Fat of the land

With Julian’s help, I made the move onto Chris and Maggie’s land as soon as the girls had gone to school. The girls and I would only be at Chris and Maggie’s for a little over two weeks, but I moved all the stuff I thought we’d need for three months. A couple of days after Chris returns, we’re moving into a house in the village for about two and a half months. Chris and Maggie are off to Sweden to visit their grandchildren, leaving their cat, Aris, their home and their garden in our (I hope) capable hands. And when we move into the village in the summer it will be to look after Vinnie, the coolest and most chilled out dog in Sanlúcar.

Chris is a keen gardener, and at this time of year there’s a lot of food about. As well as providing the girls with an opportunity to look after a cat, this lovely plot of land offers them an opportunity to get to know plants, to dig up or pick fresh food and to prepare it for the table.

For our first lunch here, we had a salad of lettuce, spinach, grated courgette, onion, sugar snap peas and green peppers, all picked not 10 minutes before we ate, drizzled with our own olive oil from Julian’s olive picking endeavours in the autumn, and freshly squeezed lemon juice from one of the many citrus trees in the garden. For dessert the girls ate strawberries directly from the plants, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice.

Late in the afternoon, I sent them out to get potatoes for dinner. I followed them, not sure if they knew where to find potatoes. ‘They’re somewhere here’, I said as we reached the garden down by the river. The girls looked around. The broccoli, courgettes, onions and red cabbage were obvious, and not to be confused with anything else. But where exactly were the potatoes? ‘Is it this?’ Lily asked, pointing to a young tomato plant. Not a bad guess, but no. I directed them to a weedy-looking plant, but they were still none the wiser. I grabbed the garden fork and started to dig and almost immediately a golden potato revealed itself.

The girls were delighted. Katie took the fork from me and Lily removed potatoes from the two plants Katie dug up. Back at the house they washed the soil from the potatoes and used the muddy water to irrigate the vines, rose bushes and baby tomato plants growing close to the house. Then I sent them back down the garden for broccoli and courgette for the supper I’d planned and then up the garden to the loquat tree, to gather fruit for dessert.

We’ve lived almost exclusively off the land since coming here and every few days a new fruit or vegetable ripens, adding variety to our diet. First it was the beetroot, then the aubergine and now the tomatoes are turning deep red. What a bounty and what a delight that our friends asked us to look after their place.

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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.

 

Rain revisited

In my last blog post I detailed my rainy day woes. It was written slightly tongue in cheek it must be said. My gripes about a few days of wet weather hide a deeper concern for the inhabitants of this part of Spain and Portugal. It’s not raining enough.

Everyone I met during that week of rain, while at first bemoaning the immediate and short-term inconvenience and discomfort brought about by these few days of heavy rain, was quick to point out how badly rain was needed. As live aboards, we have enjoyed a relatively rain free winter here on the Rio Guadiana. It rained for a couple of weeks in late October, but was dry again by the time we returned in early November. And there hasn’t been much rain since – the odd shower here and there; a few bad days after Christmas; the occasional drizzly day since.

The rain that fell last week was the first prolonged and consistent rain in a very long time. And even then it only barely penetrated the hard packed dried out soil. Unusually, the dam seven miles upstream from here has not had to release any water from the reservoir behind it this spring, and to look at the reservoir downstream that serves Vila Real, it’s easy to see why. A line runs all around the massive reservoir, the contrasting colours above and below marking the land above the water line and land that’s usually submerged below the water line. Each time I take the bus over the reservoir on my way to Vila Real, there is strikingly less water in the reservoir and more land is exposed. While this could be expected in late summer, it’s worth remembering that it’s only April.

Here in the hot sunny southwest of Europe, culture and economy rely on rain. Like everywhere in the world, we humans and our neighbour animals and plants need water. Without it, things quickly start to go wrong.

Here on the banks of the river farmers who make their livelihoods from olive, almond, orange and lemon trees, from vines and cork, and from rearing sheep and goats, are feeling the pinch of the lack of rain. Even those lucky enough to own land that runs right down to the riverbank suffer the cost of irrigating their land with river water and the added worry that the drier this estuarine river gets, the saltier it grows with each inundation of seawater on the flood tide (in wet years the volume of fresh water more effectively flushes out the seawater). For those with land away from the river, irrigation becomes a burden often too expensive to carry.

And in a region that relies so heavily on water intensive tourism (all those golf courses and hotels with swimming pools on the Algarve and Andalucian coasts) the financial cost of a drought is sorely felt, and everyone suffers from the need to keep those enterprises up and running.

I’m writing this on Earth Day (April 22nd) and I’m acutely aware of the geographical injustices of climate change. The small land owners here in southern Iberia are not responsible for the drought. They are not responsible for climate change. The long term land owners whose families have been on the land for generations and the newcomers seeking a simpler, back-to-basics way of life farm the land lightly, relying on manual labour rather than fossil-fuel intensive machinery, extensive cultivation rather than fossil-fuel reliant intensive farming, and a local chain of supply and demand rather than the larger carbon footprint of long distance markets. Yet, as with indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic and of low-lying Pacific islands, small scale local farmers all over the world bear the brunt of a changing climate of which they have had little or no part in making.

The short term effect of a week’s deluge has been an explosion of colour on the hillsides as wildflowers bloom; grass that a couple of weeks ago was at knee height now towers above my head; and vegetable patches are thriving. But now that the rain has gone again and hot dry weather has resumed I think of the families who have lived on the Guadiana for hundreds of years, people whose ancestors were Romans and Moors, families who have been on the land for so long it feels like forever. I think of the aquifers depleted of water, the land drying out year upon year and, like many millions of others around the world, people unjustly paying the price for a changing climate.

Buzzy bees

I gaze through the glass, mesmerized by the activity inside. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of bees, all moving – the proverbial hive of activity. ‘What’s going on there?’ I ask the tall, grey-haired gentleman beside me, pointing to one bee laboriously carrying its comrade against the force of gravity, up through the hive. ‘It’s removing a dead one’, the man tells me. He explains that fastidious bees carry the dead from the hive and he shows me the drawer that he clears of dead bees on a regular basis.

This is an ingenious set-up giving people like me a rare glimpse into the lives of bees. The hive is encased between two panes of glass and the bees have access to the outside world through a long narrow drainpipe. But because of the pipe, the dead cannot be completely removed by other bees alone, so the bee-keeper lends a hand by collecting them in the little bee-cemetery and removing them regularly.

The woman in the Glasshouse is worried about the bees, but the bee-keeper assures her they’re looking good. There was an unfortunate die-off last year and she’s hoping the same won’t happen again. But the bee-keeper tells her if he sees any sign of trouble he will capture the queen, creating a swarm and the start of a new healthy colony.

‘How do you know which one is the queen?’ I ask, expecting him to say that she’s bigger. Turns out she’s not noticeably bigger. She has a white mark on her back. But it is the behaviour of the other bees around her that distinguishes her from everyone else. The others clear a path around her, don’t get in her way. I reminded me of the way everyone maintains a respectful space around Usain Bolt! We try to find the queen, our heads close together, our noses pressed to the glass. I think I see her, but I’m not sure.

It seems bees are everywhere these days. And they’re not. The more they disappear from the world the more they are part of the zeitgeist. One of the libraries I visit has an entire bee section, with books such as A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, about one of the many crises currently faced by honey bees, and Sean Borodale’s moving book of bee-keeping poetry, Bee Journal.

There seem to be a profusion of bee-related activities in the places we’ve been visiting all summer – libraries, museums, art galleries all devoting space and energy to educating people about bees, nurturing children’s enthusiasm for bees, providing information about how to revive tired bees. There are wildlife organisations and activitists devoted to and campaigning for the protection of bees, television programmes focusing on the importance of bees and the threats they face, and artists inspired by bees. Even Sainsbury’s, the big supermarket chain, is singing the praises of bees, encouraging customers to install bee hotels in their gardens to encourage the solitary bees so necessary to the pollination of garden plants.

Wandering around rural Spain and Portugal and suburban England this summer I could have been forgiven for thinking that bees are doing just fine. On the hillsides along the Rio Guadiana the buzzing of bees fills the air, the land is awash with wild flowers, and beehives pepper the slopes. In the English Midlands, the constant buzz of bees around lavender and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover fills the air. The sight of fat round fuzzy bumblebees (there are 13 different species of bumblebee and 260 species of solitary bee in the UK alone!) flying from clover to clover always causes me to stop and smile.

But the reality is bees are in serious trouble. And because bees are in trouble, we are in trouble. One-third of everything we eat is pollinated by honeybees.

Do you eat any of the following foods? Kiwi, onion, celery, mustard, broccoli, rapeseed, cauliflower, cabbage, anything in the pepper family, coffee, coconut, anything in the melon family, tangerine, coriander, cucumber, pumpkin, lemon, lime, carrot, oil palm, fig, strawberry, sunflower, apple, mango, alfalfa, avocado, most beans, cherries, almonds, peaches and related fruits, pears, blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries, blackberries, sesame, aubergines, cocoa (i.e. chocolate), blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, grapes. Yes, they all rely, to a medium or major extent, on pollination by bees. And do you wear clothes made from cotton or linen (flax)? They too are pollinated by bees. So, without bees, or with much reduced bee populations, many of the foods we eat and clothes we wear cannot be produced.

There has been a sharp decline in bee populations over the past decade. In some instances bee numbers have declined by more than 40%. Colonies are collapsing, queens are dying, foraging behaviour is changing. Mass deaths are related to stress and disease. One of the biggest problem facing bees comes from neonicotinoid pesticides, used on arable crops and, in some cases, on household gardens. A ban on their use in the UK was recently lifted despite expert scientific evidence supporting a continued ban. Bee numbers have gone into spiralling decline, linked to these pesticides. Bees are also threatened by loss of habitat as meadows and wild flowers are displaced by monoculture and as home owners decorate their gardens with non-native plant species incompatible with the feeding habits of local bees. And a warming climate has made bees more susceptible to parasites. In combination, that’s a lot of stress for such complex creatures.

All my life I’ve been interested in big animals – dogs, polar bears, whales, elephants. But this summer I’ve developed a great respect for and awe of bees. And with that comes a great concern that these magnificent animals, with their fascinating life cycles, means of communication and sensory perception are in deep deep trouble. And if being awestruck with wonder at their very existence is not enough (although it should be), then we need to remember that our survival depends on their survival.

Forty years ago we were called upon to Save the Whale. The whale zeitgeist – the books, the films, the love poetry to whales – brought about a sea change of action. Today, many whale species are recovering from the ravages of 150 years of commercial whaling, with some sub-populations being removed or down-graded on the IUCN Red List. Perhaps the current bee zeitgeist will lead to a similar upwelling of action, that our growing awareness of the importance and wonder of bees will help us to open our eyes, change our habits and give these more intriguing of creatures a chance to survive.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a useful information page, with ideas what we can all do to nurture healthy bee populations.