Food movement

I get a message on my phone from Narciso, asking if I’d like a pumpkin. I immediately reply in the affirmative and the next day Julian and the girls set off to meet Narciso at his vegetable patch. They return home with a monster – green and orange and so massive the girls can barely get their arms around it. With some difficulty, Julian slices it open, gives a third to Clare and a third to Hazel, our nearest neighbours on the pontoon that day. He keeps a third for ourselves and makes enough pumpkin soup to last us three meals and with plenty of pumpkin to spare to roast for dinner. He roasts the seeds for snacking on.

Spike appears and asks if we’d like some oranges. Yes, please, I say, and he returns to his car and brings me down two crates of big juicy oranges from the trees on his land. I give half of them away.

At school one morning, Sawa practically begs me to come and take some lemons from the tree in her garden. The tree is getting too big and they want to cut it back once all the lemons have gone. The next morning Julian takes a bagful.

When we’re down to the last four or five of Spike’s oranges, English Diana knocks on the side of the boat. She hands me a shopping bag full of oranges from the trees on her land. The next morning there’s a message on my phone from Kate, informing me that she’s left a bag of grapefruits in our dinghy. There are far too many for our meagre needs, so I share them with Clare and with Andrew, who I happen to bump into on the pontoon.

Clare knocks on the boat to ask if we’d like some coriander. Pablo, at the market, gives it away free with every purchase, and he’s given Clare too much. We love coriander and are delighted to take it.

Spanish Diana comes down to the boat. She’s been given a glut of fruit and vegetables by Luis Jose. Can I come to her house and please relieve her of some of them. I grab two shopping bags and she can barely get in her door for the bags of produce stacked outside. She gives me two massive cauliflowers, twenty or more oranges and a giant shopping bag full of spinach. I return to the boat, giving Clare one cauliflower and a quarter of the spinach as I walk past. I send Hazel a message, asking if she’d like some spinach too. She takes another quarter.

Julian forages most days and returns with chard, asparagus and alexanders. On this day, he returns home with a large bunch of asparagus. I’ve only just shared the cauliflower and spinach with Clare, and now Julian’s knocking on her boat and giving her asparagus too. ‘We’re going to have to invite more people round to dinner’, Clare laughs.

Narciso sends me another message. Do I know who has the key to the gate into the plot of land next to his vegetable patch? I don’t. The land is untended and supposedly owned by some ex-pat who doesn’t currently live here. The oranges are falling off the trees and rotting on the ground. Someone should be going in there and getting the oranges, Narciso says. I tell him I’ll try to find out whose land it is and who has the key.

That’s all happened in the last ten days. ‘The food movement’ sort of takes on a different meaning here on the Rio Guadiana!


Christmas at anchor

It was a bit of a risk. Would Santa find us at anchor on a lonely stretch of river, a couple of miles north of Sanlúcar? The girls had had three days off school during the first week of December, giving us a rare and decadent five-day weekend. I had wanted to get away from the villages for some quiet time at home aboard Carina. We found this spot upriver and, although we only stayed for two nights, it was enough to convince me I wanted to come back again for Christmas.

During those couple of days we’d met no-one, had no Internet access and not enough battery power on my old laptop to even watch a movie. We went ashore and walked the riverside trails, or stayed home and read, did jigsaw puzzles, drew pictures and coloured in. The girls had school tests the following week – Lily in Maths and French, Katie in English – so Julian spent much of his time devising ingenious and fun revision exercises. I cooked all the foods I haven’t cooked in the months since Julian’s become full-time boat husband.

The peace and silence on that stretch of river was balm to my body and soul, as I sat on deck leisurely reading a book by day or engrossed in the star-filled December sky by night. As we set off down river and back to the routine of school and work, I said to Julian, ‘I want to do this again for Christmas’.

I live an excessively sociable life. It’s the way I like it. These days I teach English five days a week, mostly to loud raucous fun-loving primary school children. I am involved in a lot of school and parent association activities, and I have many lovely friends in both villages with whom I love spending time. My online life is busy too. I have two academic editing jobs, and when I’m not working, I like keeping in touch with far-flung family and friends, observing and participating in the political world I follow through Twitter and, with increasing guilt, pondering how little time I devote to my blog. I live an intensely sociable life, because that’s what I like and that’s who I am.

But now and again a holiday from all that sociability is required to remember who I am and to recharge my batteries. The lead-up to Christmas was action packed. There were parties and carol services, school events, and gatherings throughout December with friends who celebrate different Christmas and winter traditions. And I can rarely say no to an invitation to join a friend in a bar for a coffee or a drink. So, there were impromptu glasses of wine and port, cups of hot chocolate spiked with brandy, plates of grilled chorizo, oysters and prawns. A few days before Christmas, with all my teaching and editing done, I cleaned Carina to within an inch of her life, so we could invite passing friends aboard for wine and beer, tea and hot chocolate, and Julian’s home-made tiffin.

Three different people invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them, and we considered a tour of Sanlúcar, going from house to house to sample the traditional prawns and chorizo, while we shared my Christmas pudding and Julian’s tiffin. The plan, therefore, was to leave the pontoon early on Christmas morning and return to that quiet spot upriver. After a heady build-up to Christmas, Christmas Day onwards would be quiet family time.

But the bug that’s been doing the rounds of the school finally caught up with Lily and Katie. They both woke up on Christmas Eve with headaches, stomach aches and high temperatures. It didn’t stop Julian or me from socialising a bit (separately) throughout the day, but we knew that, given the girls’ illnesses, we wouldn’t be sharing prawns and Christmas pudding with anyone that night.

So we decided to head upriver early. With only an hour of sunlight left in the sky, we slipped the pontoon on Christmas Eve, Lily and Katie feeling sorry for themselves in their respective beds. We motored upriver, Julian and I singing Fairytale of New York at the top of our lungs and calling out to friends on boats and landing stages as we went past.

Before long, we were back on that lovely lonely stretch of river, the place all to ourselves except for a heron on one riverbank and a herd of sheep on the other. We were expecting rain, so we prepared Carina for a wet night ahead and snuggled down inside, Christmas candles scenting the air. Before leaving Sanlúcar, Julian had downloaded Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and, as I made dinner, and then did a jigsaw with the girls and prepared a plate of food for Santa and his reindeer, Julian read to us.

The girls were still unwell at bedtime, so I administered paracetemol, and took over the reading from Julian as lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled. Rain fell long and hard into the night and I hoped Santa and his reindeer wouldn’t give up the search for us up the river.

The girls didn’t sleep particularly well and I was out of bed a few times ministering to their needs. But, somehow, in the middle of it all, Santa came and, when we awoke on Christmas morning, the plate was empty and the table and Christmas stockings laden with presents. The girls were both still unwell and, although they mustered the energy to open their presents, they soon returned to bed, and spent Christmas Day between their beds and wrapped up in blankets in the saloon. I read the concluding two chapters of A Christmas Carol while Julian prepared dinner. It was an overcast but mild day, and sitting in the cockpit on that peaceful stretch of river was perhaps the best Christmas present (but please don’t tell the girls. They think the three Planet of the Apes movies and box of Milk Tray they asked Santa to bring me were the best presents. They come pretty close!).

With the girls unwell, there was no chance of us going ashore for a walk, so we focused our attention on enjoying good food, good wine and each other’s company, and trying to make the girls feel comfortable and cozy. After a delicious dinner and while the Christmas pudding was boiling in the pot, I took to the dinghy and rowed downriver for half an hour, the Rio Guadiana equivalent of my post-Christmas dinner walk from Ballygibbon to Carrick graveyard when I’m back home.

For the next few days we did much the same. The girls remained under the weather, sleeping lots and eating little. They found it difficult to even muster up interest in their presents or in the mountain of chocolate we had onboard. Rather than the walking and picnics I had imagined, we indulged in quieter pastimes – reading, drawing, writing. Julian and I even became engrossed in studying Spanish. With a new battery in my laptop we could watch some movies. Outside, the wind howled for much of the time, tossing Carina about on the stormy river. When the girls and weather conditions allowed, Julian and I took turns to go out alone – walking along the smugglers path on the Portuguese side of the river or rowing up or down river.

It wasn’t quite the Christmas I had imagined. But then Christmas rarely is. It did, however, have all the elements that make for the best Christmases – being with the people you love most in the world, enjoying good food, relaxing. It was traditional in its own way, and maybe we have created some new traditions this year. And, although the girls weren’t in top form, they certainly made the most of having lots of time to snuggle with Mummy and Daddy.

Belatedly, Happy Christmas everyone xxxxx


It’s more than food for free

Sturdy walking shoes? Check. Long-sleeved shirt and heavy trousers? Check. Work gloves? Check. Sharp knife? Check. It’s time to go asparagus hunting!

It’s that time of year again, when tender young asparagus shoots are to be found on steep overgrown slopes up and down the river. Julian had a rare Saturday off work yesterday and once the sun had burned through the mist along the river, the four of us set off.


Lily with the first few shoots

If you think foraging is all about putting free food on your plate, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark and hunting isn’t all about the kill, foraging isn’t all about the end product – food for free. Sure, the wild spinach, alexanders, asparagus, oranges and lemons that have been gracing our table recently have been marvellous to eat. They’re delicious, free of nasty chemicals or additives (or as much as anything in the wild can be), and they cost nothing. But foraging for food is about a whole lot more than the end product.


Taking a break by the well and orange grove

We set out early yesterday afternoon, walking north along the old goat track on the Spanish side of the river. Our senses were caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape we walked through. We stopped to bathe in the sound of bees buzzing loudly as they gathered nectar from flowering rosemary bushes (one of the few plants flowering at this time of year). Birdsong filled the air. Winter flowers dotted the sides of the trail and the occasional open glade was peppered with the white and yellow chamomile that filled my nose with sweet aroma when I bent down to identify them by scent. Poisonous but colourful mushrooms lined the path, which we stopped often to admire. We picked oranges and drank from a well, and the sun shone from a clear blue January sky and by late afternoon a gibbous moon was already high in the sky to the east.


Julian ahead on the trail

We walked up hills and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, hearts and breaths racing at the exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks, striding out across hilltops. From the tops of hills we caught occasional glimpses of the river winding its way through the valley below, a brown ribbon through a landscape turned green and lush from December rains.


A glimpse of the river

Some foraging is easy. Alexanders, spinach and fennel grow along the sides of the path. Gathering them is like picking flowers. Oranges, figs and plums require height and/or ingenuity (memories of gathering apples from the vantage point of Julian’s shoulders in autumn come to mind), and oranges have occasional but nasty thorns to avoid.

Asparagus don’t give themselves up so easily. Around here, the larger and more productive plants are to be found up steep rocky slopes, strewn with thorny bushes. The asparagus plant itself is thorny as hell, and it’s hard to believe that such a delicate shoot (the part we eat), if left to grow, develops into a thorny mass that could well surround Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Hence the need for long sleeves, heavy duty trousers and gloves. To get to the succulent shoots necessitates climbing the slopes, searching through masses of thorns then plunging hands into the middle to cut a single, or at most two, shoots from each plant. It’s hard work, all that scrambling and searching, with a knife in one hand and a few delicate and precious shoots in the other. But it’s fun too, not to mention good exercise. We certainly exert more energy from gathering the asparagus than we gain from eating them.


Up the hillside he goes

We stopped and searched and gathered along slopes for an hour, gradually making our way to a patch where Julian had been successful last year, where a stream ran through the bottom of the valley. The girls removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs and dipped their tired feet in the chilly water. When I tired of foraging, I sat on the bank of the stream, while Julian carried on foraging and the children ran around, feet and bottoms wet, hands covered in soil, picking chamomile flowers.


First dip of the year

By the time we got home, three hours after setting out, we were tired and dirty, but with our spirits soaring from all we had seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape.

And then? Steamed asparagus shoots to accompany our roast chicken for supper and and then for breakfast with poached eggs on toast this morning. Food for free? That’s merely the end product.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

Fun foraging

We love foraging! It’s fun, it’s energetic and when we get home we have some good food to eat (well, usually!). I know Julian, who has written before about his foraging exploits, would agree with me when I say there is a great sense of pride and achievement when we prepare and eat food we’ve gathered ourselves. We both grew up far removed from hunting, fishing, gathering and foraging our food, so for us it’s still quite novel.

In late November, Julian tried his hand at preserving olives, with great success. The innumerable wild olive trees that grow hereabouts were heavy with olives – large green ones on some trees, small black ones on others. Seeking advice from fellow foraging live aboards, and observing the locals harvesting tons of them from their cultivated trees, Julian opted for the green ones. Some suggested it would take eleven months for the hard, bitter-tasting fruit to be transformed in brine into soft tasty edible olives. Others said the process could be sped up by regularly changing the brine and slitting the side of each olive with a sharp knife. Lacking the patience to wait eleven months, Julian opted for the latter process.

He gathered olives of different sizes and from different trees, experimenting to find those that would magically transform into succulent nibbles. The process is simple. Add salt to fresh water. The water is salty enough only when you can float an egg on top. Clean the olives and add them to the brine. Seal the jar. And that’s it. Easy peasy. Rows of jars – old jam jars, coffee jars, kilner jars, were lined up in our aft storage space (the unused aft heads!) and every couple of days it was Lily’s and Katie’s job to give the jars a shake and a turn over. Every couple of weeks Julian changed the brine, adding a couple of cloves of peeled garlic, a few peppercorns and a bay leaf along the way.

By Christmas the first batch was ready. It took some experimentation to get them to a nice level of saltiness. Now that they were soft, Julian put them in fresh water for a day or two, to draw out the excess salt.

The result? Truly delicious, garlic-flavoured juicy green olives. We devoured them, gave some away to friends, brought them as gifts when people invited us to their boats for dinner. All too soon those multiple jars of olives had dwindled to the last one and it was with some regret that I popped the last one in my mouth a couple of days ago. If we are in a position to pickle our own olives again, I am determined that Julian redouble his efforts so we have more than a mere six week supply.

At around the same time as Julian was gathering olives, someone told me about prickly pears. Those big cactus plants grow all over the place here. Land owners plant them on their borders, where they create a barrier to human and animal intruders. And they grow wild all over the countryside. On top of the cactus grow the pinky-purply fruit that I was told is prickly pear. I’d heard of this before, from reading American literature, but I’d never seen it, nor did I know it was edible.

My informant told me it’s very tasty, but very difficult to collect, given the long spiky thorns with which it protects itself. I gave it a try one day, gingerly plucking a pear from the top of a cactus, and managing to get at least ten thin thorns stuck in my fingers and thumb despite my care. The peeled-back skin revealed a pink pulp filled with seeds. It was quite delicious and I thought about picking more (on another day when I am protected by gloves and long sleeves) and pulping it into juice. I am told it is packed full of healthy vitamins. I haven’t done it yet, but every day I see more and more large pears and know I must go foraging soon.

Our latest foraging exploits have taken place over the past three weekends, when we have been a-hunting wild asparagus. Wild asparagus is identical to its cultivated counterpart, but I was surprised that such an innocuous and delicate food could be the offspring of a very nasty thorny tangled mess of an adult plant. To reach those new young green shoots of asparagus one has to thrust ones hand deep into the thorns. The adult plant doesn’t give up its babies easily.


The fearsome wild asparagus. Don’t believe the other pictures on the internet. The best bits are often at the centre of this woody thorn bush, half way up a dangerous rocky slope!

Two weekends ago the girls and I were out walking and we met a couple gathering asparagus. They were covered almost head to toe and wearing heavy gardening gloves. The woman showed me where she was gathering the asparagus and later on our walk I saw some other people up the side of a hill doing likewise. The girls and I scrambled up the dry stony hill and with my trusty Swiss army knife I gathered a handful. It took some searching and I came away with long scratches to my arms and legs.

The next weekend Julian came with us, and while the girls played down on the edges of a dried river bed, Julian and I scrambled up hills, slithering and sliding, searching for the elusive asparagus shoots growing under the shade of olive, almond and cork oak trees. It was a fun workout, apart from anything else and I was torn between giggling and cursing as I inevitably and repeatedly lost my footing and slid down the dry, loosely packed hillside, a bunch of asparagus in one hand, my knife in the other, and nothing to break my fall except for the next thorny asparagus bush down the slope. We returned home dirty and dusty, scratched and scraped, with enough asparagus for two day’s worth of dinners. Although the season is almost at an end, Julian’s solo foraging yesterday resulted in enough asparagus for another dinner.


Wild Asparagus (Asparagus Officinalis Prostratus). Gathered and ready for the poached eggs!

Besides the seasonal olives, prickly pear and asparagus, there seems to be a seemingly endless supply of lemons around here (oranges too, although wild orange trees are as rare as hen’s teeth). We haven’t foraged for lemons in the longest time, as people keep giving them to us, wild or cultivated, all delicious.

With spring just around the corner, I wonder what will be next on the menu?

What a waste

Now, I know that by half way through this blog post my mother, mother-in-law and others besides will be horrified and mortified and will believe that I have sunk to new lows of depravity. But bear with me. There’s a serious point to what I’m about to tell you.

You see, I’ve been skip diving! Here’s how it happened. We came ashore to Alcoutim in the dinghy on Friday evening. I had a mostly empty backpack on my back and I was carrying a cloth bag of items to take to the recycling bins. The girls came with me and helped me sort the glass, paper, tin and plastic into their respective bins.


The scene of the action

A large black bin bag next to the paper and cardboard bin caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw it was three-quarters full of the cardboard and plastic that wholesale products are packed in when delivered to shops. Obviously, one of Alcoutim’s shops or bars had recently had a delivery and this was the waste from unloading the new stock. But it was what lay on top of this cardboard and plastic that really grabbed my attention.

Bags and bags and bags of crisps. I picked one out and looked at it. The packaging was perfect – no rips or holes. It looked like I had lifted it straight from the shelf. The sell-by date was 15/11/15. Two months ago. I picked out another, different brand of crisp. Sell-by date 15/11/15. Each bag had the same sell-by date. Under the crisps were packages of long-life croissants, sell-by date 15/11/15.

Having sorted my recycling I now had an empty cloth bag and an empty backpack and after five seconds of hoping no-one was watching and then deciding I didn’t care if anyone was, I filled both bags with the crisps and pastries, until we had them all and the landfill was getting none.

As we walked up the hill I opened a bag of crisps – Ruffles Original – to see what they tasted like. Perfect. Crisp as crisps should be and not a trace of them being past their ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates. But in this crazy world of food waste and consumer capitalism, for some unfathomable reason they were beyond their ‘sell by’ date.

We’re not massive crisp eaters aboard Carina, but we like to indulge now and again. They’re handy to take on a picnic or a walk, and they are always a favourite on long sailing passages. We’ve eaten some already and I’ve stowed the rest and they’ll last us for months to come. I’ve enjoyed a custard-filled croissant with my mid-morning coffee and more croissants have gone into the girls’ lunchboxes on Thursday, the day the school requests they bring a pastry snack.

So, it’s official. I’m a skip diver. But before you wash your hands of me altogether, here are some things you should know:

A restaurant in Bristol, Skipchen, only uses ingredients thrown out by supermarket and restaurant chains. A team of volunteers go out each night and trawl the bins of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Waitrose, M&S and retrieve perfectly good food that has been dumped simply because it is past its ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ date. Skipchen is part of The Real Junk Food Project, a network of pay-as-you-feel cafes around the world, which make use of unused discarded foodstuffs. The aim of the project is to raise awareness of the problem of food waste.

And there is a problem. Here are two statistics:
1. One third of the food produced globally for human consumption each year is lost or wasted. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year.
2. 795 million people in the world do not have enough to eat.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out from those two statistics that hunger less a problem of production and more one of distribution. But hey, we’ve known this since the famines in Ireland in the 1840s, in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and everywhere else where people have gone hungry between and since.

In the autumn, cook and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, started his War on Waste, highlighting how much each of us, through our shopping and eating habits contributes to food waste each year. He also brought the public’s attention to the massive amounts of food that supermarkets and fast food chains simply throw away every day. The BBC documentaries were somewhat flawed, but they certainly got me thinking more about food waste.

Ok, so I grabbed a few bags of crisps and pastries from a recycle point in Alcoutim. I’m no Skipchen and no Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But that’s not the point. The point is, waste is abhorrent. It’s environmentally damaging and it’s morally outrageous that we waste so much food when so many people go hungry. And there are people out – although not enough of them – putting to great use the food no longer wanted by retailers.

Anyone fancy a skip dive?

All partied out

The New Year arrived amidst fireworks and singing and the honking of horns. An hour later it arrived again, on the other side of the river. All Christmassed out, my family slept through it all and I lay in bed listening to the fireworks, too cosy and snug to want to get out of bed to take a look from our perfect viewing position in the middle of the river.

Call me a party pooper (it wouldn’t be the first time), but by December 31st I was so overdosed on seasonal cheer that I’d had enough and couldn’t rouse myself for one final bash. Peace and good will? Peace and quiet were what I craved.

We’d had six nights of social engagements in a row before Christmas well and truly got underway. A Christmas dinner for all the children, parents and teachers at the school one night, a carol service in Sanlúcar the next night, a carol service in Alcoutim the night after that. Next came the night of the girls’ Christmas recitals, followed by a gathering in the pub of all the ex-pat live-aboards, and then an invitation for mulled wine and mince pies at someone’s house.

My days were chocolate-filled, as I made batches of tiffin and rum truffles for these events. And what was I to do but lick my fingers (and the bowl) as each batch went in the fridge to chill.

The carol services were almost the undoing of me, as carol services always are. Only the sight of Christmas reunions of long lost family at international airports has a greater effect of turning me into a blubbering emotional wreck. In Sanlúcar the ex-pat, mostly British, choir set a sombre tone with their four-part harmony renditions of many well-known Christmas hymns. They were followed by the local Sanlúcar choir raising the roof, and raising the audience to its feet, with their flamenco-sounding carols, Jose-Manuel from the bar playing flamenco guitar, the mum of one of Katie’s classmates playing tambourine and Remi, who owns the local shop, making wonderful music with a glass bottle and kitchen fork! Afterwards we all retired to the parish hall to partake of a table sagging under the weight of cakes, Spanish hot chocolate, wines and liqueurs.

The next night the Spanish and British ex-pat choirs were in action again, joined by the local Alcoutim church choir, in the de-consecrated church at the top of the hill in Alcoutim. When all three choirs had completed their sets we all sang Silent Night – a verse each in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, French and English, and a final verse where everyone sang together, each in their own language. A verse in Irish probably would have been the undoing of me, but I held it together and the deep fellow-feeling carried me away to the once again heavily laden food table and the ample bottles of – what else in Portugal? – port.

Lily and Katie shone the next night as, respectively, a shepherdess and a reindeer, in their Christmas recitals. No one else’s children were cuter, more beautiful, or performed so well. Ok, so maybe they were and maybe they did, but I couldn’t take my eyes off my girls for long enough to see what any of the other kids in their classes were doing. I’m sure every other camera-wielding parent and grinning grandparent thought the same of their children.

The next evening we joined in the festivities at the Riverside, the favourite haunt of the live-aboards on the river. A Christmas party had been in full swing since 2pm, but we didn’t join it until later on. A motley gang of musicians meet here every Tuesday night to play music and they were all here on this evening with their harmonicas, violins, banjos, guitars, flutes and voices. Julian brought his recorder along and it didn’t take much persuasion for him to join in. After weeks (or a lifetime) of trying to pluck up the courage to sing in public, I finally did. And no, I wasn’t drunk. We had only arrived and I was quarter way through a bottle of weak beer. Carried away on a wave of feeling good, when someone thrust a songbook under my nose and said ‘Does anyone know how to sing this?’ I immediately replied ‘I do’, and off I went to the end of the room where the musicians had set themselves up. ‘What key will you sing it in?’ I was asked. ‘I have no idea what that means’, I replied. I tried to match their music. Too high. Lower. Lower. Lower. Too low. Ok, just right. Afterwards the musicians laughed and said that was in no key they’d ever heard before. Oops. But I sang with gusto, if perhaps not too well, ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘The Fields of Athenry’, duetting with Scottish Tom. I could feel the hot redness of a blush travel from my neck up my face, and I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. Put me in front of a lecture theatre of 300 students and I’ll confidently rattle on without notes for an hour. But put me in front of 30 people I know in a bar to sing and I’m a nervous wreck. No-one booed. But then no-one asked me to sing any more either!

The next evening it was mulled wine and mince pies at the home of a couple I have only recently met. I had an interesting conversation with a British-Dutch academic-turned-novelist who was visiting the hosts for Christmas, and I pretended I was cool about the unlikely (but absolutely true) presence of another Christmas visitor (the son-in-law of the novelist) who spent part of the evening in the corner (the only place he could simultaneously pick up Wifi and power his laptop) in conversation with British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station. It was as surreal as the time I was at a party in Iqaluit, Nunavut and the host received a phone call from Kevin Spacey!

Six days of social engagements. So much good cheer, good food and being a social butterfly. I thought maybe I’d peaked too soon. Maybe I’d already overdosed on all that good cheer and chocolate before the main event. Julian was in our hired car early the next morning to drive to Faro airport to collect my mother and sister from the airport, while the girls and I transferred our stuff up the hill to the apartment the girls, their granny and aunt were staying in for the next four days (Julian and I slept aboard Carina).

How lovely to see my family. We went for long walks in the sunshine, went for a glass of wine BEFORE Mass on Christmas morning (and again after), ate turkey and Christmas pudding, and when Christmas evening arrived we couldn’t drag ourselves away from the comfort of the apartment to join in the beach barbecue we’d been invited to. So the six of us cuddled up under blankets and watched Terms of Endearment and The Evening Star back-to-back amidst groans and giggles and smart-alek comments about how awfully overwrought and badly acted they were. Maybe it was the wine and the overconsumption of cheese and chocolates, but I don’t remember Terms of Endearment being this bad before.

Two days after Christmas Lily and Katie had the birthday party of one of their school friends to attend, so the festivities continued, as I stood around with the other parents, drinking, eating and feeling the force of gravity much more strongly than I did ten days earlier.

My family departed after four too-short days and we stayed berthed on the Alcoutim pontoon for one more day. But we were all ready for some peace and quiet, some calming down, some return to normal life on the other side of the festivities. We anchored a little downriver from the villages and on New Year’s Eve we went for a quiet walk and picnic south along the Spanish side of the river. We were all in bed by 10.30 (Spanish time), Christmassed-out, partied out, having had one of the most sociable, fun and action-packed Christmasses we’ve had in many a year.

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous New Year xx


by Julian

I have been interested in foraging for a long time. I often went blackberrying with my parents as a child but my enthusiasm really kicked off when I was about thirteen. I had been looking for information on poisonous plants, drugs and witchcraft. I was intrigued by deadly nightshade and opium poppies. Books such as Culpeper’s ‘Complete Herbal’ appealed to me, and then I found the book ‘Food For Free’ by Richard Mabey in the school library. It was early February and there was very little wild food about for the novice forager. I ended up making dandelion root coffee which I had to throw away. My foraging progressed as I took ‘GCSE Home Economics: Food’ as one of my eight school subjects. I remember going out early one morning in desperation to find some good stinging nettles to make a soup with. It turned out to be more difficult than I thought, and I eventually settled for some next to a path where people commonly walked their dogs! I learnt to make a roux with flour and butter and actually ended up with a smooth and fairly palatable bright green soup to show to my teacher. On a visit to my grandma’s I found she had a copy of ‘Food For Free’ which she gave to me and I still have it today, over 25 years later.


I have had a small (Collins Gem) mushroom and toadstool identification book since before I can remember, it says 1982 in the front so I must have been about eight. However, much as I desired to collect and eat wild mushrooms they were always an alien thing. I would never have dared risk it. The exception was the giant puffball, unmistakable from anything else and I was eager to try it, but for some reason all those puffballs I remembered seeing suddenly evaded me, or else I discovered them after someone had played football with them.

When Martina and I moved to the Cambridgeshire countryside, surrounded by old fields and woodland I made a determined effort to find and eat my first wild mushrooms. By this time I had two much more substantial mushroom field guides, one illustrated with photographs and the other with excellent drawings. I also had ‘Food For Free’ for backup, which gives ideas about the safest mushrooms to collect and some of the specific pitfalls for wrongly identifying each one. Those first forays produced mixed results. I made some rules for myself. I had to be cast iron sure on the identification in both of my field guides, using various techniques, such as spore prints. I then went online and thoroughly researched the species I had picked, looking over pictures time and again. Only then would I cook up a bit of the mushroom and try a very small quantity, about half a saucer full, or less, and wait for the results. As it turned out on all three occasions I wasn’t at all ill. One of the mushrooms (the Beefsteak Fungus) was tasteless and not really worth it, as my books had already suggested. Another was a type of ‘boletus’ but I found only enough for a tiny taste anyway. The third was a roaring success. The ‘Shaggy Parasol’, what a mushroom! What a delicious taste! Once fried in butter it is just big enough to cover a slice of toast and then to perfectly house a poached egg on top. The flavour would lead anyone who likes the taste of mushrooms to be forever disappointed with shop bought buttons. Martina ate them and loved them, my mum ate them and loved them, all too soon they were nowhere to be found and the season was over.

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Shaggy Parasol frying in butter and the water is ready for poaching an egg

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Poached egg on shaggy partasol on toast

I have done a lot of foraging since then, particularly when travelling aboard Carina looking for shellfish and seashore plants. I even found and enjoyed ‘St Georges Day Mushrooms’ in Plymouth. Now, working in the grounds of Warwick castle in autumn, I am pursuing fungus with a renewed vigour! I identified my first ‘Field Mushrooms’ the other day. Very similar and closely related to our standard shop bought mushrooms, the taste is not markedly better but it was a mini triumph, real free food. I was so nervous, this was my first normal white mushroom. The St Georges didn’t count because they come so early in the year that they can be positively identified as a non-poisonous species, but the field mushroom cannot. When young there are deadly poisonous species that could be easily confused with them. Even on maturity there are similar species that could give you a nasty stomach upset. I checked for all of these and finally tried a few pieces fried in butter (my mum even tried one piece). The taste was good. I made a soup and had it at work one day, but I unfortunately managed to leave in a tiny bit of grit which ruined the enjoyment of the flavour, lesson learned. Next I found ‘chicken of the woods’ growing at the base of a beech tree on a river island, an unmistakable, large orange/yellow fungus. It uncannily resembles chicken in both colour and texture and when broken has a good mushroomy flavour. A real gem of a find. It can be used in most chicken recipes and tastes better than the standard shop bought mushrooms. With stuff like this in the wild my thoughts turn to all of those vegetarians eating factory processed Quorn and I wonder whether they would ever do this if only they knew.


Some red and yellow boletus I have collected. I didn’t try the red because of suspision it may not be good. Also some common field mushrooms in the top right corner.

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Some of the yellow boletus dried like porcini. It tastes really good.

So finally last night Martina cooked a wild mushroom risotto. She used some dried yellow pored boletus that I had collected, which is a close relative of Porcini, and garnished the dish with Chicken of the Woods, Field Mushrooms and Shaggy Parasol. It was delicious. Martina was a little nervous and therefore limited the quantity of wild mushrooms used, but the fact that I had already eaten a little of all of these mushrooms with no ill effect certainly helped.


My mushroom harvest

For breakfast this morning I fried up some of the leftovers and had them on toast. To be honest I am all muyshroomed out at the moment but look forward to collecting a few more over the coming weeks.

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My breakfast. Chicken of the Woods, Shaggy Parasol and Field Mushrooms fried in butter on wholemeal granary toast with a little white pepper. YUM.

I’ve been Liebstered!!

I’m thrilled that Mary Grace Stich on Let It Be has nominated me for a Liebster Award. For those of you unfamiliar with the Liebster, it’s an award given by bloggers to other bloggers. Each blogger answers ten questions posed by the blogger who has nominated their blog, and then pays the Liebster forward to another blogger with ten new questions. Over the past few months I’ve read the Liebster answers given by some of the sailing bloggers I follow and I hoped someone would one day nominate me, so I’d have an opportunity to think about and respond to some interesting questions. Thank you Mary Grace!! Here are my answers to your questions.

1. What first attracted you to a cruiser lifestyle?
I’ve always shied away from conventionality. I fancy myself a bit of an outsider and have enjoyed life most when I’ve lived in small-town Japan or in the Canadian Arctic where I’ve been noticeably the odd one out. I’ve always been attracted to stories of people who decide to walk the road less travelled. In 2011, when we made the decision to buy a boat and become live aboard cruisers, we owned a house and a car, we had careers, and I was doing the rounds of mother-and-baby groups in my local area. The conventionality of it all scared the hell out of me!

From my first seaside holiday as a four-year old, I’ve loved, and found inspiration in, the sea. My PhD in anthropology was all about embodied marine knowledge. And this was before I’d ever set foot on a sailboat. The first time I went sailing, in September 2005, I was hooked. The idea of living on a boat and sailing to wherever I wanted was hugely appealing. I was attracted to the self-reliance, the chance to see new places and experience new cultures, and the opportunity to take a step away from mass consumerism. Julian and I used to fantasise about buying a boat when the kids had grown up and flown the nest. But in 2011 we decided not to wait and to bring them along on the adventure.

2. What was your biggest concern before moving on board?
I was concerned about a lot of things. I worried about night sailing (but that has proven to be one of my greatest sailing pleasures). I worried about pirates – but so far we haven’t ventured into any pirate-infested waters. I worried about how we would make ends meet – and I still worry about that. But if I didn’t have financial worries to keep me on my toes, I’d probably be restless about something else.

3. Now that you live aboard, what is your biggest concern or adjustment?
Again, there are lots of these. The more sailing experience I gain, the more I realise what can go wrong. I try not to bury my head in the sand, but rather confront these worries and try to figure out what we would do if we found ourselves in certain situations. I worry about what I would do if Julian fell overboard. We have discussed how we would deal with this, but there are two simple facts: (a) my boat handling skills are poor and I’d likely run him over in my attempt to rescue him, and (b) he is 6’2”, weighs about 17 stone (that’s about 240lbs to you North Americans), and getting him back out of the water if he was unconscious and unable to help himself would be nigh on impossible.

I also hate fog. Fog makes me feel physically sick. We don’t have radar, and when we occasionally find ourselves in fog I imagine a huge container ship bearing down on us. The more times I experience fog, the more I hate it. We avoid going out in it, but sometimes find ourselves in the middle of a passage, shrouded in fog. Double watch, fog horn, and keeping our wits about us is about all we can do.

My biggest adjustment to the cruising life is my daily routine. Before moving onboard I worked full-time. Now that I no longer work full-time I’m trying to find time to write while at the same time home educating my daughters and, this winter, working part-time teaching English. My problem is that I like routine and I imagine that I can do more in the day than is realistic. I make to-do lists and I like to stick to them. I like getting up at the same time every day, going to work for a set period of time, ticking tasks off my to-do list. Living in the close confines of the boat with my husband and kids throws my routines out the window. I am no longer my own boss, but must work around the routines (or complete lack thereof) of the three other people I live with. I’m adjusting gradually, and Julian and the girls are meeting me somewhere in the middle.

4. What did you do for recreation/hobby before you became a cruiser and what do you do now?
I have young children, so I don’t understand these words ‘recreation’ and ‘hobby’!! In the years after meeting Julian and before the kids were born, he and I went SCUBA diving, hill walking, camping and on insane driving holidays at every opportunity. It was during that time too that I developed my love for sailing, and we chartered yachts, and did various RYA sailing courses. Then the kids came along and put an end to our exploits.

Cooking has been a competitive sport for Julian and I since the start of our relationship. Moving on board hasn’t changed that. We still try to out-do each other with our creations, and having to cook in a confined space with limited cooking facilities only enhances the challenge. I’m still sulking due to my Szechuan spare ribs getting the cold shoulder last weekend (they were too sweet, seemingly).

I’m a fanatical reader, and that hasn’t changed between land and sea. If I didn’t acquire any more books I reckon I currently have enough unread books on board to last me a year. But I’m always finding new reading material at marina book swaps, and family and friends share their books with me. I read on long passages, when I’m on buses and trains, before I go to bed, when I wake up – I’m almost never to be found without a book by my side. The wonderful thing is that Lily is now a fully fledged independent reader and, with any luck, Katie will soon follow suit, thus freeing up more time for me to read the books I like rather than the books they like!!

5. Has your initial estimate of how long you would cruise changed from your original plan?
When people ask how long we plan to do this, my glib answer is ‘Anywhere from six months to sixty years’. But, perhaps it’s not so glib. We don’t have any master plan. We have met other cruisers who plan to circumnavigate the globe in four years, or who are taking a year out to cross the Atlantic and back. But our plans are looser. One day we would like to cross the Atlantic, and one day we would like to circumnavigate the globe. But we may never do either. I guess the answer is that we will continue to sail for as long as we all enjoy it, and for as long as we can afford to do it. Right now, we’re looking forward to more cruising in the Mediterranean in spring 2015. But we’re not thinking much farther ahead than that. If a very different opportunity presented itself, then we might well turn our backs on sailing. I would love to live in Arviat again, in the Canadian Arctic, and one day I hope we can do that. Equally, if we sailed into someplace irresistible, we might well stay put and put down roots.

6. What is one unusual or surprising thing you have on board?
This is a really difficult question to answer. What seems normal to me might seem whacky to someone else. If someone else came on board and went through my stuff the thing that might most make them scratch their head is a big backpack, stored in the aft heads, full of newspaper clippings and academic papers about polar bears. It’s some of the material for a writing project I started about nine months ago, but which has been lying dormant for six months. The other surprising items are a little black dress and a pair of black stilettos. I’m just waiting for someone to invite me to a party – preferably NOT on a boat, so my stilettos won’t be frowned upon!

7. What is the most surprising/rude/absurd or annoying question you have been asked?
It’s not really a question, but what annoys me most is that other sailors often have opinions about how we should raise and educate our kids. Quite often those opinions are given by people who haven’t taken even a minute to say hello to the girls. They see two children and immediately assume that they know a better way (even though they haven’t bothered to ask about our way). The rude opinions usually come from people who haven’t cruised with their own children. Those who currently cruise with children, or who have done so in the past, are generally very supportive, I guess because they too have had to deal with the annoying opinions. Cruisers who raised their children onboard years ago usually have very insightful and helpful suggestions, and they’re usually very kind and accepting of young children at anchor or on a pontoon next to them.

8. Name something that is better about living aboard than living on land and does it surprise you?
Can I give an x-rated answer? Hahaha!

9. If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your boat right now?
I hate making the beds. Tucking in bottom sheets requires bodily contortions that in summer cause me to break out in a sweat and the rest of the time are just plain awkward and annoying. If I had a magic wand I would make the fore and aft cabins wider, so that they had proper beds that I could walk around, which would save me having to simultaneously kneel on top of mattresses while picking up the edges to tuck in the sheet.
Alternatively, I might close my eyes, wave the magic wand, and open my eyes to find Carina in Tuvalu in the South Pacific – somewhere I’ve dreamed of for years. (Hello, Alice Baker!)

10. Can you name one thing that is a favorite part of your “normal” day?
There comes a time – not every day – late in the evening, when the girls are asleep in the fore cabin, and the boat is closed up for the night. The light is quite poor in the saloon, which makes the boat feel so cosy and ‘homely’. I sit on the port side settee, a light overhead shining down on the book I’m reading, a cup of tea or glass of wine on the table beside me. The boat rocks almost imperceptibly, accompanied by the gentle creaking noises of ropes and rigging. I should try to make that moment in the day a more regular occurrence than it currently is.

Another favourite part of the day that seems to be sadly fading is when the kids climb into bed with us. I’m not too keen on getting woken up at 7am, but if one of them comes into our cabin earlier than that, they usually fall back asleep. You can’t beat an early morning snuggle – with Katie especially, who is far less wriggly than Lily. This morning we had both of them in and later, after Lily and Julian got up, Katie stayed with me for a sleepy cuddle.


Well, that was fun! My Liebster Award nominees are Photo art by Anna and The Dancing Irishman, two very different blogs, and neither about anything even remotely related to the sea or sailing. They are written by two people I know personally, and who I admire because they have chosen the road less travelled in order to follow their passions. Photo art by Anna and The Dancing Irishman, here are your ten questions:

1. Did you have a ‘this is the life for me’ lightbulb moment?

2. What’s been the strangest reaction to your chosen lifestyle?

3. Why are you a blogger?

4. What is the most interesting or unexpected thing that has happened to you as a result of writing your blog?

5. What book would you recommend everyone read before they die?

6. When you eventually come sailing aboard Carina, where would you like to sail to?

7. Who is the one other person you would like to come along on that sailing trip? Why?

8. What are your other passions in life?

9. Who has most inspired you to do what you do?

10. Where do you see your passions taking you in the next ten years?

I hope you take up the challenge, answer the questions and pay the Liebster Award forward to bloggers you admire. xx Martina

The skipper speaks

DSCI4137My tea has nearly been knocked over by a fairy princess ballerina waving a polar bear. Martina is sunbathing on the deck reading her book. She finished one book and has immediately started another. We ate dinner extremely early this evening, 7 o’clock! A meal of stir-fried whatever was left in the fridge, overcooked in the pressure cooker. Really tasty though*. Katie’s dinner has just been finished off by Martina, Katie having left anything that cannot be listed under the heading ‘carbohydrate’.

Today has been hot and sticky. We have been on anchor for 5 days and we have not left the boat today for the first time since I cannot remember when. Rianxo looks lovely, what we can see of it from the south, all tall trees and beautiful buildings. The beach is crowded with colourful parasols; power boats of all kinds race about, usually with a man standing up precariously at the wheel and a slim woman lounging in a bikini. If only our fridge wasn’t the hottest place on the boat, due to power considerations, I could be relaxing with a cold glass of G&T. Well I could if the only alcohol on the boat wasn’t my uncle Ian’s marrow wine.

Tomorrow morning we plan to go into the harbour here. I am quietly bricking myself because none of my sources of information seem to agree with each other. The 2000 Atlantic Spain and Portugal pilot book, the 2007 Galician pilot book, the 2014 Almanac, the paper chart, the electronic chart, the tourist leaflet from Boiro, the bloke in the chandlery in Vilagarcia and, last but not least, the tall blonde Finnish lady in a bikini shouting from her position draped across the front of a yacht as we left our last anchorage. If only I had been bothered to run the gauntlet of speedboats and parasols to recce the harbour by land I would lie easier tonight. Goodness this is a hard life!!

*Editor’s note: I didn’t force him to say it was tasty!