Category Archives: Practical

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.

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, 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 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 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 ‘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 ‘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, 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.



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.


Hee-Haw: Lawnmower Delivery

The house is barely visible now, except through the windows of a light aircraft. By July I’ll be dragging a hose over rock solid rubble trying to resurrect green things and hoping the well doesn’t dry up. These days, I go to sleep at night wondering whether the vegetation will have broken through the foundation by morning. The track is undetectable, the donkey house, the hen house, and I forget what else is out there, all submerged along with wheelbarrows, loungers, shoes, shears, umbrellas, football, rolls of wire fencing and other white trash detritus. The wild flowers have trunks, the poppies are over my head; large animals have made tunnels. Tough grass is hoovering up the water and nutrients meant for the olives and orange trees.

It doesn’t seem right to measure the farm in acres; most of the growth is vertical. Each acre is 43,560 square feet, and the stuff growing on it is, on average 4 foot high. That 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 which obviously it isn’t. We don’t have a tractor. We do have a strimmer which is a bit like going to war with a peashooter, but after half a day of getting it to start it lasted precisely 6 minutes before giving off smoke and its bits melting, and so it’s currently in the probably can not be fixed pile in the shed. And I have a kind of scythe which I like using but which is slow and dangerous.

The obvious solution is to fight nature with nature. Juan, a sprightly 81, and father of every farmer in a 20-mile radius bar Fernando and Fernando’s cousin Fernando (and who, incidentally, once owned this house and land and therefore keeps a critical eye over proceedings), has located a small herd of sheep for me. Unfortunately what with the paperwork and everything, they are not going to be ready to make the journey from distant Olvera, until July when all the grass has dried up and become an unappetising fire hazard.
However, as an interim solution, Fernando has lent me Canalita and Saltalinda, his bolshy and belligerent donkeys. They arrived with Fernando and Fernando’s cousin Fernando, full of attitude last week, having finished all the grass on Fernando’s side of the fence. The difference to our own fields is so far imperceptible, although I did notice they had eaten a Cuidado con el Perro sign, part of a cat litter tray I’d left out to deter mice from the car, and a glove, and that they are considerably fatter.


Prepare Your Own Olives in Just 18 days, 9 hrs

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You know those olives you can buy ready to eat from any deli? Well, you can make them yourself for free in just 18 days and 9 hours. Ismael and his father have just spent five days harvesting most of the olives and taken the last sackload to the co-op for pressing, but I did shake and bat the olives off the old manzanilla olive tree by the bathroom. My former neighbour Mari had cornered me in Zahara the week before and asked if I’d made my aceitunas de mesa. I said I hadn’t (thinking, damn, more stuff I need to do) and she gripped my arm and gave me detailed instructions on how to do it, along with a Tupperware tub of ones she had made earlier. Mari is a keen smoker; her olives were powerful stuff.

Anyway, we collected around 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, chucking out any that looked too black or too green, then whacking the chosen ones with the base of a wine bottle to mash them up a bit. (Diego in the ferreteria had a basic machine for doing this, but he wouldn’t sell it, saying it was rubbish and a waste of money, even though I really wanted it).

What you are supposed to do at this stage depends on who you ask. You definitely have 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. Everyone says put a lid or a plate or something on top of the olives so they are completely submerged, which, ironically, is the one thing I forgot to do.

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. (If you are dealing in less industrial quantities, maybe soak them in vinegar for a couple more days).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. About this stage in the process I lost all interest in bottling olives. After all it’s not like they’re going to run out of them in Cádiz.
  6. However, I continued, and ladled in the stinking 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.

As I say, only took 18 days and 9 hours.

Aside from present Mari with a return offering, I have no idea what to do with all this. People are sick of olives round here. I’m hoping to have a lot of guests around Christmas who regard olives as interesting and exotic. Unfortunately they’ll need to be time-travellers from 1970s Britain.

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