End of 2018 – Beginning of 2019

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The Garden in Winter

I have been gearing up to get an early start on growing veg and bought seed packets. These indicate sowing times, but for what region in Spain? The climate varies widely so I also ask the shopkeeper and watched the plants on sale for a clue. We bought some strawberry plants that are doing really well, the first strawberries are already blushing in the warm midday sun. However, I sowed tomatoes and put them under the cold-frame until they were big enough for planting out. Everything went ok until the frost eventually killed them. And honestly, they were struggling through the cold nights. The spinach is doing well and even the pepper plants are still alive and producing. The cauliflower and broccoli are growing well and last year’s broccoli is also still producing. Last year’s fennel has come back and looks pretty even if it doesn’t have big bulbs, the leaves are tasty.

 

January and February are the main winter months, even as day light and sunshine hours are increasing. The frosty nights hamper real growth. I tried to buy a fleece to cover tender plants but all they have here is protection against the sun, heavy shading fabric. So I will need to look online.

My other experiment is a home-made weed-killer from strong vinegar (Mercadona has an 8% cleaning vinegar), salt and washing up liquid. I sprayed that onto the ‘non-welcome’ plants in the stone circle and within 2 hours the leaves were dead! Success! I am not sure how long this will last as I doubt it kills the roots, but even though, it still helps.

The garden is now also fenced against scratching hens and digging dogs. We are now proud owners of a giant Mastin, Sofie, and a tiny terrier stray, Drops. She dropped by one day, all skin and bones and wary but devoured all food that we gave her and disappeared again. About a week later she was back, doing the same and stayed for the day, to Sofie’s delight. Sofie, being only a little over a year old, wants to play and run around, but Drops did not have the energy. She was gone again but eventually came back to our delight. She has got stronger, more confident in herself, found her bark and now plays with Sofie. I never was a dog person but she stole my heart and is very happy to see me. She seems also more obedient than Sofie, who still has the habit of trying to get out the gate and disappear for a few hours at a time. It is impossible to catch her as she knows full well she will be tied up, at least for a day.

We still have plenty of guests, from Germany to Sweden to Switzerland and Canada. Some bring motorbikes, some bikes, some dogs and some both.

The night before my children arrived we celebrated New Years Eve with a bunch of really nice Spanish, that came all the way from Jaen-Ubeda direction. This was the family of our house angel Sara. The tradition is to eat 12 grapes when the clock chimes 12 times; one grape for each month of the New Year. I tried but couldn’t get them all down so quickly, so I must practice for the next time.

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January 2019

 

2019 started wonderful. My two children, Elaine and Frank, were here for the first time and needed some TLC, because they brought with them colds and sniffles. And the sunshine did them the world good.

We only had two full days together, but better than no time.

Forget Christmas –

It’s the Three Kings where it’s at. This turns out to be a bigger deal then Santa because there are three of them bringing presents and literally tonnes of sweets.

Epiphany is the coming of the three wise kings, mages or whatever they were to welcome Jesus and bring him presents of myrrh, gold and incense.  Nappies and a hot soup for Mary would have been more useful. But for the children in Spain this is when they receive their presents at home and on the streets. We were invited to come along to our neighbour farmer’s family and witness the carnival-like atmosphere in our small town of Almonte. The streets were full of people, old and young, lining up to watch the procession of tractor-drawn floats of colourful dressed-up people, throwing sweets and toys. So that’s why some came equipped with plastic bags to bring home their stash of sweets.

 

Raindrops keep falling on my head – and Olives

It has finally rained, after four months. And it destroyed most of my seedlings, as the rainwater poured down onto them. I had them in trays on a table too close to the house and the rain came down off the roof. This house has no gutters apart from the  gutter Nigel installed over the terrace. So I assessed the damage and proceeded to sow again. Lesson learned.

Luckily I had already  put cut clear plastic bottles over the cauliflowers and broccoli baby plants as a snail barrier, which also keeps the hens from picking at them. The mattress base helps against the hens scratching away in the freshly dug horse manure and the netting is supposed to do the same.

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Spanish course

I have signed up to an online spanish course to get more practice with the dreaded verbs. It’s all very fine to talk about the present but sometimes you need to talk about yesterday or tomorrow. I used the Babbel online course for a long time and it is fantastic for building up your vocabulary and pronounciacion, and I learned a lot. So I jumped into this course by Catalino Moreno thinking I will do my online exercises whenever I get around to it.

BUT – she keeps me on my toes. Now I regularly receive emails with videos and exercises, it’s more than I bargained for. It is great, she really is fun and involves all her students and even answers personally to comments posted or questions [see for example https://catalinamoreno.weebly.com/blog/usos-de-hay-en-espanol-parte-iii ].

So I have a real teacher now and hope I will progress a bit. Although the Andalusian dialect is still a big challenge. Thanks to Nigel I am thrown in nearly daily as he seeks out our neighbouring farmers to ask them every imaginable question about olive growing; which brings me seamlessly to our current occupation.

Olive Harvest has Started

We have a new friend. Diego is a big farmer with a big heart. He not only grows olives but also wine and has tillage. He works from morning till dusk every day of the week but took the time to bring us to the olive factory the other side of Almonte and then invited us into his home and fed us a big lunch, even his mother joined us.

This olive factory takes the olives of hundreds of farmers and immediately throws them into big underground tanks with saltwater brine. These are sold throughout the year to other companies for further pickling with different flavours. Presently in this area the Manzanilla olives are taken in, followed by Verdial and then the huge Gordal olives as they ripen. After that the olives will have turned black and are then collected to make olive oil.

The rain now will make the olives swell up and make them bigger and heavier thus giving us more money per kilo. The olives are weighed and their size is determined by counting the number of olives in 200g, this is multiplied by 5 which is the number of olives per kilo; the smaller the number, the bigger the olives. Ours were not so great to start with, they ranged from 360-280. But we will give them another week or two to grow bigger. But in the meantime they will also start turning black. It’s not so easy to determine the right timing, as olives grow in different stages on the tree, they do not ripen simultaneously.

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Recipe Vegetable Parsley & Oregano Pesto with Mussels

When time is in short supply, for a very quick dinner Spaghetti and pesto are unbeatable. My version includes mussels, mejillones, in a spicy sauce from a tin and lots of freshly chopped parsley and oregano, garlic, grated parmesan, freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of sea salt and either grated courgette or fried green and red peppers, as they are abundant in the garden at present.

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While the water for the spaghetti heats up, chop parsley, 3-4 garlic cloves, grate half a small courgette and some parmesan cheese. In a pan combine (only ever) virgin olive oil, the garlic and courgette and gently heat to sauté for 5-8 minutes. When the spaghetti is ready, drain and set aside. Take the pan off the cooker and add the mussels, parsley, oregano and parmesan cheese. Stir and add to the spaghetti, serve with a sprinkle of parsley and grated avocado stone.

Vegetable Pesto with mussels

 

 

 

 

 

We are also still busy with guests at the weekend thanks to fiestas in El Rocio. All our rooms were occupied and we had fun with the two little girls that had fun with Sofie and our hens.

Learning Curve No. 255-ish

Hosting is Fun!

It is actually very nice to see happy people in your own home because they like it there and you have made them feel welcome and comfortable. And by now we had a lot of happy people. Also couples that are very happy together, even after more than 20 years and that makes my heart sing. Because there is so much strife and hardship and separation everywhere and we both have been through it. And it is true; there are many more nice people out there then bad ones.

Praying Mantis

She suddenly appeared on the wall and was rather big and striking (both ways). She is a huntress and we are happy to count her as one of our allies against bugs and insects. She can eat things three times her size, including snakes, mice and bugs of all denominations. This includes worms, caterpillars and maggots we don’t want in the garden, but unfortunately she also devours the ‘goodies’ that help in the garden to control pests like ladybirds, not making a distinction here when she’s hungry [see https://www.jcehrlich.com/blog/5-praying-mantis-facts/ ]. She will not shy away from eating her own man after mating either. But the good outweighs the bad and so we welcome her to our home [see  https://www.spain-holiday.com/Andalusia/articles/10-wildlife-species-to-watch-for-in-andalucia for more wildlife facts.].

Squirting Cucumber – Ecballium elaterium

We have found this pretty looking plant in our garden. She is rather prickly and has pretty yellow flowers and braves the boiling sun. Her seeds are squirting forth from the pods, hence the name squirting cucumber. The juice of the seeds can cause irritation or inflammation of the skin. The roots have been used in herbal medicine, but must be used with great caution.

Solar Power Trouble

So do we have any problems with our photovoltaic system?

Not many. But sometimes things happen that shouldn’t. Last night we had a quite full house with nine people, including ourselves. And then the ventilator stopped dead. I noticed it at around 2 am and thought it ominous. I tried the light, nope, not working either; I went downstairs to check the internet and other lights, nothing. No water out of the tap either. Bad, really bad.

I woke Nigel and together we investigated the solar control station which was in total darkness, also dead. Even worse. I have to admit earlier there was a warning beep and a yellow light blinking, but this stopped again after an hour, so we didn’t think much of it as the control always showed the usual 25% usage and we were told we had 10-days worth of power stored in the battery bank, and this being peak sunshine season we didn’t worry too much until we were standing in darkness with the horror of unwashed guests and unflushed toilets on our minds.

So I sent a text message to our whiz kid David, the solar installation guy. But that didn’t send because I was out of credit. I hadn’t recharged because I am in the process of transferring to another phone company. Without internet I couldn’t recharge now either. Then on to my back-up Irish phone, which was also down to 12%, another message to David. We went back to bed discussing the next steps and how to minimise the discomfort to our guests.

Nigel got up nice and early to haul buckets of water up to flush toilets and at 9 am I borrowed our guests phone to call our best friend Cris. He is our rock and was immediately able to summon David, who had ignored the strange phone numbers popping up on his phone at 2 am.

And then it happened: the solar system came to life again and the internet restarted and there was water, phew. Ok, this meant the cut-out was due to exhausted batteries caused by the constant demand on the water pump, not only for showers and dishwashing and watering the garden but also watering our olive trees. We were warned that the system would support at least four people in the house and the pump is for domestic use only. But on top of that we had four ventilators going all night which squeezed out the rest of the power in the batteries.

Although this was not the only problem; for the past four months one battery had a leak and we could not refill the distilled water. We had David alerted and he was supposedly coming every week, but we didn’t see him. This emergency brought him out on a Sunday morning to our finca.

We have now agreed to install a back-up generator in case this happens again. We did not anticipate the success of our little B&B enterprise. Now we have to make sure not to disappoint our guests that are here for a relaxing stay in the lovely countryside.

Financially our B&B keeps us ticking over as well, because money that was coming our way from Ireland got delayed through bureaucratic hurdles and a very mean-minded Department of Agriculture. Lots of people feel aggrieved about the pay-outs that farmers receive for their work and products. I could go into a really long rant about how this system of subventions of agriculture in Europe was devised and how the general public profits from the unreal low prices of food. To receive those payments farmers are constrained restricted, controlled and policed through rules and regulations. In Nigel’s case the farm was split in half due to a court order in the course of a divorce and became unviable. He had to sell stock and machinery and rent his farm and house. Officialdom did not recognise this as a reason to cease farming and pull out of the 5-year organic farming scheme. So they punished him by denying him the pay-out of subsidies for the past two years. He is appealing this decision but this all will take time.

In the meantime we open our home to really lovely and respectful people that are happy to spend some time with us on our piece of heaven (or hell, as it is still over 35 degrees….).

Learning Curve NO. 80

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(I am not telling you about all our learning moments, as it would make us seem so stupid)

  1. Chickens can die of heat. At least that is what we suspect, because Grisella was only a young hen, but sadly passed away.   The others enjoy the shade of the house in the front with Sofie, our dog.

2. Tomatoes can get sunburn! Yes, in other countries you try to get as much sun on your tomatoes as possible to make them sweet and juicy, but here they need a bit of shade (just like the chicken). The yellow colour does not show unripeness, that should be green, but too much sun. Thanks to one of our more knowledgably guests we now know to cut that bit off and not wait forever for it to turn red.

 

3. There are male and female olive trees. And for every eight female trees you need one male tree for the pollination to take place. The male trees have slightly bigger but less fruit than the female trees.

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What we haven’t figured out yet, is how the health system works. But our friendly Gestor Angel, our agent that registers our car, will make inquiries if we are eligible for the free health care, that everybody receives when they are resident here and pay taxes.

We are now very relieved to finally be again happily legally on the road with our temporary green registration plates. These show that our car is insured and on the way to be properly registered and taxed here in Spain.  Yes, our car is constantly dusty from the dust road that goes from Almonte to our finca. As soon as we wash it its dusted over again. We gave up and safe the water.

We have also opened our third bedroom, as we had to turn people away that wanted to stay here with us. It is not yet publicised, as we first want to see if the sofa cama, the sofa bed, is comfortable enough to charge good money. We acquired it right here in Almonte for a knock-down price of €525. Its original price was €720, but it had sat awhile in the shop. It is now occupied by our lodger Fernando, who is with the National Police and resides with us for five days per week. I am not allowed to show photos of him, as it could be dangerous for him due to the ongoing struggle with the Basque separatists.

The Spanish police system is interesting and you will feel really safe, as you see them everywhere. You could be forgiven to think you are in a police state, a relic from Franco times. But I rather feel protected, particular after the experience with our raided house here (that was before we bought it). There are three divisions: the National Police, the Local Police and the Guardia Civil. And ALL of them carry guns! But as far as our experiences go, most of them are courteous, professional and polite but take their job serious [ see http://www.spainmadesimple.com/moving-to-spain/police-spain/ ].

So far we have one parking offense (which we ignored) and one speeding offense which was dealt with by three officers on-the-spot and cost us €50. We were stopped twice for breathalysing and every time they get a bit confused about our steering wheel being on the wrong (right) side. Mostly they waved us through not bothering to check our Irish insurance and tax documents. But I guess this will change now as we are definitely under Spanish law now. We have been reprimanded once for parking on the side of a (deserted, long straight stretch) of a road because I wanted to pick cornflowers.

Fernando, our friendly police-lodger, often brings a colleague for his lunch break, so that we have two police officers sitting at our table and a police car parked outside. So we are under police protection! If that doesn’t scare off any unwanted guests and burglars I don’t know what would. One evening we had Shabi, a German (long-haired and Afghan-looking) Police Detective and Fernando sitting at our table playing cards with us. Yes, it can be very interesting and exciting having guests you have never met before in your house.

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We also had guests that are vegetarian and vegan, so I have now decided that that is the way I want to go. I offer a cooked meal for €10 including a starter, a main dish and a glass of wine or beer. The Spanish eat an enormous amount of meat and pork and I don’t want to go down that road. I often cook without meat and so I will make that my speciality. I tried out my home-made pesto dish with wholemeal spaghetti on our German Vegan-guests and got thumbs up. This pesto has now already undergone varies changes and it depends on what is available out in the garden and the kind of guests I have.

The base is Olive oil and Garlic, of course. Then I add lots of freshly chopped parsley, some basil if available, a pinch of oregano and marjoram from the garden together with grated parmesan and black pepper. The interesting twist is the tin of Mejillones, mussels, in a spicy sauce that are added just before serving. For the vegan alternative I left out the parmesan and mussels and added grated courgettes and carrots, cooked them a bit in the garlic-olive oil mix and added roasted mixed seeds.

I have also dug out my vegetarian cook books, The Vegetarian Student Cook Book (Octopusbooks) a friend gave me, Linda McCartney-on-tour (written by Paul McCartney’s former wife) and The Happy Pear by Dublin twin brothers David and Stephen Flynn (Penguin books). These give me enough inspiration to device my own dishes.

Free-range Eggs in Mayonnaise Curry dressing:

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Family, Friends & Guests

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It seems now we have ticked off visits from friends and family so far.

We had Nigel’s sister and hubby, Nigel’s brother from Canada with his son, Nigel’s brother from Ireland with his daughter and as yet nobody from my small family. I am awaiting eagerly my two kids, 20 and 25, to make room in their busy lives for their crazy mum. I guess I have to wait till Christmas.

Instead I had my friends, which I count as my family, here. In March Jani from Germany/Ireland, in April Fiona from Ireland, in July Sabine plus kids from Berlin and Angelika and Elaine also from Germany (yes, we are namesakes and her daughter has the same name as my daughter! They are Ireland fans and have visited there many times).

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But now we have turned our casa into a B&B and receive paying guests through booking.com and Airbnb. This enriches our lives (and pockets) through different minded people. So far we had a Spanish photographer, a Spanish lifeguard, a Spanish fire-fighter is booked to arrive tomorrow. We had a Spanish lawyer-doctor couple and two cyclists, one from Germany and one Dutch. Another Dutch couple is staying with us for a few days and then it’s back to the Spanish. Soon we soon need a third bedroom!

We also discovered a new visitor attraction: Christopher Columbuses ships!

Together with my friend Sabine and kids we had a good look how he managed to first secure money and ships from the Spanish king and set about his many voyages. The Santa Maria, Niña and Piña have been rebuild and actually set to sea and are now ankered just outside Huelva at la Muelle de las Carabelas. His first expedition took place between 1492 and 1493 and his ships were astonishing small considering his ambition to discover East-Asia but landed in the Bahamas instead [see https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_(Schiff) ]. Columbus, or Cristobal Colon, as the Spanish call him, was not even Spanish, he was born either on Corsica or in Genua, nobody really knows and therefore Italian. First he asked the Portugese king, but he wasn’t keen to give him the money necessary for his expedition so he went begging to the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand II. of Aragón und Isabella I. of Castillia, who adopted him subsequently as their Spanish explorer. He is partly buried in the Cathedral of Seville. His bones were transferred back and forth to Cuba, probably a few getting lost on the way or sold off, who knows.[https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Kolumbus ].

French Dresser Project

The last piece of restoration here was the ‘French’ ‘antic’ dresser we obtained from our scrap merchant for €110. It was completely black and still had evidence of previous use in a restaurant or pension, as I found six pepper and salt dispensers in it and a few napkins. So I went about painstakingly stripping the paint off. This was a madness-inspired task as the wood is deeply grooved. So I used a spatula and screwdriver to get the paint off in those grooves. And of course it has insets and two handles missing. But I took my time and the result is pleasing to the eye (at least mine). It now looks a bit multi-dimensionally, as the paint has three layers and a bit of black from previous use of the brush. I chose the colour to pick out the slight green centre of the tiles and it looks alright in our bedroom.

The Transformation

When we came here first, the property had not been lived in for nearly 6 years. The olive trees were abandoned and the house was in bad shape. All wiring had been ripped out together with light fixtures, plumbing and who knows what else. Then, just before we returned from Ireland, all windows and doors were taken. This was done professionally, over several days before we bought the property. Naturally that all impacted on the price. So we had a big job on our hands to clean up, restore, rewire, replumb, and order new doors and windows as well as installing our very own, off-the-grid photovoltaic system for generating electricity from the very generous Spanish sunshine.

Before we bought the property:

And after our efforts:

The worst place was the en-suite bathroom. It was dark and sported an unfinished concrete bath. It seems it was built as an after-thought, as underneath the sides were tiles on the wall. As we already have a bath in the other upstairs bathroom we wanted a nice, generously proportioned walk-in shower. So the bath had to go. Nigel painstakingly chipped away at it and carried bucketfuls of rubble out. Then the floor and walls had to be smoothed out, plastered and tiled. It isn’t everybody’s dream bathroom, but for us it is a great achievement and it reminds me of the Gaudi-style. Why straight and even if you can play with form and colour? I even refreshed and painted up some tiles for the skirting board and these complete the look.

Step-by-step:

 

Our brand-new doors upstairs are now also painted and we had our first B&B guests, Bego, a very talented photographer who was here to take pictures of the ‘Saca de las Yeguas’, running of the mares (more about that in the next blog), and a very young couple.

Next up is my friend from Berlin with her two young sons, so this is holiday time and fun after all the intense time of work, frustrations and difficulties to get everything together.

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CASA HALCON on booking.com

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Yes, finally the last touches are being added and we are ready to open our house and finca for guests. Time to pop the cork!

The first bookings are coming in and soon we are also live on Airbnb.

And, since temperatures are soaring, we are installing a swimming pool. A big round over-ground thingy, 17.4 m3, 1 m deep which will give us some refreshment during the hottest months here when we won’t make it to the beach.

In the meantime another fiesta in Almonte is in preparation.

But first I want to tell you about our experience with the Romeria, which takes place each year at Pentecost.

El Rocio – The Romeria at Pentecost, see  https://rove.me/to/seville/el-rocio-pilgrimage  for footage and general information.

El Rocio is a town build on sand, therefore all its streets are pure sand and predestined to be used by horses, riders and carriages.

It also is a pilgrimage town, where throughout the year the brotherhoods, ‘hermandados’, meet to prepare for the biggest of the fiestas, the Romeria, at Pentecost. Last year we were just leaving for Portugal, when the throng of carriages, waggons and riders descended upon El Rocio. This year we watched the build-up in Almonte, where children and whole families were beautifully dressed in traditional costumes and flamenco dresses. Little girls complete with flowers in their hair, lipstick and dresses. Even little boys looked like their fathers in traditional leather riding boots, cummerbund, white shirts and hats, a lovely sight.

El Rocío Pilgrimage or Romería de El Rocío in Seville - Best Time

Some of the pilgrims passed-by our entrance.

We are people that shy away from crowds. This is our excuse, for this year anyway, not to join in the festivities in El Rocio. Instead we watched the religious fervour unfold on the television. There is a whole channel devoted to going-ons in Donana, the Nature Reserve and area here which includes Almonte, Matalascanas and El Rocio and the Donana National Park. This is a very catholic celebration of the Virgin of El Rocio, La Paloma Blanca, the white dove. Every hermandado has a float, richly decorated with flowers, drawn preferably by oxen or horses or mules. There are prayers, incantations and blessings. Not really our style. And to be wedged in between nearly a million dressed-up followers in the beating sun isn’t really our idea of fun.

However, we sneaked into town at sunset on the Sunday. Therefore my photos are very dark and some were too wobbly, as catching the carriages driving by or riders and lady’s on horseback proofed too much for my limited photographic talents. On this evening, an almighty downpour drenched the town and the revellers and big puddles need to be negotiated.  The floats are proudly displayed in a separate tent beside the place for the bow-top caravans for families that do not own a house in El Rocio. It is very much a family festivity and there does not seem to be much alcohol involved.

El Rocio, circa 15 kms from our house, at night: