as what everyone had assumed was a septic tank turned out to be just an outflow chamber and there was no sign of the septic tank in the immediate vicinity. Rather than digging up the garden needlessly, Jesus suggested an underground survey via fibre optic cable. Jesus arranged for specialists to do that and also got the chamber repaired in no time at all. (They located the septic tank in a logical place, just outside the bathroom, but why the piping zigzagged underneath the driveway to three (!) separate outflow chambers didn’t make sense at all.)

With the excellent service from Jesus, it was only natural to ask for a quotation for enclosing the veranda. And it turned out to be considerably less than the previous three quotations I’d got. Out of the topsoil mishap has come a lot of goodwill and referrals to excellent local businesses. It has certainly taken an entire village, or in this case, the town of Villalonga, to sort out a few niggly issues with the house.

Oh and one more thing — the pellet burner that supplies our central heating needed a check-up. As luck would have it, the Rosells have one from the same manufacturer (Domusa) due for servicing the other day. Juan Rosell himself brought over their recommended technician, Maties Carma.  Now that’s real neighbourliness. Moltes gracies, Obras Villalonga!

 

Obras Villalonga (Construction and renovation) 

Jesus Rosell, Juan Enrique Rosell

Carretera de Gandia 23, Villalonga, Tel. 962 805 223

www.obrasvillalonga.com, info@obrasvillalonga.com

 

Fontaneria Rocher (Plumbing, heating, drip irrigation)

Jose (Pepe) Rocher

Carrer Lepanto 14, Villalonga, Tel. 962 805 128

 

B&B (Installation of glass windows and doors)

Celso Barber

Carrer Avenida Grau 1, Gandia, Tel. 661 324 513

Pons Auto 

Enrique (retired owner, repair of generators and other complex machinery)

Carrer Angel Custodio 26, Villalonga, Tel. 962 805 693

 

Ecocarma (Repair and maintenance of heaters and wood burners)

Maties Carma

Tel. 659 710 018, www.ecocarma.esinfo@ecocarma.es

Electricitat Poquet (Electrician)

Jose Poquet

Tel. 606310014,  electricitatpoquet@gmail.com

 

After the storm

We took the dogs to Gandia beach two days after the floods. The sea was still in storm mode — all frothy, turbulent waves whipped by the wind. You could not tell where sea ended and sky began. A breathtakingly lovely sea- and sandscape, rough and raw and delicate at the same time, with Montgo limned in the distance as on the finest blue-and-white hand-painted ceramic. And no one else but us to enjoy this rarity.

Gandia beach sand sculpted after the storm vg_5194.JPG

gandia-beach-montgo-lifegd-sta-post-storm-crop-g

Gandia beach M & dogs vg_5192.JPG

Gandia beach M & dogs after storm g_5190.JPG

Gandia beach sand waves post storm g_5187.JPG

A first attempt at identifying a mushroom

The other day I chanced upon a photo online of a mushroom called Lactarius indigo which, despite its specific ‘indigo,’ is pale blue. Blue happens to be one of my favourite colours (the other being green), and of course this fungus of what seemed an unlikely colour totally awed me. I would be over the moon to come across one such.

Incredibly just a couple of days later, I came upon some equally improbably coloured mushrooms. Not blue, but lilac! This was on the 10th of December, the second day of sun after two weeks of daily rain.

Clitocybe:Lepista nuda gills daisy vg_5140.JPGThey grew in a cluster not far from the canopy of a tall pine. To my great delight, I found more in groups of twos and threes some distance around the olive trees. And today again I found another cluster where there had been no other fungi. These were not all uniformly pale violet — some were dark purple and others veered towards beige or grey or brown with a mauve-ish cast.

Lepista:Clitocybe nuda cluster under pine La Llacuna fab _5128.JPG

Now I know of only one kind of purple mushroom – wood blewits (pronounced blue’ettes). In Castillian and French, they are known as ‘blue feet’, though far from blue: pie azul, pied bleu. In Catalan/Valenciano they go by a number of names — pentinella or pimpinella morada, escarlat morat, peu violeta, lileta, blaveta. In Basque, they are oin urdin, in German, violetter Rötelritterling. Their binomial name is Lepista nuda or Clitocybe nuda. Wood blewits are “a highly esteemed edible mushroom … also popular when pickled” (Neuner 1978). Spanish fungi webpages caution that the blewit is only edible when cooked; uncooked it is venenosa (‘toxic’). And even when cooked, it may cause a laxative effect in some people. The blewit is usually found from autumn to winter in forests and open spaces.

Blewits on table vg crop.jpg

As I have mentioned before, I would not risk eating any fungus that I find in the garden or elsewhere until I have gained identification skills, and perhaps not even then. Michael Kuo (of mushroomexpert.com) says it takes over two years to learn how to properly identify mushrooms, and even he rarely eats mushrooms that he collects. (Nevertheless, I did feel that I was wasting nature’s bounty. Just to give you an idea of how plentiful the blewits in the garden were, had I gathered them I would’ve had enough for appetizers for three.)

So how to go about confirming these are blewits? I checked the descriptions and photographs in several hardcopy and online references (see list below). From the colour and shape of the cap, the crowded gills, and the way the gills met the stem, it appeared that I may have blewits. However, further searching revealed that blewits are not the only violet-coloured fungi. Several Cortinarius species are too — C. amoenolens, C. collinitis, C. croceo-caeruleus, C. evernius, C. purpurascens, C. sodagnitus, C. traganus. Unlike blewits though, the edibility of these is unknown. There is one rare Cortinarius species that is violet and edible, C. violacea, and smells a bit like cedar wood, per Roger Phillips.

blewits-cap-beige-unopened-one-crop

Additionally confounding, some Hygrocybe and Laccaria species also have purple caps. Yet another species, Tilopilus rubrobrunneus, can have a purple to purplish-brown cap. However this last is a Bolete, which means it has pores beneath its cap instead of gills like the blewit, so it can be eliminated from this exercise.

Colour is insufficient as an identifier, clearly. Expert mycologists always recommend taking a spore print. Blewit spores are said to be pink or pink- buff. The first spore print I took was more like beige: when scraped together, the pile of spores appeared like loose face powder. (Here’s something a make-up user can readily grasp.)

Another distinguishing characteristic of wood blewits is scent. Some male mycologists say they smell fragrant. They don’t say which fragrance though. Roger Phillips says they have a distinct or odd smell without further explanation. David Arora, the world-renowned mycologist and author of Mushrooms Demystified, says they smell of frozen orange juice. Son No. 2, here for a visit, has an extra keen sense of smell and he affirmed they smelled flowery. Youtube videos in Spanish also claim blewits’ scent as ‘afrutado’ (fruity). Well, these lilac fungi smelled nothing like fragrant flowers or juice or fruit. To me they smelled like very fresh champignons.

This brief first exercise has me more than convinced that identifying mushrooms is a complicated business indeed, even one with the fairly distinct cap, gills, and stalk colour of lilac or pale violet. And even though spore colour is supposedly sufficient for distinguishing certain fungi, in some cases, as above, it may not be enough. A really good microscope would definitively identify blewits by the shape of their spores. But I don’t have one now, having got rid of ours in an excess of downsizing zeal just before moving to Spain.

Conclusion? Perhaps the lavender-coloured fungi in my garden are Lepista nuda, based largely on images here.  It has helped enormously to view as many photographs of blewits as possible, because the range of their forms and colours is so vast. This UK wild food site mentions that Lepista nuda spores can be off-white. In that case then, these fungi could very well be wood blewits. The second spore print I took of another fresh blewit suspect appeared pinky buff, thus confirming that they are blewits. But I’m still not considering eating them. Admiring their wonderful colour is more than enough for me.

————-

Kuo, M. Clitocybe nudahttp://www.mushroomexpert.com/clitocybe_nuda.html

Kuo, M. Waxy caps: The Hygrophoraceae family, in part.  http://www.mushroomexpert.com/hygrophoraceae.html

Kuo, M. The genus Tylopilus. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/tylopilus.html

Lepista nuda. http://www.rogersmushrooms.com/gallery/DisplayBlock~bid~6319.asp

Neuner, Andreas. 1977. (English translation by Fred Bradley, 1978). British and European Mushrooms and Fungi. London: Chatto & Windus.

Phillips, Roger. 1981. Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe: The Most Comprehensively Illustrated Book on the Subject This Century. Macmillan: London.

http://www.mykoweb.com/CAF/species/Clitocybe_nuda.html

http://www.rogersmushrooms.com

 http://www.spaincenter.org/tvi/negocios-empresas/alimentos/setas/item/1815-lepista-nuda-pie-azul-setas-fotos