Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Off to Work

We are retired, so there is never any intention of doing too much work. Of course sometimes we work very hard, during olive harvest of course, and sometimes when we are anxious to get something finished. Did I say finished? Nothing is ever really finished, it's all a work in progress. We hope there are still jobs to be done when we finally push off ... you know, the FINAL push off.

I received a small(ish) semi automatic washing machine for my birthday. Strange gift you might think but it's what I wanted. It's to be used for washing fleece. We set it up down at the Casita, and while we are not entertaining guests, it's the perfect place to turn into a fleece workshop.

Every morning after breakfast I set off to 'work'. The first wash is a simple soak in super hot water, no detergent. It's beyond dirty..

While it's having a nice long soak I get on with a bit of knitting. Someone else likes my knitting too.

It takes sometimes 3 or 4 soaks in hot water and detergent followed by 4 or 5 rinses. Without the machine it's really hard work. I never actually run the wash sequence, the fleece only soaks (danger of felting if too much agitation is involved). But it drains away the lanolin rich, dirty water out on to the finca so no danger of clogging pipes with congealing lanolin.

The whole Casita, and the pump for the water (which comes from our own well) is run on solar power.  That includes the heating of the water so the whole process is as eco friendly as I can make it.

There is all the necessary things needed including the wherewithal to make tea. So tea break is spent just admiring the view.

And by lunch time I usually call it a day and go home. What can I say, it's a part time job!

Friday, 21 September 2018

In Search of Chosen Men

Does anyone remember the 'Sharp' TV series? A very young Sean Bean playing the lead character. This (and the novels by Bernard Cornwell) is the story of the 95th Rifles regiment during the Peninsular wars against Napolean. The regiment after several name changes during the ensuing 200 years became my son's regiment and although he is no longer in the army it has been the defining experience of his life so far and so he is rightly very proud of their history. He came for a brief holiday with us and we went off in search of physical evidence of their presence here in this part of Spain.

Our search took us to Elvas in Portugal. This is about an hour away from our house and turned out to be really worth the visit.

The fort is Star shaped. Such a clever design I don't know why we don't see more historical buildings this shape. Like many  castles in Spain, you are allowed to scramble over battlements and climb parapets and there are in some spots no handrails or barriers to prevent disaster. You are simply responsible for your own safety. I like that. 

The town is also walled and we drove through a short tunnel to enter.

We parked in the underground parking which is beneath the town's main square and then visited the tourist information centre. After a conversation in perfect English  (this is a novelty for us.. since our little corner of Spain is not very switched on when it comes to foreign languages) we had a walking route mapped that took us to the castle and then to the English cemetery - our main goal for the day.

And there they were.

The cemetery holds only four actual graves, two officers killed during or shortly after the battle of Albuhera and another officer and his wife who died much later.

 But since the cemetery has been looked after by local English expats there have been further commemorative plaques placed by other regiments to the dead from here and the seige at Badajoz which is just a five minute drive back across the border to Spain.

It was a day filled with talk of history and battles, both historical and contemporary, as we are a bit of a military family with members serving almost in every generation going back a long way. I just recently discovered that my three times great grandfather who served in the Gordon Highlanders, fought a battle in a village just five minutes from my house at a place called Arroyomolinos.  When we fell in love with our little finca we had no idea that 200 years ago an ancestor may have trudged up the road past our entrance in full battle kilt.  It's a strange world.

O'er the hills and o'er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away
When duty calls me I must go
To stand and face another foe
But part of me will always stray
Over the hills and far away

Through smoke and fire and shot and shell,
And to the very walls of hell,
But we shall stand and we shall stay
Over the hills and far away

Though I may travel far from Spain
A part of me shall still remain,
And you are with me night and day
and Over the hills and far away.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Hot in the Kitchen

According to the BBC we are experiencing a heatwave here in Spain with temperatures up to 47C in the shade. Yes, it's hot, our own north facing in the shade thermometer has registered 41.8C as it's hottest temperature this year.. it's still early August so we could easily go up from that yet.

The truth. It's like this every year here. This is fairly normal August temperatures for our region as the hot African winds blow up through Portugal and the Peninsula depositing a fine orange coloured coating of sand on the car and making the sky look like it might rain. The rain rarely comes.

The BBC reported deaths from heat stroke in southern Spain. Again, this happens every year. The increase in temperature puts a strain on the elderly in the same way that winter does in the UK.  I don't mean to belittle the danger. It is very hot and we all have to take extra care because the sun can kill you! But so far this isn't much different from most other years since we have been here.

For a good part of August I become a recluse. I stay indoors doing inside jobs along with some binge reading, knitting and TV watching. We often save indoor projects specifically for the summer time. One job that must be done but really isn't conducive to the high temperatures is the preserving of the vegetable harvest.

I do try to turn excess courgettes, marrow or cucumber into pickles. Tomatoes can be turned into a jam (paired with chillies they make a super condiment to be served with cold meat or cheese). I also dry tomatoes in the sun - but since I like them still a bit squishy I will semi-dry and then freeze.

Here I put some 'not quite dried enough' tomatoes into oil and they started to ferment. This isn't too much of an issue, fermentation adds a bit of a tang to the tomatoes and actually increases the beneficial enzymes and vitamins. But having discovered the pot making vigorous bubbles and leaking oil over the shelf, I decided to whizz them up in the food processor to a paste  and freeze in small amounts for later use. The addition of chillies and garlic gives a good approximation of Harrissa paste, but my chillies came to nothing this year so I left it at a simple sun dried tomato paste.

A gifted marrow becomes chunks for winter stews and is included in a ploughman's pickle.  The hardest job is standing to chop the vegetables into small dice, as the kitchen gets ever warmer from the pans bubbling on the stove top. 

Quite often when we make preserves we like them so much we eat them pretty much straight away.  Since jamming and pickling is a way to preserve fruit and vegetables this year we agreed that when we are sick of eating the fresh vegetables then we will preserve them and KEEP the preserve for winter. A little bit of summer in a jar. The cupboard is filling up with our produce and the freezer is starting to groan a bit.  And the figs are now ripening - to bottle or not to bottle? Poached figs in spiced syrup is a family favourite but there is only the two of us and you can certainly get too much of a good thing as far as figs are concerned.

Discovering some neglected mushrooms in the bottom of the fridge I quickly put them into a basket to dry on the veranda. They aren't in full sun but the heat is immense and I might be able to whizz them to powder tomorrow. I love my mushroom powder, the smell is intense and the flavour devine. I'm the only person I know who can make a mushroom sauce without fresh mushrooms (and you'd never know!)

After hours of chopping, boiling, bottling and the endless dishes that seem to accompany any mammoth task in the kitchen it's so nice to have a man about the place who can cook the dinner! (Chicken satay made with home made peanut butter 😁)

Yum! Some people are just hot in the kitchen.

Friday, 3 August 2018


My electric combi oven broke. It has been such a great oven and so useful over the past few years that I feel bereft without it.

We have this thing.

But it too is broken. Not entirely but so difficult to manage that it's hardly worth using. In the UK we expect a certain standard from a cooker. I've discovered that our standard is very high by comparison to what is considered an acceptable norm here in Spain. It is worth noting for anyone contemplating a move over here.. Spanish cookers are basic and when they look fancy they are just basic with knobs on! Literally.

So until I can safely light the pizza oven again (temperatures are over 40C at the moment) we will not be having, cake, fresh bread or roast dinners. This is a double blow since I have just started off a new sour dough 'mother' and yesterday's oven catastrophe occurred while waiting to bake the first sour dough rolls.

I did manage to make them edible in the gas oven but it was not a good test of what was a new recipe. So for now I shall continue to feed the sour dough starter but will only be able to use it for flatbreads cooked on a griddle or pancakes.. apparently you can make a 'beer-like' non alcoholic beverage from it too.. this has piqued my interest somewhat.. watch this space. There's a recipe here if you fancy trying it.

So, why don't I just go and buy a new cooker I hear you ask? We had plans to spend the next season's olive harvest money on sourcing a very good quality cooker from the UK and having it sent over but not wanting to count our chickens (who knows how good the harvest will be?) we haven't been shouting much about it. Meanwhile life has organised for me to improve my efficiency with the bread oven for which I am going to be grateful. Once I have finished mourning my combi oven. 😥

Thursday, 19 July 2018

How We Are

It's been a little while since I wrote a post. It's not that nothing has happened it's more that nothing startling has happened. And life is mostly like this isn't it? It's probably what we aim for, after all there could be nothing worse than living in a constant state of excitement, anxiety or intrigue like a soap opera.

Summer has been cooler this year, super intense heat one day followed by a cool day the next. We are not complaining. Whatever weather we get here we are grateful. It's a lovely place to live and we try to enjoy every aspect of it. You know the adage about life giving you lemons and making lemonade, well we add lemon marmalade, lemon pancakes and lemon curd on top of that because we really want to make the most of every single day.

My creative pursuits wax and wane with the moon - literally! I have been noticing an increase in fibre art as the moon approaches fullness then a few days of not even picking up a needle and thread before beginning again, but slowly.. just before the full moon it can get pretty frenzied. Proof that the moon is still influencing my life even though I no longer feel the need to mark it's course on the calendar. Every time of life has it's curiosities.

I phoned my shepherd to get more wool from him only to be told that he had sold all his sheep! So a few frantic phone calls later and I have sourced another supplier in the village. Which is a relief because I am very much wanting to keep things as local as possible.

At the moment I am practicing felting and embroidery on felt to make bags. It's all still a work in progress but these practice pieces will end up in the Etsy shop on sale eventually. I have had two launch dates for the Etsy shop already and not managed to get it live yet but with the arrival of my final piece of kit (a picker) this weekend I should truly be up and running. And then lots of lovely fibre goodies will be available to the world.

The update on this is that the shop is now live. But seriously Etsy is pants and I still can't get it to do what I want. But if you fancy a gander take a look here.. ExtreMerino is up and running!

Of course I am not sure that the world is waiting for this but we shall see. The other option, one that I shall follow up at some stage, is the crafty/tourist centres of Caceres or/and Trujillo. They both take in work from local artisans and offer it up for sale. How many sales are made is anyone's guess - I've been here five years and not noticed many changes in the stock. But I am going to start producing stuff specifically for the Extremadura tourist market. Watch this space.

The figs are growing. At about this time each year I get the urge to write a cookery book of all fig recipes. Most years the feeling passes quite quickly. This year I've requested that Steve take some quality photos of the trees and fruit growing. Arty shots of fresh fig food will follow as soon as they are ripe. Dried figs and the actual recipes can be worked on anytime.  Who knows.. maybe i'll do it this time.

I sent away for a new cookery book. As if don't have enough already. This is about fermented foods. It's a topic I have delved into before. I am already sold on the health benefits of fermentation but my issue is that I have a sweet tooth and I don't entirely enjoy the sour tang that fermentation produces. After reading this book so very carefully I am wondering if it's supposed to taste like mine does or if I have made them incorrectly. She makes everything sound so delicious. The only way to know would be to go to Texas and knock on her door and ask to taste hers!  (I would do it you know!) But in a nutshell this is a lovely book full of sensible advice.

In the meantime I am trying to train my taste buds. Cutting way back on the sweet stuff. We cut out alot of the sugar a long while ago but simply replaced it with honey and like addicts our consumption has slowly increased as our tolerance grows. We now consume a litre of honey a week!!!! It's a work in progress and I suspect that it will forever need vigilance to keep the sweet stuff to a reasonable level. Why? Well I have a feeling it's bad for you but when I think on it my father was a really heavy sugar consumer and lived until just before his 94th birthday. He was never concerned by the amount of white stuff that passed his lips but it upset the rest of the family hugely.  As my great aunt used to say "you can't go wrong with all things in moderation". I guess it's down to your genes really but if I need a mantra to go by then that is as good as any.

Simmering in the background through spring and into summer has been my mother in law's house move. Steve has been project managing this since his mother has short term memory loss which makes organising even simple things impossible.  A long distance project without power of attorney has proved stressful at times so we feel the need for a holiday. Hopefully, as all his hard work is about to come to fruition we can get away for a week by the sea in September. We are just waiting on word from some Finca sitters who we hope will see living in our house and looking after our cats, hens and plants as a break from the stresses of their everyday lives.  And so, we are fine and all is well and shall be well.

This is how we are.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Finding My Thing

I have been drawn to textiles and creative crafting since I was a child. I made my first dress at age 12 with no help and no supervision. I wore it to a party, no one yelled OMG you made your dress yourself!! So I guess it passed muster. Sadly there was no obvious career opportunities for a girl who liked to play with fabrics and threads. Over the years I have dabbled with other crafts, bobbin lace making, tatting, crochet, knitting, quilting, cross stitch, embroidery and now spinning... and lastly felting.

Raw wool before carding

I like playing with wool. In fact the more I play with it the better I get to like it. Does that make sense? I should explain. I have a small stash of fibre from other areas and some from other animals. Since I am fairly new to spinning I thought it important to be able to compare the local wool with what is already out there.The more I play with fancy fibres the more I understand what an exceptional product the local merino wool is.

Wet felted flowers

It doesn't win for being the softest, its not alpaca, but it's really nice honest good hard wearing wool. It's also not too tough or scratchy but I understand that many people prefer not to wear pure wool against bare skin.  That's ok. It's wool - intended for jackets, cardigans, jumpers etc.

Detail of child's poncho

When you have alot of hobbies it can be difficult to get really good at just one. Sometimes you have to keep it simple. Pull back a bit and concentrate on perfecting something fairly basic - the impact is often greater with less. So. I guess wool is definitely my thing, and I thought knitting would be the best use of it but having sustained an rsi injury from repeated knitting now I'm not so sure.  But that's ok too, wool can be used for so much!

Hoodie for baby with wool covered buttons

I recently sent some wool to an online friend for her to spin it and let me know what she thought. At first she waxed lyrical about how lovely it was then she mixed it with a commercially prepared merino and some sparkly fibre and then she spun it.  It was ok. Yeah you can tell I was disappointed. You see I felt that the wool was beautiful in it's own right and didn't need any bells and whistles and certainly not sparkles! OK perhaps I should have sent her more than I did but I feel sure she still would have thrown sparkles at it.

Experimental mock fairisle

I have only recently begun experimenting with colours and I like it more and more.  This I think is definately IT.  Wool! Yes wonderfully woolly wool. It can be spun and then knit or crochet or woven on various different types of loom, it can be wet felted, it can be needle felted into sculptures or shapes. The possibilities for playing with colours are literally endless and as a medium for creative expression it has been sadly relegated to the mundane, the lowly utalitarian - a position it does not deserve. Here are some of the qualities inherent in natural wool. 

1. 100% natural.
2.  Renewable sustainable product (sheep's fleece regrows every year right?)
3. Biodegradable - at the end of it's natural life it can be composted or dug into the garden.
4.  Environmentally friendly product using less energy to produce than synthetic yarns and being natural it does not contain any petrochemicals.
5.  Wool is fire resistant and meets fire prevention regulations without the need for chemical treatment.
6.  Wool fabrics trap air between their fibres making them super warm in cold weather and conversely in summer they help the body stay cool.
7.  Wool repels water sufficiently to be called shower proof - naturally.
8. Woollen fabrics do not crease or wrinkle easily. The fibres have crimp or memory that enables them to bounce back to their original shape.
9.  Wool is durable and hard wearing - different breeds of sheep give different types of wool with varying softness Vs durability. There's a wool suitable for every project!
10. Wool comes in lots of natural colours but also takes dye really well - fortunately there are literally hundreds of colours to choose from.
11. What you can do with wool is only limited by your imagination.

 So... let's hear it for wool! Hip hip....

Wet felted book cover