October Wild Swimming


The Sierra de Cadiz is a veritable lake district. This, at the foot of Zahara, is an embalse, a manmade lake, but – aside from the dam at one end and some trees sticking up at the shoreline – you wouldn’t know it; it’s wild and natural, with just two jetties but plenty of natural beaches along its 30km circumference.

We’re having an Indian summer – or a membrillo (quince) summer as it’s known here. I’ve been the only person in the lake in August, and today – almost November – when I stopped for a swim on the way back from shopping for jamon, cucumbers, and milk, I unsurprisingly had it all to myself again as I swam out and floated on my back enjoying the view of olive fields and beauteous Zahara. The temperature today was around 28, and the water is about as warm as it’s going to be this year.

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At the risk of appearing foreign and fussy, I asked Fernando as often as I could how to turn grapes into wine. Each time he explained you pick them, you press them, put the juice in something, leave it open to ferment, then cover it up, wait a while and ‘sale muy bueno’. But I couldn’t help feeling it might all be a bit more complicated than this.

Online I found ‘Step-by-Step Guide to Your First Fresh Grape Wine‘ by Alison Crowe. ‘Here’s everything you need to make your first one-gallon batch of wine from fresh grapes’ explained Alison. ‘You can find this equipment at any well-stocked homebrewing or home winemaking supply store’.
• Large nylon straining bag (boil bag)
• Food-grade pail with lid
◦ (2 to 4 gallons)
• Cheesecloth
• Hydrometer
• Thermometer
• Acid titration kit
• Clear, flexible half-inch diameter plastic tubing
• Two one-gallon glass jugs
• Fermentation lock and bung
• Five 750-ml wine bottles
• Corks
• Hand corker
It was baffling trying to extrapolate how many fermentation locks and bungs, glass jugs, and corks would be required for an unknown, but substantially larger quantity of grapes. Perhaps 200 kilos? But as there are no winemaking supply stores in these parts, it didn’t really matter. Instead, at the local co-op, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, they suggested using a giant rubber bucket, mosquito netting, and a rain butt (in which to trample the grapes, strain the juice, and store the fermenting wine, respectively). So I bought those, and continued the research.

It’s useful to know what your grapes are – green is not enough. I asked a friend. She said they’re not muscatel, thank god.

Pick the grapes when the sugar density is around 24° Brix (1.098 SG), something you ascertain with a hydrometer. Check the wine PH (maybe I could do this with the thing from the pool cleaning kit), and then add a specific amount of sulphites, based on the reading. High pH levels decrease the effectiveness of free SO2, apparently, and sulphites are essential to prevent bacteria growing, and bacteria, as even I know, is not good.

For every gallon (4.5 liters) of wine, you need 0.44g (0.0155 oz.) of sodium or potassium metabisulphite. The sulphite should reach 50 mg/L after adding this amount. Safe levels of sulphite are between 30 mg/L and 50 mg/L. At some point there should probably be the addition of yeast, something to clear out the suspended sediment (customarily egg white or animal blood in old Spain), a stabilising agent so the process stops at the right point, and perhaps a dash of tartaric acid to freshen it up and add vigour. Store your wine in the making at temperatures between 18 and 20 degrees (i.e. ten degrees below the ambient temperature) until it’s ‘ready’. And enjoy!

The kit

In a ferretería near the hospital in Ronda, I found a man with some winemaking things under the counter. I bought a densímetro (waste of money because I forgot to use it), and, after some smooth sales talk, a 100 litre stainless steel vacuum vat thing. Its airtight lid and tap near the bottom mean that we can skip the bottling stage. This is good, because the prospect of boiling a hundred or so bottles over firewood in order to sterilise them, was deeply worrying. Fernando loaned us his wine press, like a split wooden barrel on a tripod with a heavy iron plate that you wind down (and down and down and down, then up, and up, and up) a central pole.

Okay so here’s what we did (oenologists look away now):

1. Emptied the ten sacks out onto plastic sheeting, looked at the grapes, removed three or four stalks. Felt exhausted.
2. Scrubbed rubber bucket, wine press parts, and newfangled vat with soapy water, then washed with random solution of sulphite crystals.
3. Assembled wine press and wooden barrel in water to swell the wood and narrow the gaps. Took hours (read book).
4. Covered vat with mosquito netting.
5. Put plastic bags on feet and trampled grapes in bucket. Really not pleasant.
6. Heaved the bucket over the vat and poured in vile looking swill.
7. Put the strained squashed grapes in the press, wound down the plate, collected surprising amount of extra juice in bucket.
8. Emptied bucket into vat. (Stages 5-8 repeated ad infinitum – in the later hours with a glass of wine to hand).
9. Half covered vat to allowing for fermentation and noxious fermentation gas to escape.
10. Left it like that for two weeks – a mistake. I think, after the bubbling stopped, it was supposed to be almost sealed. Time will tell.
11. On day 20, got my brother and sister-in-law to suck the ‘wine’ out through a tube and into a motley selection of sterilised buckets and whatnot in order to separate it from the sediment as part of their holiday fun.
12. Cleaned out the vat (disgusting).
13. Filtered the ‘wine’ back in. Weird colour due to throwing in a sack of red grapes – wrong, apparently. Smells alcoholic though.
14. Dropped the lid in so it bobbed on the surface, and used the pump thing to inflate the air around it creating an airtight seal.
15. Have left in corner of shed. May run a drop off around Christmas time. Although wine is cheap here (drinkable at €1.30 a litre).

DISCLAIMER: this is a confession not a recipe.

For the full wine story see also GRAPES OF WRATH, and GRAPES & RATS.



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Continuing the guide to how not to make wine ( you can read yesterday’s preamble here), we reach the stage where there is no escaping the inevitable – the harvesting:
The skies threatened rain on September 16, and so it was with heavy heart that Fernando’s offer of a wine press for the day was accepted. I tossed and turned in the night at the prospect of some actual farming work.
Wasps were getting up about 10am so I got up at 6am. (I even got Dave up early because he fears wasps even more than I do). I put on the kind of protective clothing worn in films when cleaning up after a murder, or looking for stolen anthrax, and it was a bit hot, even at 7am. I also applied a liberal spraying of Jungle Formula, stuck a large can of wasp spray under my belt, and took clippers, some sacks, and a wheelbarrow to the edge of the killing fields. With grim determination we dropped to a crawl and set off down our respective rows, remaining in radio contact. Occasionally Dave would break through the canopy to display a bunch of grapes in the hope that I’d take a picture and use it for a wine label. In some places grape-picking is offered as an activity holiday, but I’m not sure this is what people have in mind.
It turns out most of the wasps had gone (where, I do not know); a few were hiding inside the bunches but knew their time was up and didn’t put up much of a fight. Still, probably worth a month of wasp fear and military style preparation.
Over a period of about five hours we picked 10 large sacks of grapes. Some of the grapes were huge – press your thumb and forefinger together and you wouldn’t be able to squeeze them through the gap. And some of the bunches were a metre long and too heavy to haul out of the tangle of vines. I actually picked a lot more than that and ate them.
After all that, feet up, coffee and a couple of hours of Sierravision (this week’s one available TV channel) was called for. Unfortunately, we had to press the grapes.* Looking past my guests to the olive trees behind them while serving dinner a few weeks back, I’d been mesmerised by the sight of large rats trotting briskly back and forth between the vineyard and the outhouse. I didn’t think it would take them long to work out their vineyard had been plundered, and track down 10 sacks of grapes. There was nowhere to hide that volume of grapes; the only thing to do was to press on . . . pardon the pun.

* After we had pressed the grapes, Juan the horseback chimney sweep commander, and the chimney sweep, told me I should have spread them out in the sun for three days first to get all raisiny and slightly fetid before pressing them. However I can’t help thinking this approach is more rodent friendly than I’m currently capable of being.

Anyway, I’ll explain how we ‘made the wine’ in the next post. It may prove useful to someone with several hundred kilograms of grapes and no patience for proper procedures.



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Now the ‘wine’ is in the barrel, but things were different back in September when the prospect of harvesting the grapes and making the first batch of wine lay ahead. For anyone wondering how not to do it, here’s the complete guide.

September 10: I have had headaches from wine before; this time it is different. It’s the prospect of making wine not the result of drinking it that’s responsible for the skull-shrinking ache and sense of co-mingled guilt and doom I’ve experienced each morning lately. It only lasts around 10 minutes, the time it takes to finish my coffee outside in the sun, round the back of the kitchen, a position which provides a fine view of what we refer to as the vineyard.

I mean, it is a vineyard, just not the spaced-out, well-ordered, forever sunset ones on labels from California; it’s an impenetrable mess. As I think I’ve mentioned, for the first month we were working on the house, I thought it was rows of old sticks; stakes for some obscure Andaluz farming practice I needed to ask Fernando about. Shortly after that the entire area had sunk from view under a head height spread of thistles, poppies, and michaelmas daisies. It was only in late May that I began to notice lime green shoots, as thick as my wrist stretching up in all directions above the sea of flowers, waving speculatively, big leaves flapping in the breeze. From then on, each day the vines were a foot longer, and meaner – lunging and grabbing at each other, clawing their way up anything they could find (other than the rows of wires).

When I set off down there in a sundress, straw hat, and flip-flops armed with a pair of clippers to ‘tidy them up’, I found they’d colluded, and woven long, dark tunnels full of snares and nooses, and moving through the rows involved shuffling at a low crouch, the vines sealing the exit as I passed. I got caught up and fell over a dozen or so times, usually into crispy thistles. There were hundreds of heavy bunches of ripening grapes (good), loud with the whining hum of what I thought were bees but turned out to be wasps (bad). I never knew wasps made nests the size and shape of Ikea’s iconic paper lampshades, nor that some made nests in the ground and were primed to attack on sensing even the most tentative approaching feet.

Anyway after two stings, a Navy Seal style retreat crawl, the loss of hat and flipflop, several cuts and grazes, and hair so thick with burrs and things I had to chop out great clumps, I decided to let the grapes do their thing until it was harvest time. I’d only infiltrated two rows out of . . . I don’t know . . . maybe 10, each with an uncountable number of vines.

Once or twice after that I googled ‘can wasp stings kill you’, and the answers were sometimes ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’.

Now, I sense from the number of friends and neighbours asking whether I’ve picked the grapes and made my wine yet, that harvest time has arrived.  They’ve been asking for a while, and I keep thinking I’ll do it tomorrow before realising that I just can’t do it tomorrow because I don’t want to pick the grapes, and I don’t know how to  make the wine.

I’ve googled wine making too. It seems people in the googlesphere make an average of 5 litres, add a lot of this and that, run a lot of tests, and pass it in and out of sterilised demijohns. Wine making anoraks. Fernando mentioned that he made around 100 litres last year, and that if all the grapes were picked, on a good year, it should be possible to get around 130 litres. It’s tantamount to a challenge. However I can’t even think what sort of containers we could use, or how to sterilise them, or how – even where – to press the grapes, hence the passing days, the growing tension, the growing grapes.

Inevitably I’ll have to go back in there one day soon. The buzzing is loud, and it all looks really, really bad. Think I’ll get away to the coast for a week. (I did, you can read about that here in The Guardian online).



guardian cadiz

See the feature I wrote for The Guardian on Cádiz and the Costa de la Luz: where to stay, eat, drink and more: ‘With sunshine pouring down on golden sands, ancient buildings and the sparkling ocean, Spain’s far south-west lives up to its name, the coast of light’. The idea was to suggest good places to visit in order to take advantage of the late summer sun. It’s currently late October and the temperatures are still around 30 degrees. You can read the full article here.

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Seaside, Sea Salt, Sanlúcar

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Down below all the history, callejónes, bars, singing, and bodega action of Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s barrio alto, Spain ends in sea and sky. Straight roads meet at a point on the horizon in the salt flats beyond down-at-heel Bonanza. You can buy sea salt by the sack here.


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