Hello 2022

We now enter the third month of 2022 and this is my first blog this year.

What does that mean? Am I too lazy or tired or simply too busy?

All of the above, in fact.

If I don’t do my writing in the morning I am either too tired at night or the laptop is used for watching sports on TV, or indeed I watch my favourite soaps, Heartbeat, Doc Martin and Vera, all English. This happens only in the winter and if we have no guests.

And we do indeed have a lot of guests, so much so, that I have to block days just to keep up with the washing.

Only last week we had continuously guests from Thursday to Monday, which included breakfasts and dinners and the usual housekeeping and corresponding before with the arrivals. And sometimes Nigel even takes the guitar out and sings a few old Irish ditties.

Last night then, the gate was locked and we were looking forward to a quiet night, as my mobile rang and two French motor bikers informed me they just booked and were in front of the gate.

My biggest challenge this year was the group of five Belgians, all bird watchers and nature lovers, who stayed with us for four nights. Daily breakfast at 7.00 am, packed lunch and dinner was provided with the additional requirement of one vegetarian and one Keto-diet, i.e. No-Carb-diet. So I devised meals to please them all, which is what I like doing, creating a meal to suit my clients palate and dietary preferences.

We received another well deserved Booking.com award, which is nice to know our efforts to give people a warm welcome are recognised.

In between keeping guests happy we try to find new places to go, several of which are nearby and important to know as local information for guests.

La Rocina y El Acebrón is one such board walk and just after crossing the bridge at El Rocio on the A-483.

It’s a really lovely walk through umbrella pine woods, leafy forest, dotted with observation hides and gives you lovely views across the lagoon and river La Rocina with its many birds like the Purple Gallinule, herons, ducks, Spoonbills, rails and flamingos. The landscape changes into dry scrubland with herbs like rosemary, thyme, lavender and cistus shrubs. And this time of year the dreaded Pine Processionary Caterpillar (Thaumetopoea Pityocampa) are hatching and climbing down the trunks to pupate. The hairs and bristles are poisonous and can lead to allergic reactions like a rash on the skin, dogs and cats may even die after contact.

We did not follow the 7 kms road towards El Palacio del Acebrón this time.

Much nearer to us are pine woods where we can take a ramble in the shade or follow the path along the Eucalyptus plantation and heath.

Cycling Loop

My last foray on the bicycle lasted ca. 3 hours and had 33.5 kms. The first part runs along the back road through pine forests, which is tarmac but a bit rough, towards Hinojos, passing by the Camping Doñarrayan Park. From there a nice concrete cycling path winds its way towards Hinijos/A-474. Unfortunately, the way back is along the A-474 towards Almonte with all the traffic whizzing past. And then it’s 3 kms on our dusty camino.

Olive Harvest 2021 – How much did we make?

This was our 4th season at Finca Casa Halcón and sadly it was not the best. This was due to the bad weather and the wind beating the blossoms off the trees in April and the whole harvest of the Verdial olives was condemned as a new type of fly got into them, so they went as oil olives, which is a very small payment of €40 cents per kilo as opposed to €85 cent/kilo, which we should have had.

This year, as last year, we brought in Moroccan workers to help with the harvest, as it needs to happen quickly to prevent the olives from turning black.

We received two top-ups after the main payment, as our agents sell the produce and then hand on the increase in price, when the market price is good. We are happy about this system. All in all, our olives received a premium for being clean (no leaves), disease-free  (due to the spraying against the olive fruit fly and the olive leaf spot disease which is caused by fungus Spilocea oleaginea) and size. Because we have a relatively small amount of fruit on the trees our fruit tends to be bigger, even without watering. We were paid 85 cents per kilo for the Manzanillas and €1.10 euro for the Gordal and 40 cents/kg for the molinos, the black olives.

Looking at our figures, it means we made no profit last year if we take the cost of spraying and labour off, in fact we lost money.

Our overall yield increases slightly each year, due to the constant pruning and cutting back and it will be another few years to really be optimal, as we had to cut a lot of diseased wood out and therefore our trees are carrying less leaf mass.

Olive Yields:

2017 – 2188 kgs, 2018 – 4611 kgs, 2019 – 2270 kgs, 2020 – 8761 kgs, 2021 – 4046 kgs.

Our first year, 2017, we just arrived on this unkempt, overgrown finca and proceeded to take the olives down without having a clue. The amount was not so bad, as no pruning had taken place and it was a good year. In 2018 we started pruning, but we harvested ourselves and took forever to take all olives down, three months in fact, and they turned black, so we didn’t get paid a lot.

In 2019 the guy with the sprayer let us down and the trees got diseased. It was absolutely horrendous to see the leaves dropping off and the fruit turn into squelchy brown blobs. Now, that did teach us that our location is a rather humid place with a lot of morning dew, that can bring on the fungal disease, if not preventative treated with a copper fungicide. The spraying with a copper sulphate or copper hydroxide is even allowed under organic standards and needs to be carried out here at least four times a year. Fortunately, the application of the insecticide against the fruit fly only happens once in the year. Although, now that a new variety of fruit fly later in the season has attacked the Verdial, there might be another treatment due.

So although the olive is a rather easy crop, as it does not carry thorns, does not need irrigation (although some farmers do), regrowth is vigorous, is self-pollinating and native to here, it has its problems and like all agricultural crops, the money is not hectic. The yield changes from year to year and there is a lot of annual manual pruning required.

Best of all then, because the black olives only get a payment of 30-40 cents a kilo, as opposed to 80-100 cents a kilo for the green olives, Nigel now uses some of the black olives to make olive oil, which attracts a premium price of €30 a liter!

He does this what I call the stone-age way. In a 25-liter tub he simply stamps on the olives and let the mash sit until the oil comes to the top and drains it off. Then the oil is let to settle and he drains it off several times to get rid off the organic bits that collect in the bottom of the bottle. The simplest method instead of filtration. No machines involved, just honest-to-goodness manual, or in this case, pedipus work.

Well, at least that was what he has been offered by an ex- Almonteña, who now is a chef in a restaurant in France. He now sells the liter of home-made olive oil for €20.There is only 8 liters of the stuff, so it’s a rarity.

And of course we have the lovely olive wood keeping us warm in the winter and a delightful fire on in the chimney at night in the winter months.

Second Hand Furniture – Restore – Reuse

Our local scrap merchant, MetAlmonte is a treasure trove for used anything and everything, big or small, from forks, plates, garden gates, cement mixers, wash machines, mattresses, bicycles, garden ornaments, tables, chairs, chains, curbstones, you name it , he has it at some point.

This is our first port of call, and if he does not have it, well, then there are other alternatives or buy it new.

When we moved in, we had an assembly of old tables, but not a single chair, so we sat on the stairs or an upturned bucket while we were working to rejuvenate the olive trees, setting up the gardens or renovating the house. Then we were given used garden plastic chairs, which I painted in primary colours and we still have them.

We bought a lot of our (new) furniture locally in Almonte, helping the economy and transport is easy. Some electrical items are cheaper in Carrefour, but their customer service leaves a lot to be desired.

For our outside terraces we by second hand sturdy stuff, as I ordered once a seating arrangement online and it turned out to be a disaster, disintegrating after only 6 months!

Madrid – Toledo

In February we got away for two nights to research the possibility of buying either a caravan or a camper to drive to Ireland and other places in another few years. The internet told me there were major businesses around Madrid, Malaga and Barcelona. So we went north to explore.

What we learned was that due to the Corona restrictions imposed during the last two years, people preferred to travel independent of hotels and airports and also to keep their distance to other travellers and so the market for campers and caravans of all sizes is booming.

So much so, that the Germans come to Spain to buy a camper and manufacturers can’t keep up with the production. To order a bespoke camper you need to wait at least two years and any second hand caravans or campers are immediately snapped up.

With the price of new and even second hand campers we were quoted, that idea is a non-runner.

But at least we got to see beautiful Toledo.

Spring mornings, Summer days and the darker side of Sunny Southern Spain

Spring has arrived and merges into summer as tulips and daffodils are up and the geckos have come out of hibernation. The cuckoo has been here a while but can now be heard more strongly calling for a mate.

We can also see lots of tiny flowers on our olive trees, despite the leaves falling like it is autumn. We are not sure if this is normal or induced through the fungal disease, that has been spreading due to the very heavy dew most mornings. Diego informed us that this is a bad location for going organic, as the moisture, because of the closeness of the wetlands and sea, makes it a good place for fungal diseases to spread rapidly. That is why our neighbours spray Bordeaux mix, a copper sulfate treatment every 4-6 weeks, which is more than what would be allowed under organic guidelines. So we will just have to see what will happen and judiciously apply our allowable amount of 5 kgs of copper per hectare.

In the garden the garlic and tomatoes are having a good time, leeks will be transplanted next week, but I have no luck with the green beans. Four came up and three died. I am not sure, if it was the transplanting, lack of or too much water or frost or heat that got them; so many possibilities. Broad beans are way easier to grow, but I don’t like them much. We still have some frosty mornings, so that might have something to do with it. The lack of rain makes watering a real must and the well is also pretty low.

Our neighbour Lauren has put four of his horses here to eat the herbage. They contribute their dung as fertiliser and also act as fire-control by keeping the vegetation low.

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our neighbours horses

Free Chimney Cleaners

Some birds try to build a nest on top of the chimney but end up sliding down the new steel pipe inside the chimney and are not being able to get back up. They try and in the process dislodge the soot, which falls onto the fire-grid. Eventually they end up in the fireplace which is closed. So we have to free them, after making sure doors and windows are open for a swift escape to freedom.

Bitter Fruits

Image result for images huelva strawberry farms

We have a steady trickle of guests and recently hosted two sets of French journalists. Both groups (two and three persons) were interested in environmental matters. The first group wanted to know about the hidden, illegal wells that apparently are used for watering crops. The two lady journalists came here for several reasons; to see some local markets and to investigate the labour conditions and environmental impact of the fruit growing industry. Both are well documented and paint a sad picture.

In fact, if consumers knew or rather wanted to know how these fruits are grown, then they might not be so keen to have soft fruit from Spain on their tables. Here are links to some articles:

https://www.theolivepress.es/spain-news/2019/02/24/too-posh-to-pick-work-shy-spaniards-leave-andalucia-fruit-farmers-berry-concerned/

https://www.thelocal.es/20180628/moroccan-fruit-pickers-complain-of-exploitation-and-harassment-in-spain

https://www.thelocal.es/20180605/metoo-moroccan-fruit-pickers-file-sexual-harassment-complaints-in-spain .

https://www.france24.com/en/20180719-focus-spain-fruit-farms-hell-strawberry-picking-moroccan-women-victims-sexual-assault.

This seems to be a well-known situation and health and social workers and unions are aware of the conditions on some farms, but nobody seems to be doing anything. The rate of abortion goes up each season, when the mostly Moroccan women arrive, as one article stated. So all is not sunshine here and vegetable and fruit growing all over Europe has some very dark sides. The consumer wants cheap food and all sorts of varieties all year round. As long as somebody buys it, it will be grown as long as there are workers available that put up with these conditions because at home there is no work. It is mostly women that suffer the consequences through becoming pregnant having to seek abortion which is subsidised here. But even if they are not pregnant the shame of having been touched by a stranger will be reason enough in their home country to be ostracised, some husbands abandoning their wives and divorcing them.

https://www.france24.com/en/20170616-video-reporters-modern-day-slaves-migrants-workers-exploited-fruit-pickers-spain-italy .

Most workers are too afraid of losing their job if they report unfair, unhealthy or downright slavery conditions.

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Never A Dull Moment

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There has been an uninterrupted stream of visitors; family, friends and guests for the past three weeks.

Family and friends are volunteering as ‘woofers’, workers-on-organic-farms as we are now officially in organic conversion! This is another milestone in our development of the finca and getting our olives recognised and maybe making a few more cents out of them eventually.

So I am slightly exhausted as we have to give everybody our attention and of course catering for all, be it making sure there is enough food for breakfast and the occasional formal dinner for guests. As our reviews proof, my cooking is greatly appreciated.

The weather has been surprisingly wintry with temperatures down to six degrees at night and ten during the day and also dull, cloudy days and even rain. And all along our solar system, our only source of electricity for the whole finca, house, water pump and all, has been on the brink of leaving us in the lurch. The system has been guaranteed to supply us with electricity for two people and the occasional visitor and a maximum of ten rainy days. We are the victims of our own success as we have many more guests than we could have ever imagined. It’s not the guests themselves that use up a lot of power, it’s more the continuous washing of bedding and towels. And of course the uses of high-powered appliances like the toaster, kettle and the dishwasher. These last two have been outlawed for the moment until we have a back-up generator installed. This will kick in automatically when the batteries go low, but will give us peace of mind. This will run on petrol, which is of course an environmental-NONO, being a non-renewable fossil fuel and pricey. We will monitor how often it runs and then decide to upgrade the solar panels, if needed.

We have added a new member to our ever-expanding tools: a new-to-us jeep, Mitsubishi Galloper. In fact it is 16 years old but in immaculate condition as it has been used by our mechanic purely to drive around town. He is giving us a year’s guarantee. Now we can transport our olives in style.

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I have decided to give up the being nice to all people and requests to being more professional. You learn the hard way. In the beginning we threw in breakfast for free, but almost all Spanish guests left in the morning to get on the road and stop at a cafe later.  Also they do not eat cereals, but toast and olive oil or jam. Now we charge three euro for a small breakfast with orange juice, coffee or tea and toast. If you like two of our free-range eggs it’s a fiver. And they are delicious with a lovely orange colour from the grazing and grubbing they do under the olives.

Many people see us on Google maps and call, not bothering to book online. They say they have no credit card and can’t book online, but really, who in this day has no internet access or debit card?

So last weekend I had two nights booked and nobody turned up. It’s not only that the rooms have to be clean and beds made-up, I also have to block the rooms on booking.com and Airbnb so that I will not get double-booked, which would be a complete nightmare. So I am losing out big time when this happens. Last Saturday night I waited up for people to arrive and finally texted and called them but got no reply. And therefore I have resolved not to do this anymore. And honestly we have usually enough bookings that we don’t need to rely on these callers.

Apart from human visitors we are also hosts to other creatures:

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.

(click on the photos to see caption)

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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on-tree-entertainment

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.

End of Summer – the Busy Season Begins

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finca eggs

This being the last day in September, we can state that we have all rooms full. Ok, it’s the weekend so it’s not that surprising. At the moment we have three Czechoslovakian and two Russians with us. It’s getting more international!

And because everybody loves it here and is interested in what we do, I thought we could involve people in an ‘olive harvesting experience’ on Airbnb. But to my surprise they didn’t think it lives up to their standards and expectations. We would have guests, a maximum of four, for three days. We would let them try their hand at harvesting the olives, bring them along to the factory, let them taste different types of eating olives and olive oils. Bring them to the oldest olive tree in El Rocio which is over 700 years old and feed them breakfast and a light lunch. I would prepare dinner on request. They would not be required to work hard, just a bit in the morning to enjoy the activity. And have the afternoon/evening free to discover the surrounding area or go to the beach. They can take the bikes or just chill on the terrasse. What’s not to like?

I would be grateful for some comments on this or maybe someone knows where to advertise this. But we can only do this while we are actually harvesting, which is between now (at the moment we are waiting for the factory to open any day) and January.

In the meantime we continued improving the property with a lovely step at the entrance and a rockery. We changed the curtains in our bedroom and added lime wood blinds, as ours is the hottest room because the sun shines into it from noon till sunset. Our third bedroom downstairs also received curtains to make it more homely.

The intense heat will slowly fade now and growth will take off again and that means it is time for gardening. It’s the opposite to what we are used to, winter being a restful period and time to sit by the fire with a hot port. No so here. I planted some cauliflower and broccoli plants and sowed varies tomato varieties as well as beans and hope we’ll be able to keep the chickens out of the vegetable plots.

Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Lentil Dhal

Here is a recipe for a vegan Lentil Dhal I made recently, which turned out so yummy I have to share it. The twist is a sprinkling of grated avocado stone. Yes, you can actually eat the avocado stone, which is a relief because it’s so big and my attempts to grow a plant from it have not been successful. You need to peel it and then grate it, it’s actually quite soft and tastes a bit like nutmeg, but nuttier.

Here you can read up on the health benefits https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eating-avocado-seed#Benefits but the avocado stone has not received much study, so this is a rather cautious approach. Obviously you are not going to eat a whole stone in one go, just use it to sprinkle on muesli, in a smoothie or on your soup or plate of rice etc. I would use it as a condiment or spice, not as a main ingredient.

Ingredients for 4 people:

1 big cup of lentils, soaked in water overnight (I prefer the red or golden coloured lentils, it just looks a nicer colour)

2 tablespoons of virgin olive oil

1 vegetable stock cube

½ sweet potato, cut in cubes

equal amount of pumpkin, also in cubes

1 onion, chopped

3-6 garlic cloves, chopped

Spices: freshly ground black pepper, ground cumin, cinnamon, coriander seed

(use these spices to your liking, I normally don’t work with measures, just with intuition)

a teaspoon of freshly chopped ginger

a sprinkle of avocado stone and freshly chopped coriander or parley for decoration

How to:

Sweat the garlic and onion in olive oil, add the pumpkin and sweet potato cubes for 5-10 minutes. Add the stock and lentils, top up with water if necessary. You can serve this as a soup or as a main dish.

Add all spices. Simmer for about 40 minutes or until the lentils are soft. Liquidise with a food processor and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of avocado stone and freshly chopped coriander or parley for decoration.

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summer garden produce (organic)