Category Archives: Gardening

Endless olive trees in Andalusia. Spain. 2009

Just before we left Valencia to head southwest into Andalusia, Engogirl was looking up old train routes that have been converted into bicycle and walking trails known as “via verde”. One review mentioned that the via verde in Andalusia passed through endless olive trees.

 We thought that it would be better to head to Burunchel which is close to a few national parks to do some hiking instead cycling.

 The person who said that there were endless olive tree in Andalusia wasn’t kidding. About an hour before we reached our destination we started to see scenes like the one below.

 There are hills after hills planted with nothing else but olive trees. It’s almost hypnotic passing kilometre after kilometre of evenly spaced trees. As the afternoon rakes through the trees it’s like driving past a stroboscope.

Our hotel in Burunchel has been fantastic with great food and excellent staff. On our first night I asked the waitress (a really lovely person) to suggest a local wine to go with the venison we were having for dinner. Our waitress looked at me with the sort of compassionate countenance that seemed to convey, you poor clueless thing, you don’t have any idea do you? Then she said to me, “we don’t grow grapes around here, only olives”, and then she went on to suggest, what turned out to be, an excellent wine from another region.

Yep they only grow olives around Burunchel, and as a matter of fact when we went up into the nearby mountains in the national parks, it looks like there is nothing but olive trees as far as the eye can see.

The sight of such mass plantings right up to the park boundaries reinforced in my mind the theory that I have, that national parks, just about anywhere, only exist in areas that can’t be farmed.

Even when we drove about 100 kms (about 62 miles) north up to Segura de La Sierra there was nothing being farmed but olive trees. 

Interestingly many of the little villages we passed were on hill tops and nearly all of them have some kind of defensive fortifications, be it a little tower or a full blown castle. This brings to mind how turbulent Spanish history has been.

Back home in Australia towns tend to be built on some economic nexus point, like the availability of fresh water, a resource and a harbour for instance. In Spain the need for security seems have come first and then people have tried to make a living where they could more easily defend themselves, even though to do so would’ve made life very difficult. Just walking up the hills in these little towns unencumbered is bad enough, never mind having to lug produce around and do manual work in such terrain.

A difficult life is way better than death or enslavement.

Back in the early 1980s I spent three months in Morocco and a large part of that time was spent in a small village in the south. Each day I had to go to the well and stand in line with crowds of women and wait my turn to haul some water out of the deep well. It was such hard work and a real drag.

A huge amount of time is used pulling water up from wells and when I looked at all those hill top towns here in Andalusia I was reminded how life would’ve been for the inhabitants back in the old days. A hill top is not a good place to get water and I bet their wells would’ve been so deep.

In our modern lives we take so much for granted.

Spain has been an amazing place so far and Andalusia seems to be the icing on the cake.

By the way, the olives and the olive oil I’ve had over the last couple of days have been the best I’ve ever eaten. The locals are so proud of what they produce and seem genuinely pleased to be sharing something special when I’ve commented on how delicious their olives are. I had some green olives stuffed with anchovies the other night as tapas that were to die for.

THIS, is a lemon! Roast lemon chicken with Sicilian olivies recipe.

When we first moved into our house, my wife Engogirl, declared that we MUST get a lemon tree. I said I didn’t want one because I thought it would take up too much room and I wouldn’t have that much use for the fruit. Engogirl insisted, so her mother bought us a Meyer lemon tree. Since my mother in law isn’t someone you want to get on the wrong side of and it pleases me to see my wife happy, I did as I was told and planted the tree.

It took about 3 years before we got any lemons but when we finally did, I was stunned at how good they were. The lemons are almost sweet enough to eat without any sugar added and the skins are fairly thin and a deep yellow.

This is a lemon

Our little tree (it’s only about 180cm or about 6ft) now produces about 60 to 80 lemons a year, all year round. The great thing about lemons is that you can leave them on the tree for about three months after they are ready to eat and you just pick them as you need them. That way they are always fresh and I don’t have to worry about them going off. Any lemons that I can’t use, I juice and make ice cubes with to cook with later. I usually cook something with lemon at least once a week.

There ain’t going to be any scurvy on my watch!

Here’s one of my favourite recipes (I’ve made this so many times) that I cooked for some friends last Friday night. The recipe originally comes from “Delicious” magazine (this magazine is fantastic has totally changed, for the better,  the way I cook) and it’s by Belinda Jeffery.

Roast lemon chicken with Sicilian olives.
Serves 4

Ingredients

Olive oil
4 large onions, halved and thinly sliced
4 large garlic cloves
1 heaped tablespoon of thyme leaves and 8 sprigs
8 skinless chicken thigh cutlets (I use fillets)
Plain flour to dust
2 lemons, scrubbed, seeds removed and thinly sliced
1 and a half cups (375ml) of chicken stock
1 table spoon of chopped preserved lemon rind (you can get this from food stores catering to Arabs)
24 Sicilian olives or any other large green olive.

 Method

Preheat your oven to 190C (375F).

Fry the sliced onion, garlic and thyme in the olive oil over medium-low heat until the onion is a light golden colour (about 20 minutes). In the meantime dust the chicken in flour. When the onion is cooked turn up the heat to medium high and fry the chicken on both sides in the same pan for about four minutes a side until it’s golden.

Lay the cooked onion in a casserole dish and arrange the chicken on top. Then overlap the sliced lemon over top of the chicken. Heat up the chicken stock and chopped preserved lemon rind until it boils and then pour it into the pan the chicken was cooked in to deglaze the pan. Pour the contents of the deglazed pan around the chicken and place the dish in the oven for 50 minutes uncovered. Baste with the stock a few times while it’s cooking. After cooking for 50 minutes spread the olives over the lemon and cook for another 30 minutes (don’t think you can toss the olives in earlier to take a short cut, because they will burn and go black).

I serve this dish on a bed of cous cous that I mix lightly steamed asparagus into. For wine to go with this meal I recommend a lightly chilled soave.

By the way I didn’t adjust this shot to make the lemon look more saturated (as you can tell by my pasty winter complexion).  

Our first week of the new year

I hope you all had a nice Christmas and an excellent new year!

As is usual, the time between Christmas and New Year’s day is packed with feasting and socialising. That’s my excuse for being slack with posting and I’m sticking to it.

Here in Sydney Australia it’s stinking hot right now and for reasons I don’t understand, I always get highly motivated to do major projects around the house at this time of the year. The smart time to do most of these laborious jobs would be in the cooler weather, but no, that would make too much sense. I never really feel like doing such things until it gets uncomfortably hot and humid.

Further proof that I’m a complete idiot. 

Last year at about this time I landscaped the front yard in the blazing sun. This year I’ll be toiling in the backyard making a pond and replacing two toilet sets in the house. 

The photo below is of Engogirl on the first day of this year, helping me with the construction of some bench seating that will surround the pond we are constructing.

Engogirl likes using the drill press

After sweating our butts off for a day, we decided that instead of getting stuck into our backyard work and knocking it over quickly, we would rather get into an air-conditioned car and take couple of days off to visit Engogirl’s parents at their holiday home in Tallong (2 hours south of Sydney).

There are a few orchards in Tallong and stone fruits are in season. Engogirl’s father loves jam and makes his own.

This man is powered by jam

Here’s Engogirl’s father’s recipe for apricot jam

Ingredients

Equal quantity of firm (slightly unripe) apricots and sugar. For the jam that was being prepared in the photo above, 1kg of apricots and 1kg of sugar were used.
Pectin (use only half the amount that is recommended on the packet or the jam will be too firm).
Water.
Glass jars. 

Method

Place freshly washed jars with lids and sugar into an oven and heat up to 100 degrees C (which is boiling point at sea level or about 212 degrees F). The sugar is preheated so that it dissolves quickly and completely when it is added to the fruit. Wash, pit and halve the apricots. Place prepared apricots into a saucepan with a cup of water, then heat for about 15 minutes, until the fruit begins to soften, over medium heat.

When the fruit is soft add the sugar and pectin stir until dissolved. Bring the mixture to the boil and cook for about another 5 minutes, whilst continually stirring. You will know when the jam is ready to fill the jars when the jam mixture sticks to the side of the saucepan in thick blobs. When the mixture is ready, take the jars and lids out of the oven (don’t forget that they will be hot, so use oven mitts) and fill with the hot jam mixture and screw on the lids straight away. It’s probably best to perform this operation in your sink in case there are any spills or accidents.

Spring has sprung!

Spring has well and truly sprung. It’s almost like someone just flipped a switch. One day it’s cold, overcast and windy and suddenly the next day is clear and hot. The weather has been so glorious that my wife and I spent last weekend pottering around in the garden planting new plants (mainly Australian natives as they’re much more hardy and require far less water) and re-oiling our outdoor furniture.

Our godess of the garden

Although our back yard is very small, we have over the years made it into a very nice place sit and relax. My idea of heaven is to sit outside in the morning with my wife and read the weekend paper together then do a bit of gardening during the day to be followed by a barbeque at night. As a matter of fact that’s just what we did. On Saturday night we had the neighbours over to help us eat some barbequed and smoked loin of pork and knock over several bottles of wine whilst chilling out to Gabin

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Ahhh…. life can be so good!

Plants have no shame. Royal National Park, Audley, NSW, Australia

A short drive south of Sydney will take you to the second oldest (1879) national park in the world, the Royal National Park.  The park basically consists of two types of scenery, coastal cliffs and heathland.  Most of the plant in the Park salt resistant hearty, prickly little things that somehow managed to eke a living out of probably some of the poorest soil in the world. Come to think of it, that’s probably why it was declared a national park, because it’s absolutely useless for farming.

Since the weather finally cleared up on Sunday, my wife and I went for a drive and a walk in the Royal National Park.

We’ve had a few rain falls over the last couple of weeks and although it’s still technically winter nobody seems to have told the plant world, because nearly everything with roots in the soil is blooming. 

A regular plant orgy

As you look across the heath it is though one is looking at a slow motion corybantic dithyramb of plants in heat presenting themselves to all comers. With no brains to experience any shame, the plants wantonly went about their reproductive business, oblivious to rest of the world. I’ve always thought it strangely ironic that we humans present the torn off sex organs of plants to the targets of our desires. Not very a subtle hint and a rather callously barbaric practice when you actually think about it.

Most of the heath plants have tiny little spiky leaves to preserve moisture and their flowers tend to be quite small.  Around about the size of a little fingernail.

Most of the flowers are very small

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule,

The Gymea Lily

and in the Royal National Park it is the Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excelsa) which send flower spikes up to 6 m high (about 18 ft).

Doryanthes excelsa

After witnessing all of the botanical fecundity last weekend, my wife and I intend to follow nature’s lead and begin planting out our vegetable garden, next weekend. This year we will be trying out some heritage tomatoes (old styles that are no longer commercially own) that have been bred for taste rather than toughness for transportation such as the ones available in supermarkets.

Rainbow lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus)

I was having breakfast in my backyard as usual this morning when the lorikeet in the photo landed in the ficifolia (red flowering gum) about 3 metres (3 yards) away.

two more reasons to be cheerful

Over the last few years my wife and I have landscaped our backyard from a sterile and sun-baked wasteland of lawn into a beautiful oasis of colour and calm. I have my breakfast outside nearly everyday and my wife and I eat outside about two or three times a week throughout most of the year. Even in the cooler weather we light up the chiminea and sit out and enjoy the enviroment we have created for ourselves.

Recently I’ve been counting my blessings (doing the old “be here now” thing) and I feel that I’ve got it made. I’ve got a lovely wife; a great circle of friends; a nice little house that’s nearly paid off; my freedom and I live in a prosporous stable country. I think that the mood of Jamiroquai song “Corner of the earth” from the album “A Funk Odysseybest describes how I feel when I’m blissed-out about such things.

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I’ve also been thinking about Epicurus lately and how what he has to say has so much relevance to my life. He is quoted as saying ” It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing ‘neither to harm nor be harmed’). And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.”

Epicurus promoted ethical reciprocity (treat others as you would like to be treated) 300 years before Christianity appeared and started to claim credit for such a concept. He also came up with a very useful little list (for this confusing consumerist, status driven, hero worshipping world we live in) of what is necessary

  • Freedom
  • A life free of pain
  • Shelter
  • Friends
  • Food

unnecessary but nice

  • A big house
  • Meat every day
  • Wealth

and what is totally unnecessary

  • Power
  • Fame

If you’d like to know a little more about Epicurus and a few other philosophers I like to recommend the following book by Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy

Semi dried tomatoes

We had a good crop of beautiful organic tomatoes this year. We had both cherry tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes and we grew way more than what we could eat so I decided to semi dry and preserve them in olive oil.

Ingredients 

Tomatoes
Light olive oil (enough to cover the tomatoes)
3 cloves of garlic
1 Table spoon of salted capers
1 Teaspoon of dried basil

Method

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and the larger tomatoes into 1cm (about a third of an inch) slices.

Dry the tomatoes in a dehydrator for 12 hours at 60 degrees C (about 140 F).

Place enough jars and their lids in a oven heated to 120 degrees C (about 250 F) for 30 minutes. Leave the jars in the hot oven until you are ready to use them.

Heat up the olive oil with the three cloves of finely sliced garlic, a table spoon of salted capers and a teaspoon of dried basil. Heat the oil until it starts to cook the garlic then it take it off the heat. You don’t want to really cook the garlic, it’s heated just to help infuse the flavours into the oil and help with keeping things sterile.

Pour a little of the hot oil with the garlic, basil and capers into each the hot sterilised jars and then place the semi dried tomatoes in the jars a little at a time, covering them with a little more hot oil as you fill up the jar.

If you try this, I’d suggest that the oil pouring is done in the kitchen sink in case the jar breaks. Needless to say, hot oil can cause very serious burns so take care at all times.

Mike Stasse is concerned about peak oil. Cooran, QLD, Australia

Mike Stasse is one of my oldest friends (here in Australia) and he is the owner of the “Running on empty Oz“, peak oil discussion group. “Peak oil” refers to the imminent decline of oil production.

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Mike and his wife Glenda have moved to beautiful Cooran in Queensland and are getting ready for what they see as the inevitable chaos that will result from the shortage of oil by becoming self-sufficient. Two years ago, my wife and I visited Mike and Glenda on their land as Mike was still building the outside of their self-designed and built home.

the unfinished exterior. Photo by Mike Stasse

 We stayed with them for about three days. During our time together we were shown their permaculture garden,

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solar electricity system (they sell electricity to the power company when they have excess) and various other ecologically sustainable systems that have installed, such as:

  • A simple off the shelf greywater system that uses no power
  • A kitchen greasetrap that works with compost and worms, no odours, no maintenance to speak of 
  • A zero flush toilet that saves thousands of litres water a year

It is a lovely house in a beautiful setting. The picture below was taken from the back window at sunrise, looking out towards Mt. Cooran.

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It takes courage and commitment to do what Mike and Glenda are doing. The sort of courage and commitment that I sometimes wish I had, but I will be instituting some of their ideas into our next house we buy later on this year.