Too Darn Hot

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Everyone is saying this is the hottest summer in fifty years. Since May the temperatures have consistently been in the high 30s, and as often as not way over 40. That’s degrees centigrade. And it’s pretty much all anyone’s talking about now, because we’ve all had our brains fried. Seville has the infamy of being chalked up as Spain’s Hottest Place Twice, reaching 51 degrees in 1876 and 1881. A lot of people said that was down to crap thermometers and doubted this was possible – well, they’re not doubting it now.
Ordering a small lorryload of gravel and six bags of concrete at Lobato’s earlier today I noticed Marisol had given up chainsmoking and was just doing the ordinary smoking, and that the bucket on the pavement outside to catch the condensation from the air-conditioning was overflowing and it was only 10 o’clock. She said it would be alright if after three or four impossible days there were a couple of cool ones, but there never are. This is full-on marathon hot. In every doorway in Algodonales there’s a person fanning themselves and mumbling dios mio and ay calor and so on, and wiping sweat from their brows like they’re extras in a stage production. You can see old women sitting inside dark rooms with their knees apart and their skirts hoisted up. No one can be bothered to swim in the lake.
Anyway, it was pretty cool in Lobato’s so I hung around looking at floor tile cleaning fluids for a while, and then drove home the long way round with the aircon whacked down to 14 as slowly as I could. I remember looking across to this farm at the beginning of May and thinking how green it all looked. Today, the third month it’s been over 30, and the third consecutive day that’s been that winning combination of suffocatingly hot and ominously overcast, the ground is straw and the sky, a kind of lavender. The property belongs to my neighbour, and her father is just about the father (or grandfather, great grandfather) of every living soul in the somewheresville hamlet (bar myself, obviously, as far as I know). I live in the house that she was born in when there was no electricity, running water, or roads. Sonia, her daughter, sings Led Zep covers in a rock band but does make extremely good goats’ cheese.

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Restoring a Farm: The Befores

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We moved in a year ago. There have been times since when I have wondered what exactly I was doing, whether electing to buy a barely accessible semi-ruined farmhouse in the middle of a country I didn’t know, was a mistake. The idea had been to find something cheap – and that didn’t happen, and to knock it into shape fast while carrying on with the day job – and that didn’t happen either. I completely overlooked the ‘farm’ element, even though the clue was there in ‘farmhouse’, and the fact that farms need farmers. And on a more superficial level I didn’t realise I’d get calloused hands, resigned to handling dead rodents and live snakes and barely wear anything decent again. I’m debating whether to post After pictures because we’re not at After. However, sometimes now I can look around a room without reaching for the To Do list, and just admire the light moving on thick plastered walls.
Just the basic cleaning took two of us a month (maybe two months); hosing, disinfecting and clearing the floors of rubble with a shovel, wearing rubber boots, rubber gloves and face masks. For a month more the bathroom, fashioned from a partridge shed, had no doors or windows or bath or shower. We still have no kitchen, or no modern kitchen with oven or hob; I thought it would be interesting to learn to cook in traditional Andalus style i.e. on iron tripods or esteves over wood in a hearth and then couldn’t be bothered with the whole effort of renovation and so cook over wood is what we do. Or eat salads.  With hindsight etc.
Anyway over the course of the months, things emerged – the kitchen’s flagstone floors, the old wood of the double doors, and a slew of interesting problems – pipes which led somewhere, pipes that led nowhere, nesting swallows, nesting sparrows, leaky flues. I learnt many useful things: the standard height of doors, shower heads, shower taps, the standard height of sinks, standard width of irrigation pipes, how to mix concrete, the various merits of decalcification units, the power output of well pumps, the sand to concrete ratio of grout, the standard dimensions of roof timbers, the relative merits of aluminium and iron, the three stages of plastering, how to lay traditional tiles, brick-laying, standard glass thickness, the fact that replacing glass panes is not my thing, and the Spanish vocabulary for all the tools and hardware associated with the above.

Catching Up

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Just to say the gap between posts isn’t down to it being a boring month, quite the opposite – a busy one, involving work trips to someotherplaces, the help and good company of two volunteers, a ‘near death’ wasp experience (think man flu), good times wading and swimming through the Genal Valley, some late night kayaking, many distinctly pleasant nights at the houses of friends eating fine paellas, padrones and alcachofas, my third and successful trip to the lumberyard at Coripe and the near completion of the terrace, quite a bit of farming business, the twice-daily irrigation of pomegranates (which aren’t bursting before they ripen this year, but are being consumed by birds), spotting one of the original sleighs from Dr Zhivago under a straw basket at the back of a prop store in the Tabernas desert, my first ever experience of an official 48 degrees (Nijar, Almeria), another lovely visitor who enjoyed himself, the attempted rescue of sparrow chicks, mastering plastering, and the arrival of a new dog which is going to be called Belle.

The War on Wasps

I’ve kicked off my summer reading with Wasp and Bee Management on Grapes by Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, PhD, NYSIPM Program, Cornell University. I liked the bit at the end where the wasps eventually swarm around a bit of fish suspended over a bucket of soapy water, fall in and drown, although the heading Bald-faced Hornets are Aggressive has stayed with me. Things of concern to grape-growers are, apparently, yellowjackets, paper wasps, the bald-faced hornets, European hornets, and bumble bees. I don’t even know if we get these things here; avispas and algo como avispas, wasps and something like wasps, is about as entomological as we local farmers get. Bees I know and love. They can stay, and if they needed the grapes that badly, I’d let them have the lot. (Save The Bee)

I really, really don’t like killing things, however this farm with its water, fruit and vineyard is an ideal habitat for human beings and the wasps (whatever sort they are), and despite my best efforts to be tolerant, we don’t rub along. In fact, a certain person got bitten on the hand, developed a trout pout, and went all funny only yesterday. He thought he was going to die, but he didn’t.
I’ve knocked a lot of nests down from under the roof tiles, but over the last week the level of buzzing in the trees nearest to the vineyard has gone up a few notches. It seems they have finished hunting out there somewhere, and are now scavenging round here so I’ve been studying the various methods of getting rid of them. So far the most tempting include:
Plastic bottles part-filled with some sticky drink suspended from branches. Wasps go in (either though holes punched in the sides, or, if you’ve lopped the neck off, from the top) and they get sticky and don’t come out. There’s an ingenious variation on Tipnut in which the top third of the plastic bottle is inverted and shoved down into bottom to make a nice funnel entry. Beer, Coca-Cola, and Fanta orange are listed among the most alluring choices of bait.
The bucket, soapy water and suspended fish method (as outlined above), although ham is also effective – good news for us in the Sierra de Cadiz.
Inflated paper bags dangling from vines and fencing. Wasps think they are the nests of a rival faction and skedaddle . . . although this method has failed with the ones here which are clearly more perceptive.
Writing on groworganic.com, Tricia recommends a spray containing lemongrass oil, clove oil, rosemary oil and geranium oil, and spraying after dark and early morning when wasps are sluggish while wearing ‘long sleeves, long pants, gloves and a veil’. Interestingly, instead of bashing the nest down with a stick and stamping on it, she suggests removing nests at night, putting them in plastic bags and shoving them in the freezer. The idea of forgetting about them until you happen to be rummaging around for something to eat six months later is pretty nasty. That’s the sort of thing that could happen in my freezer.
The classic jam jar trick gets a mention on tipnut.com. Cut a small hole in the jar jar lid, smear the underside with jam. Pour some nice orange juice inside the jar, and pop the lid back on.
‘Point the nozzle at the nest, shoot and watch ‘em die,’ says Howard Russell of Michigan State University Diagnostic Services, who takes a more direct approach. ‘Small, exposed paper wasp nests are easily controlled by aerosol wasp sprays that produce a concentrated stream of juice that has a range of 15 to 20 feet. Paper wasps do not cover their nests in a paper maché envelope like those of yellowjackets and baldfaced hornets, so their brood cells and workers are exposed and vulnerable.’
Avoid the plants which attract wasps, suggests Functionalgardens.com who read that in Cornell University’s Attracting Insects’ Natural Enemies. These include Queen Ann’s lace, parsley, dill, dahlias, daisies, asters, cosmos, tansy, and yarrow. Instead, grow the stuff that repels them, says Bestplants.com: ‘Plants such as wormwood, eucalyptus, mint and citronella are natural wasp deterrents’.
‘Hang a sandwich filled with water,’ is the second, more cryptic, piece of advice from bestplants.com: ‘This will make the wasps think there is a spider web on your door which can trap them.’ No matter how many times I read that, I can’t begin to imagine what they mean, but it sounds effective.
‘There may be a way to physically bar the wasps from entering the vines’ fruiting zone by using very fine-mesh nets over the vines,’ says Wes Hagen of winemakermag.com, who adds that Grape Pest Management (next on my reading list) produced by the University of California, suggests doing “wasp battle”  i.e. finding and eliminating nests at night with a flashlight covered with red cellophane as a safety precaution. ‘Wasps are much less active at night, and the red light should be invisible to them, giving you the advantage of safety and stealth.’

Having failed with a hose-pipe, my preferred weapon of choice is a rolled up magazine. Dress appropriately for war action, try to attack when wasps are drowsy (i.e. early mornings, late evenings), and attempt to hide a bit because if they see you, they’ll go for you.

 

 

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Week of the Apricot

DSC04375I watched them grow, and most mornings for at least a month, I tried eating them green. One evening when the apricots had developed a faint yellowy hue, there were four of us circling beneath the tree looking for something edible. Then I went to Huelva on a work trip, and by the time I got back – just four days later – most of the apricots had ripened, fallen and rotted. I took a massive tub of them across the field to the donkeys in a wheelbarrow, and collected about twenty kilos more to cook. I didn’t, so the next night took them in a wheelbarrow to the donkeys as well. The donkeys looked fine, appreciative, which was a relief. I’d been concerned that with all the fermenting fruit they might have blown up, or got drunk, or that I’d have to roll them over and lance them, like Gabriel Oak did with sheep in Far From the Madding Crowd, but they were their usual belligerent selves, and, actually, keen for more.

I’m not sure how many kilos they got through over the four days the fruit continued to fall. Eventually, with bad grace, I made chutney. This involved dragging dry branches to the ‘summer kitchen’ and breaking them to feed the fire, and the fire irritated the nesting wasps, two of which shot up my shirt and stung me while I stirred the noxious mix. It was meant to be a Martha Stewart recipe. I love Martha who used to appear on US TV showing people how to fold napkins and, by all accounts, got on well with her wing mates in the county jail where she later did time for tax fraud. But anyway, what with the stings, the heat, the smoke, and the fact I was going out and still had to boil the jars, I did everything fast and wrong. I’ve got 6 large jars of vile-looking slop which should keep for a year when I’ll probably throw it out and re-use the jars . . . perhaps for apricot chutney. I guess this is what living off the land is all about.

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Romería Time

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I’m starting to think driving along in first behind a procession of riders, saints on floats, and horse-drawn and tractor-drawn houses is normal. The end of May is peak pilgrimage season, most processions setting off from the village church to picnic in nearby fields. This from Algodonales, went to a grassy riverbank clearing under a bridge on the Ronda-Seville road, and much fun was had. Last week I went to El Rocío in the neighbouring province of Huelva, destination for one of Spain’s greatest romerîas, attracting around one million revelling faithful from far and wide. Everyone had long gone, but it’s a great place to visit anyway and I’ve put it under highlights of Huelva in the piece I’m just writing for The Guardian.

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