Category Archives: Practical

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.

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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How to Build a Garage. Sort of.

Fernando, Antonio and I design a freestanding garage. Turns out that calculating how much iron to order is a fairly complicated business.

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Hee-Haw: Lawnmower Delivery

The house is now submerged in undergrowth or I should say overgrowth, barely visible if not through the window of a light aircraft. While in July I’ll be praying the well doesn’t dry up and dragging a hose over earth turned to rock, I wake these mornings half-expecting the vegetation to have broken through the foundations, to be tumbling in coils from shattered window panes. The track is undetectable. The donkey house, the hen house, and I forget what else was there, are swallowed up  along with wheelbarrows, loungers, shoes, shears, umbrellas, football, rolls of wire fencing. The wild flowers have un-hackable trunks, the poppies are over my head; large animals have tunnelled through the grass. Aggressive shrubs are hoovering the water and nutrients needed by the olives and orange trees.

It doesn’t seem right to measure the farm in acres when most of the growth is vertical. Each acre is 43,560 square feet, and the vegetation on it averages 4 foot high which equates to 174240 cubed feet of problem per acre. I watched Arturo fix an ancient tractor he bought secondhand in Seville. He made it look easy (although it has since broken down and been abandoned mid-field). I don’t have a tractor. I do have a strimmer but it’s not up to this; it was like going to war with a peashooter and the strimmer, a brand new acquisition, has joined a lot of stuff on the unlikely to be fixable pile in the shed. I have a scythe I like using but it is slow and dangerous and, for some irritating reason, fascinating to the cat.

The only solution is to fight nature with nature. Juan, 81, father or father-in-law of every farmer I know except Fernando, has located a small herd of sheep for me. However my hesitance (am I still, after all, not footloose?) and the complicated paperwork and housing preparations having sheep entails means even if a decision was made today they wouldn’t arrive until August when everything was turned to straw.
As an interim solution, Fernando has lent me Canalita and Saltalinda, his belligerent donkeys. They arrived last week with Fernando and Fernando’s cousin Fernando, full of bolshy attitude and have already eaten a guard dog sign, a cat litter tray I’d left out to deter mice from climbing up into the engine of the car, a glove and a young fig tree native to Valencia. Like so many solutions this is packed with its own problems.

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Your Own Olives in Just 18 days, 9 hrs

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It turns out those olives you can buy ready to eat from any deli can be made at home for free in just 18 days and 9 hours. Ismael and his father have harvested the oil producing olives and taken the last sacks for pressing, but there are still many trees around the house bearing the olives used for marinating and eating. My former neighbour Mari cornered me in Zahara last week and asked if I’d made my aceitunas de mesa. When I said I hadn’t she gripped my arm and gave detailed instructions on how to do it, along with a Tupperware tub of some she had made earlier which were strong stuff.

I reluctantly, dutifully collected 25kg, which is plenty enough to go with a glass of wine. For several hours afterwards I sat in the garage while it rained and less enthusiastically sorted through them, throwing out any that looked too black or too green, then whacking the remaining ones with the base of a bottle to mash them up a bit.

After this I floundered. Everyone has their own method and I’d received conflicting advice. I had to soak them but some say in salt water, others, just water. Some say leave them in the same water for the first three days, others say change the water every day from day 1. Some say leave them for two weeks, others for three weeks. The one thing I didn’t do which I definitely had to do was put a big plate on top of the olives so they are completely submerged.

These are the steps I took:

  1. Changed the (unsalted) water every day for 18 days, then drained the olives, and hauled them into the kitchen to bottle them.
  2. Made some brine. I used litre bottles, first putting in a couple of big tablespoons of salt dissolved in boiling water, then topping the water up to just under 2/3 full. Threw in a bit of sugar, and then filled to the top with vinegar, and shook it all about.
  3. I then set about lighting a fire and boiling a couple of dozen jars six at a time, for 10 minutes of rollicking boiling, in a large pail to sterilise them, dropping in the lids at the end. (You can skip this four hour stage if you have an oven, or a dishwasher.)
  4. About this stage in the process I lost all interest in bottling olives.
  5. However, I continued, and ladled in the olive slosh, making sure to pack them in well, then stuck in garlic and chilli, and poured in the brine to the very, very top, and stuck on the lid. Job done.

It took 18 days and 9 hours. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

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