Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Making elderflower cordial

Friends, Birgitta and Manfred at Casa Belén recently gave us some homemade elderflower cordial which we really enjoyed. With its slightly heady aroma, a sharp sweetness and thirst quenching qualities, we thought it would great to go, sooner rather than later, to collect flowers to make our own. We were sure we had missed the main blossoming of the wild elderflower bushes but we managed to collect enough for a decent batch.

We set off along the Camino de Santiago which is about 500 meters from La Pasera and explored some of the many tracks that lead off it to the left and right. Many of the bushes were sited in overgrown meadows now inaccessible due to thick bramble growth which made collection difficult. We carried on as walking the camino is great anyhow and in the end we managed to collect about 50 or 60 newly blossoming flower heads.  We ensured we didn't strip entire bushes thereby leaving some to fruit later in the season.

We searched on line for a recipe and decided to try this one from River Cottage. We also needed to collect lemons but given the plentiful trees around the area we were easily able to gather enough for our needs. In this recipe we needed 6 for zest but only used the juice of 3.

In total we made about three and half litres which we will use over the coming weeks. We also made some ice cubes with the undiluted cordial for using in a nice sparkling wine or Cava. If we get chance we intend to make another batch but that really does depend on finding elder flowers that are not turning to fruit.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The craft of traditional Castillian basket making: Escriño

Those of you who follow our blog will know about our affinity for handmade things and appreciation for traditional crafts. Over the years I have learnt to cane and rush chairs and make the traditional Asturian baskets. It is being a while since I have wanted to learn how to make an escriño, a traditional Castillian basket made with rye straw and willow. My grandfather knew how to make these but I never had the opportunity to learn this craft. This is one he made about 30-40 years ago that I now use in the study as a pen holder.

While spending some time with my my family, we have visited some of the traditional markets celebrated in towns nearby and have come across someone who keeps the craft of making escriños alive by doing demonstrations, selling newly made escriños, repairing old ones and more recently running courses so that those interested can learn the techniques.

I recently learnt that this gentleman had organized a three day course to teach the making of this type of basket. It took place in a town near the village where I was born so I visited and spent some time with my family whilst undertaking the course . During the course we learnt how to weave an escriño, collect rye grass, harvest willow and also had a go at splitting and processing the willow that traditionally is used to bind the straw as you weave the basket.

The materials required to make an escriño are readily available in Castille, a region in the heart of Spain where rye and willow are plentiful. The tools used are very few and easily found in most households.
I was able to obtain some already dry rye grass so that I can have a go at making another escriño now I am back at La Pasera and thus consolidate the techniques I learnt during the course.

As it is the wrong time of the year to harvest willow, I will be using the rattan cane I use to weave the Bergere chair seating instead of using willow. In time I intend to use willow and straw to make an escriño based on a pottery vase made by Lucy Rie, a ceramicist whose work we greatly admire and whose influence is also present in my current mosaic project titled "Rain Catcher".

My finished Escriño. Ian wants me to make an Escriño Beehive next, I may be some time...

Monday, June 17, 2013

The potato harvest

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The recent spell of wet weather followed by warm, humid conditions has not been good for our potato crop. We spray with a natural fungicide made from horsetail macerated in water. This is effective to a point but it will never be as good as the strong chemicals from a commercial product. We take this into account and expect that when blight hits, we harvest.

The potatoes will be dried off, cleaned and stored but the tiny new potatoes will be devoured within the first few days, absolutely delicious with a knob of butter and some chopped fresh mint.

If we harvest soon after the first signs of blight then the crop is unaffected and we can enjoy good quality newly dug potatoes. This year has been a successful crop with early planting in late February making a total of 16 weeks in the ground. The variety was Spunta and we planted 100. We have little choice here so we usually buy whatever seed potatoes are available from the local agriculture cooperative.

Elsewhere in the garden the Air Hyacinth is coming into blossom and looking great. We started out with one very small clump; a gift from a lady in the village. This has grown and been divided many times. They are the easiest plant to grow with little care apart from clearing dead fallen leaves that get trapped in winter. We have several large clumps dotted around and always try and split them and pass on whenever we can. My parents have one in the UK but they take it into the conservatory during winter as it would die given a hard frost.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flies, damn flies, moscas and other irritating insects - deterrents and repellents

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OK, so we've spent the past few weeks harping on about the cooler and damp weather but it does have its advantages; lack of flies and other flying or crawling nasties.

The warmer weather is back with a vengeance and with it comes the flies, horse flies, ants and mosquitoes. I love insects of every persuasion but just not in the house or studio. There is nothing worse than trying to eat a meal only to be dive-bombed every two minutes by a fly who thinks it's funny to watch you wave your arms about whilst trying not to fling muesli all around the room.

A procession of ants working their way towards your back door is no laughing matter as you worry just how big that nest is going to be?

Sleeping soundly to be awoken by the high pitched hum of a blood thirsty female mosquito is hardly conducive to wakening feeling refreshed especially when you find the little blighter has feasted on your most intimate or exposed parts...

x Censored x

Horseflies pursuing you around the vegetable plot that eventually bite you leaving you with as much swelling as a post surgical face lift isn't my idea of trouble free vegetable growing...

Being surrounded by meadows we have an abundance of insects and since a small herd of pygmy goats has taken up residence just up the lane we seem to have more flies than usual. We like to aerate the house on a daily basis so keeping windows and doors shut is not an option.

 Repellents and deterrents:

Over the years we have researched natural deterrents and repellents that we can use in our arsenal against the little blighters. We don't like fly sprays, sticky traps or other chemical based products so here are a few tricks we have learnt over the years that seem to work for us.

Garlic: eat loads as it acts as a repellent for biting insects.

Elderflower placed in a bowl near the open window or door to a room will deter flies from entering.

Eucalyptus leaves and flowers will similarly deter mosquitoes and other evening-time insects. Alternatively Eucalyptus oil will work just as well.

Bicarbonate of soda will rid you of that procession of ants within minutes - so much safer to have around  than ant powder.

Windows and work surfaces wiped down with white vinegar will not only produce a clear non-greasy finish but will also deter flies from landing.

A glass crystal multi-faceted drop hung from a light fitting will repel those flies that insist on flying in a square around light fittings.

When a wasp, fly or bee is buzzing at the window pane trying to seek freedom, open the window and gently blow the little chap towards the opening, this works 80% of the time.

Whatever method you choose, please don't use fly spray or insecticide sprays, they are indiscriminate and will kill spiders, moths, beetles and other beneficial insects. They have even been known to poison fish and kill hamsters and besides, do you really want to inhale all those toxic fumes?

What do you use?

Sunday, June 09, 2013

What, already? gathering fuel for winter..

We have a couple of woodburners that heat the studio and the house so a good supply of heat-producing dry wood is essential. We have just taken delivery of another load of mixed wood including cherry, oak, ash and eucalyptus. If you have a woodburner you'll know that dry wood burns hotter and slower than semi-green or unseasoned wood.

More people seem to be selling wood recently and those that have fallen trees on their land are now processing it rather than either leaving it to rot or burning it; a sign of the times I think. We coppice hazelnut on our land for use as bean poles and stakes but then will burn them as starter wood the following year or add them to the fedge (fence/hedge) if we have enough with used twiggy pea sticks.

A truckload of wood fills half of the wood store more or less. The woodstore holds a full winter and spring's worth of wood with some left for the following season. We plan to keep it replenished as it empties so we can keep ahead with dry wood.

The fedge that surrounds the compost bins and shed is really taking shape now that it has been colonised by wild plants and grasses. It really is teaming with wildlife including for the first time, nesting wrens. Just don't tell Wentworth and Gawber....

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Fruit and vegetables we are growing this summer/autumn

It's been a cold start to the growing season with an exceptionally high rainfall and much cooler temperatures than normal for Asturias. Most seedlings and young plants are behind by a few weeks and we are hoping that now the warmer days are upon us, things will have a growth spurt.


We run a crop rotation system and try to ensure that all the beds are given fresh nutrition from home-made compost. Most of our seedlings are started off in pots, seed trays or half pipes; this ensures we can give them the best start possible and protect them from slugs, disease and adverse weather conditions.

So here we are, this is what is currently growing at La Pasera:

Cultivated Fruit: red currant, black currant, gooseberry, rhubarb, blueberry, raspberry, pear, apple, plum, peach, orange.

Wild fruit: piesco (wild peach), hazelnut, walnut.

Vegetables: potato, pea, mangetout, sugar-snap peas, fennel, chili and salad pepper, flower sprouts, cucumber, squash, marrow/courgette, lettuce (3 types), succession of beetroot, tomato, beans (2 types), red and white onions (400), kohlrabi, succession of carrots, butternut squash, spring onions...

Flower sprouts and tomatoes (under plastic)

Herbs: sage, dill, oregano, thyme, chive, mint, borage, comfrey, parsley, coriander, basil

and for later on in the season: cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, aubergine, broccoli, winter lettuce, swede, celeriac...

The good news is that most of the seedlings are now planted, protected and positioned to perform their best given good weather and appropriate attention. We will feed some crops with nettle juice and spray mildew prone plants with horsetail water. Insects will be kept at bay through symptomatic spaying with rhubarb leaf water or squishing by hand....ewe. Details of natural insecticide and fungicide here.

The slugs and the snails are on a late, hungry start this year also so we have added extra protection around young vulnerable plants by creating barriers of wood ash, broken eggshells or sheep fleece pellets.

The various pea crops are growing well but the Jays are enjoying early morning snacks and ruining the fattest pea pods. The scarecrow didn't seem to deter them but it took the cats two whole days before they approached it or dared to walk past it. They still give it suspicious looks when on their way to the bottom meadow.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Making infused oil for hand cream

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If you follow Tales from Toriello you will probably know that we have started to make our own soaps and hand-cream. One of the most important ingredients we use is oil infused with aromatic and healing herbs and plants which we grow in our garden. We make our own using almond oil or olive oil, calendula, lavender and comfrey.

We are due to make more hand/skin cream in the near future (original post here). This time we are making calendula with almond oil and comfrey with olive oil. The petals of the calendula and the dry comfrey leaves are added to the oil and left to infuse in a sunny position for about 3 weeks.

This time we might go for a double infusion by replacing the petals and leaves with a second batch and infuse once more in the same oil.

The cream (lavender and calendula) is really useful and healing. It is great for dry skin such as dry hands after gardening or for elbows and heels etc. It can be applied before dirty jobs such as gardening or mechanics, helping to protect the skin; making hand and nail washing easier. Recently we got some great feedback from a friend who has been applying the cream to inflamed eczema. For the first time in many months, the skin is hydrated, less inflamed and much less itchy.


From personal experience, last month I accidentally rested the palm of my hand on the hot ceramic hob. After cooling the burn I dressed my hand with the cream and a bandage, and kept renewing this every six hours. It didn't blister and healed completely after growing new skin under the burn. It hurt like hell though for two days...

Lavender - still to flower

This time we will make calendula and comfrey both of which are renowned for their healing and restorative properties.