Frost on Weeds


Following my last post re bright sunny days interrupted by cold nights in which temperatures plunge to 5 degrees, it’s now properly wintry. Some days look nice through the window, but they are not. The wind, hurtling along the gorge and sending the TV aerial into a spin (the one channel is unreachable), has ice in it. Above us, the Sierra de Grazalema peaks are covered in snow, as are the mountains beyond Ronda.

Actually, that’s what I’ve been told. Aside from slinging some food out for the cats, I’m staying inside, thanks very much, working, within arm’s length of a fire, wearing so many layers I can barely bend my arms, and a blanket sarong which makes walking difficult. Not that I want to go anywhere. Can I type in gloves? Following a work trip to Siberia (hey, thanks guys!), I was able to put a lot of the kit to good use during winters on the North York Moors, none more so than the silk glove liners, in which, after persisting doggedly, I was eventually able to write features which were moª¶re orr ;lss feadab;e. That’s ‘more or less readable’ (I was trying again).

Night time temperatures are now well below freezing. Until about 11am, there’s ice in the wheelbarrow, a bit of ice on the inside of the windows, and a thick coating of frost on the olives and wild weeds. Most strange of all, for a couple of hours first thing, the world appears muted and misty. All in all not normal, although it’s a fact that wherever humans live, winter seems to take us by surprise.


Hot Beach, Cold Nights

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There are five clouds on the horizon – fact, not metaphor. Every other day this year the skies over Cadiz have been royal blue and vast. January was always such an easy month to work through in London; no inclination whatsoever to leave the desk, unless to meet someone in Soho for drinks at six, that is. But here it’s a little more tricky. Daytime temperatures have been in the low 20s, and hiking the muffled trails through pine forests at the top of the sierras has proved irresistible, as has lying with a book in the long, herby grass by the henhouse, even pruning the last olives. But then I haven’t got any interesting work on at the moment. A few days ago I pushed a kayak into the water and paddled slowly across the mirror flat lake, looking up at Zahara, everything steamy hot, and still and silent apart from goat bells up the mountain, a tractor, and choughs – one of the five kinds of non-tropical birds I can name.

And depending on the wind strength and direction, it’s hot two hours downhill, curled up in the dunes as well. Bolonia is never crowded, even in August, but in January people are so spread out along the long beach they look like dots. Further towards Tarifa the dots are swinging from pink and orange kites – kitesurfers skimming the surface of the sea. They don’t stop for winter either.

There are fewer people around, and some of the bars and restaurants are shut (many of the chiringuitos included, along with cheery Lola’s in Tarifa), or operating on a whimsical (annoying) ad hoc basis, but the coast is as lovely a place to be in winter as summer. It’s still got the sun, sea, sand.

Having said that, night and day in winter are as different as . . . well, night and day. The heating gets turned off in the province of Cadiz around 5.30pm, even before the sun goes down, and the temperature sinks to four or five degrees. I know that’s considered balmy in Philadelphia, Siberia, and Toronto but the daily rise and fall means I’m constantly surprised first by how hot, and then by how cold it actually is.

Dress code 10am-5pm: jeans and t-shirt. Dress code: 6pm ’til late: jeans and t-shirt, and two pairs of socks, two thermals, polo neck jumper, scarf, bobble hat, padded winter coat . . . and that’s just indoor wear.

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We Ate, We Lived

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My life does not revolve around cooking chicken, or cooking . . . or chickens, for that matter, but I left off at the point where I was about to treat the people I like best to a chicken cooked in ignorance in an – until that point – untested word burning oven while somewhat under the influence of white Rioja (it was more or less Christmas). I feel duty bound to report it was a success in the hope this might encourage anyone who cross-references recipes and frets over the right and wrong way of doing things to just get stuck in and have a go. Er, I should add the bottom line rule (particularly applicable to meat and bread): if it’s not cooked, don’t eat it.

I’m going to get myself some heatproof gauntlets and designate one day a week Oven Day. I can’t see it working, but it’s a good idea in theory because once you’ve spent the morning sawing wood and an hour and a half heating the hole in the wall it seems a shame to only cook a pizza which takes around two minutes. Although it does of course heat the house which, with its thick stone walls is doing a fantastic job of repelling the balmy heat of the garden around it.

Anyway, if you are going to research wood burning / pizza oven cooking, I’d recommend a visit to Traditional Oven ( for fantastic, no fuss advice on everything from building them to using them, plus traditional oven porn – a gallery of photos from around the world. ‘It’s easy’, they say, ‘don’t fret!’ And this is probably true.




Stick the Chicken in the Wall

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Today is the grand finale of Christmas celebrations: día de los reyes magos, feast of the epiphany. The three kings have finally arrived bearing gifts and we are going to stuff ourselves. On Christmas Day Proper I finished the bathroom floor and ate a baked potato so I’m about ready for some heavyweight feasting.

Like most Andalucian farmhouses this one has two kitchens, and again, like most Andalucian farmhouses they were last updated about 150 years ago. Indoors we have a thick-walled room with flagstone floor and a large open fireplace. Inside the fireplace there are hooks and some long-handled industrial-looking iron tools for poking things. This essentially is the hob. On either side there are deep alcoves for storing wood, and above the one on the left, an horno de leña, much like a pizza oven; a deep, dark space with an iron door in which everything is cooked from cakes to roasts they say. In seven months in this house, I’ve only peered inside and closed it again.

That’s basically it for inside, although we have added a sink and running hot water, a table and two chairs.

No-one cooks indoors during summer if they can help it for obvious reasons. These include the fact it’s easier and more sociable to eat at a bar; the 40 degree temperatures that would make a crackling fire indoors borderline life-threatening; the potential to survive nicely on melon, jamón serrano, goats cheese, and tomato, onion and garlic drowned in wine vinegar and olive oil, followed by grapes and figs, washed down with lots of wine. However, plenty of people do cook everyday, they just do it outside in the summer kitchen.

This is either pretty much the same range of mod cons but set up in an outbuilding across the courtyard, or a pizza oven meets prototype barbecue plus a smoke box built into an outside wall – which is what we have. Unfortunately the wall the cooking facilities are string along faces west, and has no shade, so presents challenging conditions for cooks hoping to tackle anything (like jam, for instance) after say 10am.

There is a short window of opportunity around 10pm on a summer night when the temperature has dropped sufficiently to be able to contemplate the idea of standing in the sun and building a fire, and yet there is just enough light left by which to cook something quick. Generally though, the days’ activities (and inactivities) drift and I cook in the dark, using the acoustic method, guessing by the volume of sizzle whether meat is cooking or not. This is a whole new twist London restaurant Dans le Noir could consider.

I once invited 14 people for lamb shanks, and then realised I didn’t have enough plates, cutlery, or glasses; that I had no pan big enough, or a table that everyone could sit around. So preparing for that meal started with a high speed dash to IKEA and making furniture out of planes and planks rather than peeling onions.

Here there is also a preamble to each meal. It starts with padding around the garden collecting dry leaves and twigs, and rifling through the wood pile for sticks of the requisite thickness, before getting the fire going using skills learnt in the jungle at the knee of the master fire-maker himself, Ray Mears. It’s kind of like camping.

Now though the process has moved indoors. It’s still kind of like camping; the sort of camping they do in films with a post-apocalyptic theme where they break into abandoned houses and burn furniture in the middle of the room before barricading the doors against plague victims or zombies, and sleeping on mattresses. While the surroundings are slightly more salubrious than when these pictures were taken, there’s no denying that it feels slightly odd kneeling done on the kitchen floor blowing on twigs in order to cook a burger or boil peas. But there we go.

So the fire is crackling in the kitchen hearth, prematurely ready for artichokes and potatoes.  The unknown quantity is the mysterious dark hole in the wall which is stuffed with sticks and now alight. Once it’s glowing hot, I shall shove in the chicken – I can’t guarantee to cook it for 15 minutes at 370 degrees and then reduce it to 350 but I aim optimistically aiming for edible. And if all fails we do still have a christmas pudding . . .

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Water Water Everywhere, Plenty to Drink

IMG_9175Just to finish on the rain / damp / mud theme: Nowadays I abandon the car at the point where it turns 90 degrees in the mud and walk the rest of the way home. While doing that this evening I noticed three things. First, I have a hole in my right boot – didn’t notice that between April and September when I seemed to be living in a hot, dry country. Secondly, there are large paw prints in the mud inside the fenced property;  obviously I fervently hoped they belonged to a lynx but after close analysis have to conclude they belong to a neighbouring labrador. And thirdly, I have a river, not a post-deluge drain-off, but a bona fide river complete with a rock riverbed, a series of small waterfalls and pools, and a mid-level rippling roar. There are frogs are croaking on the banks.
I’m fairly sure all this wasn’t there yesterday. The new river forms a clear lagoon, a self-prescribed knee-deep moat, where the gate should be, before splashing off down through the neighbouring fields to surprise someone else.
Where it starts, I’m not sure, but the chances are it might be in that evergreen lush patch. Perhaps there is a spring; I shall get myself a forked stick and go dowsing after I look up the instructions online, although you hardly need a stick – you only have to look through the window to see water.
The water in the house comes from a well which taps into some dreadful sounding underground lake. I don’t winch it up in a pail, but have a complicated Heath Robinson type system of well pumps and pressure pumps and pipes which suck it up 100 metres and across a field into a water deposit, then on through a hi-tech decalcifying machine with a bleeping electronic display which means nothing to me, and then finally through rather nice taps.
Currently though, most of the water coming into the house comes via the wide gaps under the doors, with quite a bit more coming through the leaking roof, and some just soaking through the bathroom wall.
The jocular Ivan came to assess the situation on Thursday, and chipped away at something, but it seems nothing much can be done until it stops raining, and the chances of that happening anytime soon are slim. Never mind. The rainwater tastes better than the well water and there’s a seemingly unlimited supply, so I’ve been collecting it in buckets and pans (and actually, also the wheelbarrow), and putting on my boots to go out in the rain every time I need to fill the kettle. Modern life.

Published a little after the events.

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Speed Remake, Pastoral Version

speedI was forced to make an emergency call yesterday:
‘Hola Fernando . . . ‘
‘Hola, Hola. How’s it going?’
‘Good, good, thank you. You?’
‘Good, yes, good. The olives are done, now the rain . . .’
‘Yeah yeah. Are you at the farm?’
‘Yes . . .’
‘Do you think you could you possibly come down to the track please?’
‘Sure, what’s . . .’
‘Can you COME. NOW.’
‘I’m on my . . .’
‘NOW! NOW! NOW!’ I shriek hysterically. ‘I”M STUCK! . . . I’M SLIPPING! . . . I’M SCARED!’

Ah yes. I’m amazed I had my phone on me. I hung up and hunted around in my bag for something distracting like a book or chocolate – nothing – while forcing my entire body weight down on the brake pedal. And then I studied the sky (at which the car was pointed) philosophically, and whistled a little and thought about my To Do list and how funny cats are as the Peugeot eased softly backwards down the track towards ditch, gully, curve, and culvert and inevitable breakages because THE BRAKES NEED FIXING and the track is made of WET MUD.

Some minutes later I saw Fernando’s head appear over the top of the hill. I gave a silent whoop of relief, although, as he pointed out when he reached the car window, there wasn’t a lot he could do. ‘Can’t you get in?’ I wheedled. ‘Nope’, he said. We were rather like a badly miscast Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in a pastoral, low key version of Speed. If I took my foot off the pedal, the car was going to go down the hill, and there was too much mud to go up it. Fernando offered to push it up, but I didn’t think that was going to work.
In the end I was persuaded to lift my foot a fraction of a millimetre and to allow the car to jolt, with his guidance and persistent entreaties, back from whence we’d come.
After about the same amount of time, I was persuaded to get the car back to where it was supposed to be, which I did from a racing start with plenty of frenzied attack, this time not only getting to the top, but flying over the summit, and coming to rest at a flat bit.


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