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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

One year on the Río Guadiana

Next week marks a year since we sailed Carina into the Río Guadiana. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we turned north from the Atlantic coast of southern Spain and into the river, but it wasn’t this. Live aboards we met on Ilha da Culatra in the autumn of 2014 sang the praises of the river and told us we had to check it out. We sailed past on our way into the Mediterranean, but sailing west back out of the Med seven months later, we thought we’d better go see what all the fuss was about.

I had heard of the strong floods that visit the river from time to time, and I knew there were two marinas not far from the river mouth – Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. And I knew the river was navigable some way up. Beyond that I knew nothing. I had seen no photographs or charts, read no pilot books or websites, and had only vague recollections of conversations in the bar in Ilha da Culatra months before.

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Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

In my imagination I saw a smaller river, darkened by overhanging trees. I suppose because the flooding was upmost in my mind, I saw pewter skies overhead, pregnant with rain. I imagined a river running through a rainforest, not a river in drought-prone southern Iberia.

So much for my imagination. I remember the most surprising thing upon first entering the river was its width and the flatness of the surrounding land. We spent our first night in the marina in Vila Real de Santa Antonio, on the outside pontoon, with a clear view across almost a kilometre of river to Ayamonte in Spain. We arrived just after dawn on a cloudless day. Vila Real, with its predominantly white architecture and paving, was bright and fresh. I looked across the fast flowing river to the vast expanses of sand dunes and beaches south of Ayamonte and laughed at how wildly off target my imagination had been.

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Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Our plan was to motor twenty-two miles upriver to some place that had pontoons and good anchoring. Beyond that, I knew nothing. Once again I had no idea what to expect. We departed Vila Real on the flood tide and motored for four hours through a riparian landscape that grew narrower and more hilly the farther north we went. I was agog at each new splendid and surprising sight – herds of sheep and goats on the hillsides, white washed cottages and large haciendas, orange and lemon groves, herons and egrets, cormorants and swallows, fish throwing themselves bodily out of the water.

We passed a couple of small settlements and clusters of yachts on moorings, and then twenty-two miles up we rounded a bend in the river and ahead were the splendid whitewashed villages of Alcoutim and Sanlúcar, facing each other across 200 metres of river, the latter overlooked by a massive white fortification on a nearby hill. As we slowed, a man (who we later discovered to be Ted) came up in his dinghy and advised us on a good place to anchor. We anchored south of the villages, turned off the motor and I was thrilled by the sounds I heard – sheep bleating and the heavy bells around their necks ringing, a donkey braying, and woven through it all, birdsong. Could we have found ourselves in a more delightful place?

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Sanlucar (foreground) and Alcoutim (background)

We didn’t intend to stay very long. As I recall, we had a vague plan to make our way back to Galicia. Yet the Guadiana sucked us in. After a couple of weeks we decided to register the girls in school for the start of the next school year, thus committing ourselves to the river for the medium term at least. The unexpected five months back in the UK did nothing to dim our enthusiasm for the river and we returned in November keen to fully immerse ourselves in river life again.

And here we are. Carina has not left the river in a year, the girls are in school, and we find ourselves part of three communities. We are inevitably part of the ex-pat community of yachties and small-holders, people from diverse backgrounds who have been here for days or months or decades. One of the unexpected side effects of the girls going to school is that we have become part of the community in Sanlúcar, as outsiders of course, but nonetheless welcomed and accepted by the other families in the village, as we take the girls to birthday parties, and participate in school and community activities. And in Alcoutim we have come to know a small number of local people.

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That first nerve-racking morning of school now seems so long ago!

We continue to delight in walking the many paths up and down the river or east and west away from the river. We enjoy the changes that come with each season. All four of us continue to improve our Spanish language abilities, to learn more about local history, culture and politics, and to find ways to contribute to community life.

And now it is coming close to decision time. Do we stay or do we go? Our conversations on this topic are long and frequent. We have reasons to stay and reasons to go. I guess you’ll have to watch this space and see what conclusion we reach in the next month or so!

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.

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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.

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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?

Mushrooms

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Blackberry picking

Temporarily leaving Carina this summer to return to the UK was tinged with sadness for, among many reasons, lost foraging opportunities. At anchor on the Rio Guadiana, Julian often returned home with bags full of sweet oranges from an orange tree he’d found growing wild along the river bank. We ate them fresh, juice running down our chins, squeezed oranges to make juice for breakfast, and combined oranges with wild lemons and rosemary to flavour chicken for our dinner. We snacked on loquats plucked from a tree growing on the side of a street in Alcoutim, and made fresh mint tea from leaves growing in abundance on the sides of the roads in Sanlucar. As we prepared to fly back to the UK, I gazed with longing at plums only days away from ripeness, and hoped we would return to the river in time to forage the figs, almonds and grapes that grow in wild profusion on both sides of the river and would be reaching ripeness in summer.

Alas, the months have slipped by and autumn is almost here, and still we are in the UK. But even in the urban Midlands of England we are blessed with wild and cultivated food and the harvest spoils are upon us.

A few weeks ago, Jim and Jean, who live next door to Grandma, invited Lily and Katie around to pick raspberries. Grandma went with them, and they returned with bowls full of raspberries and extraordinarily sweet blackcurrants. We ate them as they were, straight from the bowl, our fingers and faces turning red with their juices. We had them with yogurt, added them to muesli and porridge for breakfast, turned them into crumble for dessert, and used them to make cupcakes. Grandma had plans to make jam, but she never got the chance – we devoured them all far too quickly.

The produce grown in the sensory garden at Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa is there for anyone who wants it. There are herbs and raspberries, courgettes and Swiss chard. I’ve left the courgettes for others, as we’re growing our own here at Grandma’s house, but the chard has become a regular feature of our meals. Each time I walk through Jephson Gardens I pick three or four giant leaves. We substitute them for baby spinach in salads, slightly cook them for dinner, chop them into stir fries and add them to vegetarian lasagne.

But what thrills me most is the wild food we have found growing in the city’s green spaces. It was Lily and Katie of course who first found the blackberries. They’re like trained sniffer dogs. Every summer and autumn of their lives has been spent blackberry picking. This time five years ago Lily and I were picking blackberries from the hedgerows of Boxworth until the day before Katie was born and we were back out there again the day after she was born, this time with Katie in her sling. They’re blackberry picking experts – and addicts.

A couple of years ago in Plymouth I discovered new and unexpected uses for a boat hook. Carina’s hook became an essential tool on our blackberry foraging expeditions along the Southwest Coast Path, allowing me to push aside thorny briars and nettles to reach the succulent out of the way blackberries inaccessible to the casual rambler. I did come a-cropper one evening, however, when a large nettle I had pushed aside sprang back and whacked me full-on in the face. But as I tell the girls, the nettle stings and thorns are the price we pay for such a splendid harvest. We can’t expect blackberry bushes to give their fruit away for free.

We’ve discovered a huge blackberry patch in Leamington and we share it with wasps, ladybirds, butterflies and many other small creatures. This morning, when we arrived with tubs and bags, we were thrilled to find a new resident in – or rather, under – the briars. In the few days since we were last here a badger has moved in. There is the tell-tale excavation of a sett, with the red earth fanned around in a wide semi-circle. We were very thankful to the badger, as it had also made forays into the briars, and the tramped down nettles and thorny branches allowed us to forage more deeply into the briars than before. There are moles here too and, given that our current bedtime reading is The Wind in the Willows, we are all very pleased that Mole and Mr Badger are hereabouts.

Seamus Heaney knew the temptations of picking too many blackberries, and each time I go blackberry picking I try to limit what I pick, but inevitably I can’t stop myself. This morning, with our tubs and bellies full of blackberries, we climbed to a hill-side meadow and the two plum trees we recently discovered. The grass grows taller than Katie here and we have to wade through it to get to the two trees, one bearing yellow plums and the other red. I warned the girls to be careful of wasps, who are also enjoying these ripe fruits at this time of year. People walked past on the path as we picked the plums. Two couples stopped, curious as to what we were doing. Some of the yellow plums are already overripe, so we left those to the wasps, but we filled a shopping bag with small sweet fruits from both trees, and brought our bounty home to Grandma, snacking from the bag as we walked along.

Back home, Grandma brought out Mrs Beeton and a couple of other cookbooks and we’ve been pouring over recipes for jams, jellies and chutneys. Grandma knows the whereabouts of a wild apple tree, heavy with fruit – we might have to check it out in a couple of weeks.

Julian’s itching to go mushroom picking, and behind the plum trees I found a big sloe bush and if we’re still here after the first frost, then we’ll be gathering sloes to make sloe gin and sloe jelly.

There’ll still be plenty of foraging to do when we return to Carina. But for now, I’m so happy to gather some of my old favourites, and looking forward to some busy days of baking and preserve-making ahead.

Blackberry picking
By Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Lively river

The liveliness of the Rio Guadiana is astonishing after six months of living in Almería – Europe’s most arid region. We’ve come from a baked orange coastal zone to a riparian idyll teeming with life. The gentle hills that girdle the river are lush and verdant and the river itself is alive. Fish leap from this dynamic river whose current runs furiously, changing direction every six hours with the tides 22 miles downstream. On the flood tide the river runs back upon itself and on the ebb it races down to the sea at even greater speed, carrying tree trunks, branches and innumerable bamboo stalks.
DSCI0412 - CopyThe riverbank is cacophonous with birdsong. There are blackbirds, sparrows, finches, tits, and even more species whose names I don’t know, filling the air with their orchestra of song. The house martins that nest in astonishing number in the gables of buildings in the two villages joyously flit along the river, dipping low to the water, catching insects to bring home to their babies. Egrets and herons patrol the banks, the herons flying like prehistoric pterodactyls and landing silently on the river’s edge. A pair of geese lives on the small beach at Sanlucar and there, and in Alcoutim, three species of duck, including a dozen or so big black and white and red Muscovy ducks make their home.

One day, a baby bird lands on our deck, resting mid-way across the river. Its parents fretfully call to it. One flies away in the direction of the other bank, wheels and comes back, pleading with the youngster to carry on. The other parent perches on our pulpit, pleading, begging ‘Just a little more baby, just a little more’. The little one rises up and flies off, flanked by its devoted parents. We watch, hearts in our mouths, as the baby dips closer to the river surface the farther it flies from us. We will it to make it the last tens of metres to safety. It alights on the deck of a small yacht anchored close to shore. The parents alight on the guard rails and the coaxing begins again.

DSCI0417 - CopyAt dusk, as the songbirds return in vast numbers to roost and the egrets fly upriver, the insects come out. And with them come the bats. These are bigger bats than I’ve seen in the wild before. They fly along the centre of the river, avoiding the masts of the yachts at anchor, eating their fill of insects.

At Sanlucar and Alcoutim, the house martins are a joy to behold. The air is filled with the sight and sound of parents, racing to and from their nests. Every house, every eave is festooned with nests and the piercing songs of adults is accompanied by their swift swooping as they seem to know no fear, diving and banking and loop-the-looping like cocky fighter pilots.

The bleating of small herds of goats and sheep compete with birdsong, the sounds of the former accompanied by the ringing bell around the neck of the lead animal. These ovines, black, brown, tan and white, spend their days resting under olive trees, shaded from the hot sun.

IMG_20150511_094909There are other animals too, no less interesting for their lack of size or cuteness. One morning a huge green grasshopper sits like a bowsprit on the prow of the dinghy as I motor ashore. Another day, we come across a small snake and stand back while it crosses our path. And then there is a larger snake, about four feet long, on the side of the road, nothing left of it but its transparent patterned skin, its long long back bone, and hundreds of tiny delicate ribs not much bigger than nail clippings. There are little green lizards, half way up walls in the villages, scuttling among the undergrowth and across paths farther out.

And the ants. Big ants, little ants, always busy busy ants. Lily stops me every few minutes to watch a tiny ant carrying a giant leaf or petal. Once, when we have a picnic, someone drops a piece of cheese from a sandwich and a platoon of ants marches up and carries it away, manoeuvring around weeds and grasses, and dragging it up and under the boardwalk to their garrison below.

Food grows in rude abundance here. Not just in the cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages and other vegetables, and in the groves of oranges, lemons, almonds and olives that grow along the riverbank and far up into the hills. There is wild food in abundance. Almond, olive and orange trees grow wild, or in old abandoned groves. There is a profusion of wild fig trees, as well as pomegranate and kumquat trees. The fig trees are heavy with not-yet ripe fruit and the kumquats are already juicy and delicious. I’ve been assured that wild vines spiral up the trunks of eucalyptus trees and great bunches of grapes can be plucked from the eucalypts later in the summer. Mint, fennel and rosemary grow wild and in abundance, as do spinach, alexanders and wild carrot. And in the river there are fresh water mussels and clams. This is a forager’s paradise.

DSCI0423 - CopyOn the trails that wind through the hills and along the riverbanks the profusion of wild flowers caresses the senses. The meadow-covered valleys between the gentle hillsides are riotous with colour. Pink, purple, blue, magenta, violet, yellow, orange, red and white wild flowers fill the air with their heady scent. The sight and scent of the flowers is accompanied by the steady buzz of bees feasting on the nectar. Beehives dot these hillsides, where beekeepers collaborate with bees to make honey from these flowers and to contribute to the pollination all that grows in this paradise.

DSCI0424 - CopyArriving in late April, we have missed some harvests and not yet arrived at others. But our stomachs are filled with delicious sweet oranges, we cook with oranges, lemons, rosemary and fennel, and I drink fresh mint tea every day. We pick kumquats as we walk along and we will the tens of thousands of figs and almonds to ripen soon.

Each day we discover some new wonder in this bounteous place, and I’m afraid my poor writing has barely captured the richness of life on the river.

Conversation with a five-year old

‘What’s that man doing?’ Lily asked me one day before Christmas, as we walked along a street in Almeria. We had walked past the friendly, grandfatherly-looking beggar who sits on a street corner not far from where I work.
‘He’s begging for money’, I told her.
‘Why?’
‘Because he has no other way to get money’
‘Why doesn’t he get money out of the bank?’
‘He doesn’t have any money in the bank’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because if he did have money in the bank he wouldn’t be sitting on the street corner in those torn old clothes begging for money’
‘Why doesn’t he ask his family for money?’
‘Maybe he doesn’t have any family. Or maybe his family can’t help him. Or don’t want to help him’

She’d exhausted this line of questioning so struck from another angle.
‘Why does he want money anyway?’
‘To buy food I suspect’
‘Why doesn’t he just get food from the shops?’
‘Well Lily, you coming shopping with me and Daddy, don’t you?’
‘Yeah…’
‘And the last thing we do before we leave the shop is pay for the food with money’
‘But maybe if he asked them they might give him some food’
‘Shops don’t work that way’
‘Why doesn’t he pick nuts off the trees?’
‘Lily, look around. Do you see any nuts on the trees here? They’re all palm trees’.
‘Well then why doesn’t he go to the beach and pick clams or mussels? Or get sea beet? Or blackberries?’
‘First of all, not everyone has learned how to forage for food like you and Katie have. And second, there’s very little to forage around here. We’re living in a coastal desert. It’s not like Devon or Brittany or Galicia where people can just pick food when they want. Not much grows here’ (I neglect to mention the billions of euros worth of fruits and vegetables grown in poly-tunnels all along this coast by large agro-industrial multinationals. Matters are complicated enough)
‘He could go to where there’s wild food’
‘How?’
‘On the bus’
‘Ah, so now we’re back to the original problem. He’d need money for the bus’
‘He could walk’
‘It’s a long way. His shoes don’t look sturdy enough for a long walk. He needs money to buy new shoes. And besides, he’d need food to give him energy to walk all that way. Remember what we learned about food and energy in your human body book?’

Now she finds a new solution.
‘He could get a job’
‘It’s not easy to get a job’
‘You have a job’
‘Yes, that’s true. But for some people finding a job isn’t so easy’
‘Why?’
‘Well, he might have had a job once. Maybe he lost his job because the company couldn’t pay him anymore. Or maybe he lost his job because he became ill, or something bad happened to him. I don’t know’
‘Maybe he got fired because he was late for work’ (Perhaps I shouldn’t tell the girls I’ll get fired if I’m late for work!)
‘Well Lily, people lose their jobs for all sorts of reasons. And then maybe when he lost his job he couldn’t afford to keep his house any more. And maybe no-one else wanted to give him a job. Bad things like this can happen to people for all sorts of reasons. And besides’ I conclude, ‘He’s an old man. He shouldn’t have to work any more’

Lily absorbs all of this information. I think she’s confused by the man and probably a little frightened by his circumstances. He looks about Granddad’s age – he probably is someone’s granddad. He affects her in a way that other homeless men don’t, because his grandfatherliness is familiar to her.

In the February/March 2015 edition of The Green Parent magazine, Louise Kinnaird writes about nurturing empathy and compassion in children. Children as young as 14 months are able to offer help to others and by six or seven years old they can take another’s perspective. She writes, however, that it may take until late adolescence ‘for a child to begin to empathise on societal issues that they cannot relate to, such as homelessness or discrimination’ (p. 31).

I believe that, as parents, it is our duty to encourage and nurture empathy and compassion from the start of our children’s lives. We need to encourage kindness, helpfulness and sharing and, over time, our children will learn to put themselves in the shoes of others. We also need to have conversations with our children that encourage them to consider the feelings of others.

I don’t think Lily empathised with the man. She wanted to solve his problems. She was searching for solutions – probably to find a way to make him more like us. I wanted to introduce her to some of the underlying reasons why this man – and the many other homeless men and beggars we encounter – was begging in the street. I don’t know his story, but I wanted to offer Lily some possibilities, so she could begin to understand the challenges he faces and could begin to see past the unshaven, dishevelled old man on the side of the street, and see his humanity, his dignity and his fierce will to survive.

Another day I might have brushed off her initial probing questions. I might have been in a rush to get somewhere, I might have had something else on my mind. And if I had brushed her off, Lily would have lost an opportunity to look a little deeper into the world, and I would have lost an opportunity to know my daughter’s logic and rationality and concerns. But on this particular day I had the patience and the time to listen to Lily and to have a serious conversation. I don’t expect her to understand the root causes of poverty or homelessness (I certainly don’t). But I hope that by allowing conversations like these to take place, both of us can deepen our empathy and compassion for others.

River Life

Life on the river moves at a different pace. We’re in the middle of the river, moored fore and aft, using our dinghy to get to shore. Our 60 gallon water tank can supply us with fresh water for three weeks if we are frugal. Our solar panel keeps the domestic batteries topped up to power our cabin lights, and recharge phones and laptop. We have enough cooking gas on board to last a couple of months. We’re self-contained for the time being. We don’t run the fridge when we are at anchor or mooring, as it requires too much energy. And so we adjust our lives so our demands on resources are less and we eat foods that require little or no refrigeration.

Rather than limiting our lives, these resource restrictions provide us with a greater appreciation of how little we actually need to get by each day. Every couple of days we buy fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products and combine these with our large stocks of rice, pasta, dried pulses and tinned foods. I bake bread every other day, and we forage for greens and shell fish on the sea shore. We eat very well. This evening I made an improvised risotto, from Japanese rice, fresh onions, garlic and green beans, fresh and dried mushrooms, and parmesan. I served it with foraged sea beet and rock samphire lightly cooked in butter, safflower and lime. It was delicious!

Lily and Julian searching for shellfish.

Lily and Julian searching for shellfish.

Each day, we’ve been eating breakfast and dinner on board, under the warm sun at our table in the cockpit, and taking a picnic lunch on our explorations during the day. We can’t afford to enjoy the fine foods and wines at the local restaurants and bistros that dot every town and village. Instead, we buy fresh local produce from boulangeries, charcouteries, and supermarkets, as well as the occasional bottle of cheap but tasty French wine.

For us, life on the river is about long walks, watching the herons on the riverbank, taking the dinghy to a beach at the river mouth, or to a nearby town to explore the town square and practice our French while we buy food and try to learn about the locality.

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

We are out of doors almost from the moment we wake up to when we go to bed. We are bathed in fresh air and sunshine, and we bathe in the river and the sea. Our needs are few, and we are more than satisfied with what we have.

The Captain of Carina

It’s just three weeks shy of ten years since I walked into the Machar Bar in Old Aberdeen one Friday evening to meet my friend Alice Baker. When Alice arrived I asked her if she knew the hunk standing at the bar with her colleagues. He was the new guy in her department. ‘Introduce me to him’, I insisted. The hunk and I have been together ever since.

On our first date I discovered he was a sailor and a diver. I was a diver who dreamed of being a sailor, so it was meant to be. My first proper sailing experience (an afternoon in the Whitsundays in 1996 doesn’t count) came a year later when I sailed with him, his dad and uncle from The Hamble to Cherbourg. I was hooked on sailing the moment I stepped on board.

Oh Captain, my Captain

Oh Captain, my Captain

Since taking ownership of Carina in late 2011 he has kept our dream of this live-aboard life afloat. All that first winter he worked tirelessly through every cold miserable weekend, the boat cold and moldy, with no water in the tank and the heater broken. He went through the boat, bit by painstaking bit, fixing the things he knew how to fix, and teaching himself how to fix the rest. He was electrician, plumber, mechanic, painter and decorator, cleaner and general dog’s body all rolled into one. He would return home to our flat on Sunday evenings smelling of engine oil and fuel, with cuts to his hands, and bone weary from his exertions.

In six months of weekends, he had transformed Carina, and we were ready to move on board. Since then his efforts have continued, and thanks to him our boat is safe and seaworthy, and warm and comfortable to live in.

Despite the sailing courses I have taken over the years, I still consider myself a novice sailor. The captain, on the other hand, has been sailing dinghies since he was five and yachts since he was seventeen. He knows the subtle adjustments to sails or heading to get the most out of the boat, and he has a sound knowledge of lights and buoys and the rules of the road.

I’m in awe of the ease with which he navigates. Given time, silence and a calm sea, I can read a chart, plan a passage, work out tide heights and streams. But if I was to plan every trip, it would take a week of planning, double checking, and doubting myself before we embarked on a nervous half-day sail. The captain works it all out with ease, and retains all the numbers and navigation data in his head that I would have to return to and read every five seconds.

When he’s not sailing the boat, or maintaining and fixing her, he’s out foraging for wild food. These days he brings home wild spinach, ramsons, marsh samphire, alexanders, wild fennel and other lovely greens, which one or other of us cooks. This past year he’s taken to baking bread, making his own sourdough starter and uttering such immortal lines as ‘Sourdough is a really interesting topic’. His sourdoughs, pitta breads, naans, and wraps are insanely tasty.

Don’t get me wrong – he’s far from perfect. He’s curmudgeonly, stubborn, an insufferable show-off, he’s ALWAYS right, and he claims never to read my blog. But I’m very glad I spotted him at the Machar Bar ten years ago!