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


Bountiful summer

It’s been a bountiful summer. Vines sagged under their bunches of grapes, fig trees were rich with their purple and green fruits, and sweet almond trees were bedecked with clusters of the furry green-brown outer shells of nuts.

For the first time I spent the summer in southern Iberia (with the exception of two weeks in Ireland in early July). In previous years I rued all the fresh summer foods I would miss, as I packed my bags for long summers away in northern Europe – the figs still hard and small on the copious fig trees, the grapes mere buds on the vines. We’d enjoyed an abundance of ripe plums before we’d flown north and the pomegranates were ripe on our return (alas, my least favourite fruit).

But this year I indulged (indeed, overindulged) in what the Rio Guadiana had to offer. Despite the parched earth, the unforgiving sun, and the river gradually growing saltier on each flood tide, there was an explosion of wild and cultivated foods to feast on.

At first, I gathered figs from wild trees, or from cultivated trees overhanging lanes and hiking trails, stretching up on my tip-toes to reach what hadn’t already been harvested by others. Purple figs or ripe green figs burst open to reveal their rich red pulpy interiors, the green ones all the more spectacular for the contrast between their outsides and insides. In two mouthfuls, three at most, I’d ingest each fig, savouring the deep sweetness, like sweet jam eaten straight from the pot. When I moved downriver to house-sit for some friends, their smallholding was enjoying an unusual abundance of figs, which I plucked and ate as I wandered the property, or plucked before breakfast to add to my muesli, or spread out to dry, so I will have a supply of dried figs for a few months to come. I even, as instructed by my friends, lopped off the lowest lying branches of the fig trees and fed them to the sheep. Those old ladies nearly galloped towards the prize, delighting in the figs as much as I did.

My friends also had sweet almond trees (not to be confused with bitter almonds – essential in making marzipan, but poisonous and disgusting if eaten raw and unprocessed). As with the figs, I plucked almonds from the trees for morning muesli and kept the nutcracker close by so I could indulge as the mood took me. A large bowl of almonds now sits in Carina’s cockpit which, apart from their delicious flavour, keeps us all busy with the nutcracker.

If you stand still for long enough around here, a vine will grow around you. They have crept up through and around fig trees, orange trees and eucalyptus trees. Reaching the large sweet green bunches often requires feats of gymnastic dexterity, and even now I look with longing and temptation at a certain glut of grapes that remain elusively out of reach, a sharp 50metre drop and certain injury separating me from them.

Vines, as well as producing one of Earth’s most delicious fruits, are an excellent source of shade, and many people along the river encourage vines across the pergolas that cover the outdoor balconies and patios where so much of life is lived here. A friend required assistance one Saturday. She manages a holiday let property and had only a short window between the departure of one group of holiday makers and the arrival of another. She asked if I would help change the bedding, clean the bathrooms and vacuum the floors. What she didn’t tell me was that the balcony pergola was sagging under the weight of a hundred bunches of grapes. As I worked, I plucked, my mouth almost continuously full of the sweetest of Mother Nature’s grapes. When my work was done, my friend insisted I take some home. I took six massive bunches, which weren’t even missed from the bonanza overhead. I refused to take more, as those I had were being crushed under their own weight. There were far too many for me, so I shared them with friends I met on boats on my way home. Julian and I still had more than knew what to do with. There have been other occasions this summer of sitting late at night on balconies or patios, decadently plucking grapes from overhead as I wind down with friends after a night out.

I have, for some time, been tempted to experiment with carobs. These long, vanilla-like pods also grow in abundance here, and have long been used as an alternative to chocolate. Carob is sweet and healthy, the Portuguese use the powder to make crepes and pastries, and bags of powder can be found in fresh food markets across southern Portugal. For the past two years we’ve been regularly feeding carob pods to Salsa, our horse friend. He devours them, and raises his left front hoof to let us know he wants more. He whinnies now when he sees any of the four of us come walking along the lane, knowing his carob fix is coming (Salsa is also partial to vine leaves and whole oranges, turns up his nose at fig leaves, but carob is clearly his favourite).

But when I went online to learn what I could do with carobs, I discovered the process of getting from pod to powder is all rather time consuming. So, we will continue to snack on them when we go walking, and continue to keep Salsa supplied.

Autumn is in the air, the nights are getting cooler (Katie’s back under a duvet at night, and Lily has an extra blanket) and the abundance of food continues. The pomegranates are ripe now (pleasing all aboard Carina apart from me), as are the quinces. In a few months time we will be once again preserving olives and enjoying fresh oranges and lemons, as this incredibly fertile part of the world keeps our taste buds happy with what it has to offer up.

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.

The cold never bothered me anyway

The other side of the river wasn’t there this morning. We wondered, as we walked up to school just before 9am, if Portugal had drifted away in the night, and if so, was it by accident or design. I opted for design and guessed it was merrily floating across the Atlantic, making its way to Brazil for the winter.

Turned out it was there all along. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It was just shrouded in cold dense fog. Man alive, it’s cold here right now. Not Arctic cold or even Ireland cold, but cold nonetheless. This time last year we were still swimming in the river at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim. We weren’t long back from our sojourn in the UK, and we basked in balmy November sunshine.

We’re getting the sunshine alright, but I defy anyone to strip down to their swimwear and plunge into the river (my mad husband accepted…but that’s a blog post for another day). It started gradually a couple of weeks ago. The nights grew colder and we all needed an extra blanket on our beds. Then the coats came out for the walk to school in the morning. By the end of the school day, at 2pm, it was t-shirt weather, so the girls frequently forgot to bring their coats home. For the past few days they’ve been wearing their coats to and from school.

The day came when I took the electric heater out of storage, at first to warm the boat up for twenty minutes when we got up in the morning. Now it’s running in the evenings too, both to warm up the boat and in a bid to stave off the dreaded condensation that comes from four people breathing inside a closed up boat.

Two nights ago the hot water bottles came out, the blankets were no longer enough to keep us cosy in bed. And this morning I swapped our bag of summer hats for our winter bag of gloves, woolly hats, neck warmers and scarves.

I met someone earlier who commented, ‘You must be cold’. Not a chance. In my woolly hat, and three warm layers underneath my jacket, I was snug as a bug walking through town. Maybe my nose was cold, but not much else.

There’s something nice about snuggling in for winter. Cold nights under blankets, brisk crisp days, hot tea and butter melting on toast, hearty soups made from winter vegetables, roasted chestnuts straight from the oven, hot brandy with cloves. I’ve known colder winters, that’s for sure, and I know this one will be brief. I can either fight it or embrace it. I say embrace it.

A simple matter of choice

These days I often find myself giving new arrivals on the river directions to the local shops. Berthed along the pontoon as we are most of the time now, I’m often the first person people meet when they come ashore from their anchorages up and down the river. Many people ask about the shops, and I provide details of opening hours, of which shop is best (in my opinion) for fresh food and which is cheaper for non-perishables. I tell them the whereabouts of the bakery, which is well-disguised as a regular house, and I inform them of other shopping options – Manoli sells produce at her house that she and her husband grow on their land a little down river, Karin does likewise from the back of her van on Friday mornings. I tell them about the Saturday market in Alcoutim, of the fresh eggs from one of the Sanlúcar pubs, the honey man and the cheese man, and the various vans that come through each week, selling bread, fish, meat and vegetables. And I advise them that if what they want isn’t out on display, they should ask for it anyway, and they’ll likely be surprised by what is stored ‘out back’.

Often, I’m the last person people see as they untie their dinghies and return to their yachts. More often than not I find people are disappointed by the lack of choice. ‘They didn’t have mushrooms’, someone will say. ‘I couldn’t buy a whole chicken anywhere’, someone else will moan. ‘Did you ask?’, I ask, knowing the answer will probably be no. Which is understandable, given the language barriers, and that this is unlike the type of shopping we have grown accustomed to, where everything is under the roof of one massive multi-national supermarket.

And I remember my own thoughts about shopping options when I first came here, before I knew about Manoli and the honey man and the cheese man, and the hidden treasures in Reme’s storeroom. I wondered how and when I would manage to get to a ‘proper’ supermarket to buy the things I thought I needed and couldn’t live without.

However, the months went by and when I finally got to one of those supermarkets of my dreams, I was overwhelmed by choice – too much choice – and over time I have come to realise that with the exception of only a few foodstuffs (soy sauce, noodles, peanut butter and hot chillies), the tiny shops and other shopping options in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim provide everything my family needs to enjoy a healthy, varied and interesting diet. And everything is extremely inexpensive to boot.

We have become so used to large supermarkets with their thirty varieties of toothpaste and twenty different brands of natural yogurt, that when we are faced with only three varieties of toothpaste and two of natural yogurt (with or without sugar), we panic. ‘There’s no choice here’, we tell ourselves. ‘How can I possibly be expected to eat and live well if this is all there is on offer’. We believe that two-metre high shelves stretching to infinity offer us a much needed variety. But how much variety is there really? And how much variety do we need? How much time do we spend seeking out the same brand we buy week after week amidst multiple almost identical brands of the same product? And in all the different supermarket chains, the same products are repeated over and over again.

There’s a great freedom in not having to make those choices. I want salted butter? There’s only one brand and size available. I want orange juice? Ditto. I’ve had to make slight adaptations to my cooking and baking to accommodate a lack of certain ingredients, but that’s hardly a challenge.

And what we lack in choice is more than made up for in two ways. First, the vegetables, eggs, honey and often cheese that I buy are locally produced and often produced by the people I know – the very people who are selling them to me. 100% organic, zero food miles, zero packaging. It’s an environmentalist’s dream come true. Second, when an unexpected ingredient suddenly appears, I make hay while the sun shines and we enjoy a treat. Last Friday, for example, Helen had fresh lemon grass, bright green limes and red shallots in the back of her van. I can’t remember the last time I saw lemon grass, and I have never seen or smelled it as fresh as this. And the limes and shallots were heavenly. Yippee, I thought to myself, Thai green chicken curry tonight, and we enjoyed a meal that, back in the UK we had taken to eating so regularly it had started to become humdrum. On Friday evening it was a wonderful and unexpected delight.

Julian and I have written and published before about simple living, about striving to simplify our lives by removing unnecessary clutter and opting for a lifestyle that treads lightly on the Earth. In being supermarket free, the little villages on the Rio Guadiana have given us the gift of simplifying our shopping choices. We no longer spend time driving or taking public transport to out-of-town supermarkets, of comparing and contrasting, checking minute differences between products, standing in check-out queues with trolleys full of groceries. These days we shop little and often, and if there are no mushrooms or broccoli or minced beef to be had, then we compromise and improvise and look forward to getting them on another day.



I left Carina early this morning, eager for a solitary walk north along the Spanish side of the river. After only a few minutes I had left the village and was on the old goat track. It’s late August and the land is parched brown and yellow and in places unrecognisable where the usual tall grasses have died back revealing gullies and stone walls and ruins I never knew existed. The scent of dried grass filled the air and swept me back on a wave of reminiscence to my first few days in Japan and the unmistakable smell of tatami.

I was 22-years old when I moved to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET programme. I had never been outside Europe before, and I had never experienced such extreme summer heat. My first three days in Japan were spent in Tokyo at a JET orientation, together with 1,500 new JETs from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. Despite being in the heart of Tokyo I had little contact with anyone or anything Japanese. The thirty-five storey hotel where we stayed, and where the orientation was held, could have been anywhere in the world, but for the Japanese hotel staff. I shared a room with another Irish woman, whose uncle was the parish priest in my home town, and my days were spent surrounded by young English speaking people not too dissimilar to me. JETs in their second and third years on the programme advised us on the best places to go out at night and we danced in night-clubs frequented by Tokyo’s foreigners.

On the fourth morning I rose early, delirious with jet-lag and lack of sleep, my senses overwhelmed by all the new experiences. I was nervous as hell about how the day would unfold. I boarded a plane that took me to Fukuoka, in the southwest of Japan. At the airport I was greeted by a welcoming committee of six people, all of them Japanese with the exception of the one other Irish JET living in Fukuoka – Siobhan Keenan from Co. Offaly. My welcoming committee waved Irish flags and Takayama-san, who had been in touch with me in the weeks leading up to my arrival, waved a sign adorned with shamrocks that read, in Irish, ‘Céad mile fáilte Marty’.

Takayama-san, who drove the tiny Toyota van that we all piled into, was the only one of the Japanese contingent who spoke English. I spoke not a single word of Japanese. After lunch in a Fukuoka restaurant, where I ate with chopsticks for the first time, while seated on the floor for the first time, Siobhan, the Irish woman returned to her office at the city board of education. I was left alone with my Japanese welcoming committee for the half-hour drive to the small town of Sue-machi, which, although I didn’t know it at the time, would be my home for the next three years.

I was exhausted, overheated and overwhelmed and, when I was eventually dropped off at my new apartment, I barely looked around the place before I dropped down on the tatami mats in my living room and fell fast asleep. My apartment was brand new, recently completed and I was its first occupant. The tatami – those rice-straw covered mats that cover the floors of Japanese homes and by which the size of a room is measured – was new, still green, and smelling strongly of straw.

I woke up four hours later, as darkness was falling, with the right side of my face branded with tatami lines. I’d neglected to open a window before I lay down, so the room was stifling, and the tatami smell almost made me gag. But like eating udon and tofu and umeboshi, and drinking beer with meals, I quickly grew to love the smell of tatami as a uniquely wonderful aspect of Japanese life.

Shortly before I left Japan three years later I bought a small piece of tatami to use as a pin board. I would sniff it frequently, savouring the memories of Japan it elicited. And walking along the goat track along a riverbank in Andalucia this morning, the combination of the parched dried grass and the already hot air once again filled my senses with the memory of my first days in Japan and my first encounter with tatami.

Orange grove

On the spur of the moment we walk north on the Spanish side of the river, along the old goat track now marked for walkers. It is a walk we have both done before, alone, together, with the children, walking just for walking’s sake or walking to visit friends who live upriver.

The path is uneven, at times laid down with rough stones, meandering up and down the hills that line the river, steep rock walls on one side, the land falling sharply away to the river on the other. It is a warm morning and soon I stop to remove my fleece top and tie it around my waist. We walk fast, stretching out our legs, our heart rates quickening, uphill climbs rendering us breathless, sweat on our brows and trickling down our backs. By the time we cross the dry creek we are thirsty from our exertions.

Up the other side of the creek we climb over the sheep fence to get back on the trail. The old whitewashed well stands in front of a grove of orange trees. The trees are heavy with fruit and the ground is littered with fallen oranges. The air is heady with the rich fragrance of the white orange blossoms.

I reach for the metal bucket sitting on top of the well and lower it by its thick rope into the water, watching it fall into the dark pool below. I pull the bucket up, half full of water. We cup our hands and slake our thirst on the delicious cool clear water. Water runs down our chins, wetting our t-shirts and wrists. We laugh at the satisfaction and joy we feel from this simple and timeless act.

Julian plucks an orange from the tree, rips it open and gives me half. Despite its small size and the number of pips inside, it is unbelievably sweet and juicy. We each pluck one more, two, three, gorging on the juicy flesh of these spectacular fruits. My chin is sticky, and my hands and wrists. I eat six oranges, one straight after the other, feeling wild and alive.

We wash our hands and faces in the water from the bucket, take another draught, and carry on walking, our connection to the land somehow stronger for its having fed us and quenched our thirst.

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?