Category Archives: Andalucia

Restoring a Farm: The Befores

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I moved into a semi-derelict farmhouse a year ago and there has seldom been a day since when I haven’t wondered why. I haven’t wondered why oh why; I just think about it. Years ago, one idea had risen above the others and this was to was to seek out a small home with land and live a healthier, less stressed, more balanced life. I have a home with land and a different kind of stress. It is a farm, but I had paid little if any attention to that during the acquiring it process; the words farmer and farming had not crossed my mind. So, imagine my surprise. On a more superficial level I hadn’t realised my hands would turn into broad calloused bats and that I would never be able to wear wedding and engagement rings again. Or that my life would shift shape to include dead rodents and birds and live snakes and dirt and thorns and hired labour bills to be paid in instalments.
House cleaning took two months – hosing, disinfecting and clearing the floors of rubble with a shovel while dressed in overalls, rubber boots, rubber gloves, cap and face mask. For a further two months the bathroom, fashioned from a partridge shed, had no doors or floor or windows or bath or shower. A year on, I still have no kitchen, at least I have a room I refer to as a kitchen but nothing to cook on inside it, other than a pile of wood on the floor of the hearth.
Over time, things have emerged out of the brown – the kitchen’s flagstone floors, the old mahogany wood of the double doors, foundations (not under the house but beside it) and problems, for example pipes which led somewhere, pipes that led nowhere, nesting swallows, nesting sparrows, leaky flues. I have learnt useful things: the standard height of doors, the standard height of shower heads, shower taps, sinks; the standard width of irrigation pipes, the standard dimensions of timber and the standard width of glass for different uses; that there are standards. I have learnt how to mix concrete for a variety of specific purposes; the various merits of decalcification units; the power output of well pumps; the sand to concrete ratio of grout; the comparative merits of aluminium and iron; the three basic stages of plastering; how to lay traditional tiles; brick-laying and the vocabulary in English and Spanish for all the tools and hardware associated with the above.

Catching Up

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A busy month not a dull one is the reason behind he lack of posts. I have spent a lot of it in water – kayaking in reservoirs, reading in streams, swimming through gorges. Not unrelated, I experienced my first 48 degrees, the official temperature registered on the sign of the farmacia in Nijar, Almeria and came close to blacking out while holding a shelf of ceramic pots for support. Not unrelated either, I became nocturnal and enjoyed many indigo nights and starry early mornings sitting outside the houses of friends, drinking ice cold wine and eating alcachofas. I made a third and successful trip up the mountain to a lumberyard and negotiated a fair rate for wooden beams that had to be lifted by cranes, built the walls and plastered the columns for a terrace on the west side of the house, and otherwise used my time in the twice-daily irrigation of pomegranates (they aren’t bursting before they ripen this year, but they are being eaten by birds) and rescuing the sparrow chicks that fall down the chimneys. This month I also got myself a dog, which I will call Belle.

The War on Wasps

My summer reading is Wasp and Bee Management on Grapes by Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, PhD, NYSIPM Program, Cornell University. I like the bit at the end where the wasps swarm around a bit of fish suspended over a bucket of soapy water, fall in and drown. One heading Bald-faced Hornets are Aggressive has also stayed with me. Things grape-growers should be concerned about include yellowjackets, paper wasps, the bald-faced hornets, European hornets, and bumble bees. All I know is that we get avispas (wasps) and algo como avispas (something like wasps) and a lot of bees which can have the grapes if they want them (Save The Bee).

I really don’t like killing things however this farm with its water, fruit and vineyard is an ideal habitat for human beings and wasps alike and, despite my best efforts to be tolerant, we don’t rub along.
Late at night, I’ve knocked a lot of nests down from under the roof tiles but over the last week the buzzing in the trees nearest to the vineyard has ratcheted up, a sign no doubt that the grapes are sweet and ripe. So I’ve been studying the methods of getting rid of them. So far I have tried:
Plastic bottles part-filled with lemonade suspended from branches. Wasps go in through holes punched in the side, get sticky and don’t come out. I tried cutting off and inverting the top third of the plastic bottle to make a funnel entry but felt sorry for myself spending so much time on such depressing craft.
The bucket, soapy water and suspended fish – or ham – method, although attracting meat-eating wasps to the farm is something straight out of a Far Side cartoon.
Inflated paper bags dangling from vines and fencing. Wasps think they are the nests of a rival faction and leave. This fails here not, as I first thought because these wasps are especially bright, but because they are not the species that make nests that look like paper bags. The bags mean nothing to them.
I bash nests down at night using a stick, stamp on them and run away. A website featuring organic tips suggests removing nests, putting them in plastic bags and shoving them in the freezer. This seems complicated and psychotic.
The jam jar trick in which I cut a small hole in the lid, smear the underside with jam, pour a little orange juice or beer in the jar and screw the lid on is clean and classic. 

Howard Russell of Michigan State University Diagnostic Services says ‘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. Point the nozzle at the nest, shoot and watch ‘em die‘. It was while trying this that I realised that I do not have paper wasps.’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’ says Howard. The ones I have do and they are not; they come out fighting.
In Attracting Insects’ Natural Enemies, a product of Cornell University, advises pulling up Queen Ann’s lace, parsley, dill, dahlias, daisies, asters, cosmos, tansy, and yarrow and to plant stuff that wasps find repellant such as wormwood, eucalyptus, mint and citronella. I like this ground-up approach, but it’s going to take me a long time to grow eucalyptus.
Finally, ‘hang a sandwich filled with water,’ is advice I read on 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 study this, I can’t begin to imagine what it means.

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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 when I returned just four days later I found most of the apricots had ripened, fallen and rotted. I dragged a tub of them across the field to the donkeys, and collected 20 kilos more to cook. I didn’t cook them so the next night I took them in a wheelbarrow to the donkeys as well. The donkeys looked appreciative and unharmed, which was a relief. I’d been concerned that the fermenting fruit might have blown them up, or got them drunk, or turned them into helium balloons and I’d have had to roll them over and lance them, like Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd, but they seemed about the same shape and keen for more. They must have eaten more than 150 kilos of rotting fruit.

Eventually, with bad grace, I made chutney. 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. As I don’t have a kitchen I had to start, unlike Martha, by dragging fallen branches across the farm to an outside hearth and getting a good fire going. The smoke disturbed the wasps, two of which got inside my shirt and stung me. It was 38 degrees. What with the stings, the heat, the smoke, and the laborious process of boiling the jars to sterilise them, I did everything fast and wrong. But I have 8 large jars of something which should keep for a year after which I’ll probably throw it out and re-use the jars . . . perhaps for apricot chutney. Living off the land!

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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 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 romerías, attracting around one million revelling faithful from far and wide. I like the tranquility of the local gatherings, seeing people I know released from town life and returned to something more blissful and normal.

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Bastard Owls

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Fernando and his cousin Antonio have been helping me build walls (landscaping rather than fortifying the land). Tonight we talked about foxes. Although I’ve held onto the hope my dear Bob cat who disappeared in March will return after recovering from his bout of amnesia, I let slip that it does cross my mind occasionally there is the possibility he might have met a fox. There’s a massive silver grey fox in the neighbourhood. I often see him on the track in the beam of the headlights when driving late at night.
‘Oh no!’ they said in unison. ‘You’d have found bits of the cat scattered around.’
‘For sure,’ says Fernando, ‘it was a búho real, an eagle owl’.
My heart plummeted. There are eagle owls left and right of the house, hooting on and on, night after night, and I’d let stupid, simple Bob out at 4am on a full moon night.
‘They are completely silent when they fly and swoop,’ said Antonio. He mimed an owl picking up something like a small cat. ‘Sure it was an owl’.
I turned away because my eyes had filled with tears. Just a cat. I still have the psycho Joan, but I loved that soft Bob from the moment he arrived. He elected to go with me and stay beside me and I enjoyed his company as much as a person possibly could enjoy the company of a thick cat. So while I understand nature is all about predators and prey, and the owl is a beautiful thing, I don’t like hearing it hooting and hunting at the moment.

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