Wednesday, January 25, 2012

That looks better !

As you know by now, most of our plants have to live in big pots as we have very little bare earth for planting in. However, there is one tiny square at the front of the house, so we tend to put a bit of all sorts in there and most of it grows very well. Too well in fact, and we had reached the state where we couldn't walk round to the gate with the dogs, without snagging our legs or trousers on rose thorns, and risking a trip on the various plants that were crawling out across the path. We had cut the branches off that stuck out across the path just before Christmas, but already it was encroaching on our space again. So on Monday, it being a lovely sunny, but not too hot day, we both decided to attack it! Here is what it looked like before we started.

The main offender was a lantana plant which I love for its firey red, orange and yellow heads of flowers which bloom for most of the year, but it is a very invasive plant and it had just about swamped everything else. It was a tiny plant in a little pot when we bought it a couple of years ago. So our first job was to cut most of that down. This uncovered our roses which Chris pruned back hard, while I filled a big dustbin time and time again, and took it all out to the big bin in the road, which fortunately is just beyond our wall. Then we rediscovered a tiny mandarin tree that had never grown, and we now know this is because it was completely rotten at the base. We have replaced it with the fig tree that self-seeded in there this year. We had to cut some of its roots to move it, so it may or may not survive.

Lastly we cut back all the climbing plants that covered the circle of stones in the centre. They had so much dead wood under them that we decided to clear them completely and see what comes back up during the year. I am sure some of it will. Everything grows so abundantly out here, and it is quite difficult to destroy anything. It all looks a bit bare right now, but I am sure it won't stay like that for long. Here is what it looked like when we had finished!

About a year ago we were similarly brutal with the jasmine that grew all over the wall at the back of this little patch, because we wanted to repair some pipe work behind it and repaint the wall. Already, as you can see in the photo above, the jasmine is all over the wall again and it has so many buds on it. It will look and smell beautiful in a month or so. It has pink flowers, and blooms at a different time from all the white ones we see around the village. The perfume is so strong and it wafts all through the house. I love it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

That was the week that came and went!

Yes another week has flown by, and once again I have failed to find the time to post on here, so today I shall try to keep the writing to a minimum (for me anyway), and give you a week in pictures.

Thursday 12th. Our good friends Julie and Robin came to visit. Robin had picked some bitter oranges and wanted to know how to make marmalade with them. It took us all day because we kept stopping to chat, but we got there in the end. While we were busy I gave Julie Eve's book to look at and she read every word and loved it. (Sorry, only the family will understand that bit). I had made a tasty 'main meal' soup for lunch and we all enjoyed it together and had a lovely day. Robin went home very happy with his year's supply of marmalade, and he kindly left me the rest of the fruit, because I am struggling to get any this year. The sweet orange harvest is nothing like as good as last year, and the market stall holder who has given me bitter oranges in previous years, says she may not be able to get any this year. I have put out requests at church and my sewing group so I will have to wait and see, but in the meantime I was very grateful for the ones Robin left here. That evening, when I went out to feed the dogs, I saw a beautiful sunset. The rays were reflected up into the clouds above, so I had to grab my camera and take a quick shot.

Friday 13th. Guess what I did today? Yes, I made marmalade. The oranges had been picked for a while and they do not keep all that well, so I thought I had better get on and use them. There was just enough for me to make two double batches, one lot of fine cut, and one darker batch with thicker peel. I got both lots done in less time than it had taken to make one the day before and soon I had around thirty-two jars of marmalade made. They have all sold already, and people are asking for more, so I hope I do manage to get hold of some more bitter oranges.

Saturday 14th. I drove over to Vera to a large stationers, to try to get sheets of printable labels for my marmalade and jams. I found what I wanted. They will make life much easier for me. I told Chris I would only be about half an hour, but going back to the car I glanced up a side road and spotted a market stall. I can't resist a street market, and I had forgotten that Vera has one on Saturdays, so I phoned Chris to say I might be a 'little bit longer', and set off to have a look round. For some reason, I suppose because there is one in our village on Tuesdays, and a larger one in Turre on Fridays, I had never been to this market. I was really surprised - it was huge. At the end of each road it branched off into another one, and I quite lost my sense of direction. A lot of the stalls were clothes and I treated us to a new jumper each, and there was also loads of beautifully fresh fruit and vegetables. I saw several things that I don't see in our little market; noticeably net bags of snails. I know these are eaten a lot here by the Spanish people, but it is the first time I have seen them for sale. There was also some fruit that is way before it's proper season, and I couldn't resist buying some, although I know it will be plentiful, and much cheaper in a couple of months time. So we had some tasty snacks this week with ripe apricots, strawberries, and a handful of my favourite fruit, seed and nut mix.

Monday 16th and Tuesday 17th were horrible days. It was grey and cold and we had heavy rain for most of that time. The dogs were restless. We had them in with us, but they are happier outside. It was just too wet for them. In one of the short dryer spells, I went around the garden taking a few photos. I liked this one of our orange tree, with the rain dripping off the fruit. We really felt the cold. I am sure it is a lot colder in UK, but we are not used to it, and our houses are cold. Because all the floors are stone, we get cold feet so I dug out my warm bed socks and wore them inside my furry slippers. Chris has an electric fire in his room but that gets too hot for me, so I combated the draughts by using my sheepskin chair cover and digging out an old blanket, crocheted by mum many years ago. That wrapped around my legs was fine, but everytime I went to make a cup of tea, or fetch something from across the room, Baggins jumped onto my chair and curled up. He knew I would move him straight off again, but he never gave up hope. I might add that I have also cut up a big sheepskin blanket that matched my chair cover, to make beds for the dogs, and I put a small piece up on my printer where Baggins lays for most of the day, but the grass is always greener etc....

Wednesday 18th dawned cloudy but at least it was dry, and it gradually improved as the day wore on. So after I had been to my usual Wednesday sewing group, I drove down to Vera and had a walk along the beach. The sun was out by then and it was quite warm in sheltered spots, but there was a keen wind and it was whipping up lovely waves that crashed as they broke on the sand. I love it when the sea is like that. I walked along the edge of the water and watched the breakers rolling in for ages. Looking back at the white apartments in Vera, you can see there were still plenty of clouds around, but it was good to blow some cobwebs away.

When I got home I had a nice surprise because the courier came to deliver a parcel, and inside was my new camera. This is what I bought with the tax rebate that came in the post on Christmas Eve. It was totally unexpected so I thought I ought to do something useful with it, and this camera has been on my wish list for quite some time. I soon had it all unpacked on my desk, and Arwen was interested in the sound of rustling plastic bags so she jumped up to watch. I bought a 'package deal' that included a case, a small tripod, an SD card, and some batteries with their charger. The only down side was that the only manual was on the accompanying CD. This wasn't a lot of use to me as I need something to carry around and refer to while I am using the camera. so I spent the rest of the day printing it all out and binding it into a proper book.

Thursday 19th. I expect you can guess what I did on this day. Armed with my manual, which I actually sat and read right through before I turned the camera on, I went round the house and garden taking pictures with various settings so that I could get an idea of what it is capable of doing. It is a bridge camera, so one step up from a standard point and shoot digi camera, and one step down from an SLR camera, which I think would have been too complicated for me to understand. Mine seems relatively straightforward to use, and for ordinary photos, the results using the Auto setting are very satisfactory and at least with my eyesight, I can't see much difference between them and those taken when I adjust the settings manually. But I am keen to take more adventurous shots and to try experimenting to find out how to use the settings properly. So I have made a small folder of my first few photos and posted it on my gallery here. Do feel free to go and browse through them. The nice thing about it was that when I put them on the computer, none of them needed any editing apart from some cropping, whereas I usually spend ages tidying them up. There is nothing very adventurous there yet, but I hope to add to it later. One quite clever feature is the ability to take panoramic photos by just turning the camera through a wide angle. Up 'til now I have only achieved this by taking a series of photos and stitching them together in my editing program. This isn't very satisfactory as the light differs between the shots so the sky changes colour etc, and it is quite difficult to blend them together. I have achieved it occasionally as with the two photos I have use as the header and footer of this blog. But now it is much easier because the camera does the stitching and adjusting for you. Here is one I took yesterday at the back of the house.

It is almost the same view as the one at the top of this page, but taken slightly further to the right, and with more of the foreground greenery left in. I didn't get the focus quite right but it's not bad for a first effort.

Today! Yesterday all my photos were taken in the daytime. Today we were busy all day sorting out various bits of formal paperwork. This involved visits to offices in Vera and Huercal Overa, where I managed to make myself understood, though we were lucky in Vera when the young Spanish man who was next in the queue, jumped in and explained when he could see I was struggling. Usually if you have a go at speaking in Spanish to people, they appreciate this and try to meet you half way, but the lady in that particular office is know to be less than accommodating, so we were glad of the young man's help. This took up most of the day so it was early evening when I set out to drive to the supermarket in Vera, to pick up a few things so that I wouldn't have to go out again tomorrow. (Well I do have to do some housework sometime!). As I walked back to the car I saw a beautiful sunset. Fortunately I had my camera with me so I was able to try out the settings for sunsets. I took several shots, varying the settings slightly each time, and this is the one I liked best.

Well I failed again with the less writing bit didn't I? But you have just walked through a whole week with me, and I know some of you do enjoy reading my ramblings, so I won't apologise too much. Maybe I'll do better next time, but there again...!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Let the People Sing

Having enjoyed the Three Kings Fiesta, we still had one more event before we could say 'Good-bye' to the Christmas season, and that was the choir concert on Saturday night. The programme was all Christmas music but we were unable to schedule it any earlier. The Spanish choir held their own concert on Christmas day, but too many of our group go back to UK for the holiday week for us to sing then. But as it turned out, this was a super way to bring the celebrations to a close.

Due to an e-mail that didn't reach us, we arrived in Zurgena too early so we went to a bar for a hot chocolate, and on their notice board we spotted this poster, advertising both the concert on Christmas Day for Coral Maria Auxiliadora, and the one on Saturday for the same Coral along with Coral Cantante which is us. Duly refreshed, we set out to climb the hill to the church at the top. It is a very narrow, steep road, so it is a good thing we had time to get our breath back when we arrived. (It was even harder to walk down it at the end). The road was too narrow to risk driving up it, and the parking at the top is minimal anyway, so we mostly parked down in the square and walked up. The church is not a very striking building. This is the bell tower viewed from the back of the building - halfway up the hill. But inside it is quite ornate with lots of icons and gold scroll-work. See the impressive backdrop behind us when we sang.

Although we are much the same size groups, the similarity ends there. The Spanish choir is very smart and disciplined, and they sing with great gusto. They also only have three male members while we had nine men singing that night. They almost wear a uniform and it did look good, but we aim to be a mass of colour and our music has more light and shade, and is more gentle. Julie also sings with their choir which is how she managed to organise the combined concert. She is the third from the right in the front row. I loved listening to them as they sang their four songs, and they obviously enjoyed singing them. One of their members gave a short opening speech, all in Spanish of course, and most of the audience were Spanish too. I didn't understand all of what she said, but I did hear her say that it was a very special and unique evening, and the first ever for the choir to combine with another one, especially an English one, but "music has no frontiers".

They have a lovely young girl as their leader, Rosa-Maria and she has a beautiful voice. She has a tiny keyboard that she uses to play the opening notes for each group, and then they sing unaccompanied. We, on the other hand, have an excellent pianist called Sue, Robin plays his guitar, and Dave plays a violin for some songs and a clarinet for others. We even had Trevor on bongo drums for one song. The introduction from these instruments sets the tone of the songs. We did a beautiful one that is sung to the tune 'Greensleeves', Julie wrote one for a tune of a Northern folk song, and we sang the one written by Donna that you may have heard if you listened to any of the linked videos in my earlier post about the choir. For our last one Julie sang Oh Holy night again, with the choir joining in for the last lines of each verse. They church was full right to the back, and they gave her a standing ovation, which was richly deserved. I mentioned previously that we were very worried about her as she had been so ill in hospital since Christmas, but God is good, and she was well enough to not only come to the concert and lead us, but also to sing from her heart and bring tears to the eyes of many who heard her.

For the last part of the concert the Spanish choir came back to the front and we slotted in amongst them, and together we sang four songs in Spanish. It wasn't easy getting our tongues around unfamiliar words, but it sounded good and everyone enjoyed it. We all got a standing ovation at the end, but we didn't need that to know that it had gone well. We had all felt the tingles as we sang, and it was a wonderful experience to be a part of it. There were hugs and kisses all round afterwards. It is a pity that this couldn't have been videoed as the singing was so much better than at La Vida, and everyone stayed quiet and listened, so there were no distractions in the background. The mayor attended the concert and he has invited us to do an open air concert in the summer, and maybe a bigger one in the concert hall later. I hope we manage to stay grounded as we are only a group of amateurs who enjoy singing together, and that is what most of us want to continue to be, but it is great to be able to share that enjoyment with others and entertain them too.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Food, glorious food!

Once again we were blessed with a beautiful sunny day for our Three Kings fiesta, here in our village. As with most Spanish traditions, each year it is very much the same as the previous one, but somehow, that predictability is part of it's charm. As I have recounted the events of the day many times before, (new followers of my ramblings can see this in my January posts of earlier years), I thought this year I would take a different approach and show a series of photos of the food that was available. Sharing a meal together with family and friends is an important part of any Spanish festival, and this one was no different. When I wandered over to the plazza this morning there were noticeably fewer stalls in the medieval market, and rather fewer people around, though there was a very good crowd by lunchtime, but I guess that is an inevitable sign of the times. However, all the usual food stalls were in place so come with me to visit them in turn. (Incidently, because of the number of photos I am using I shall post them fairly small, but you can click on each one to get a larger view if you wish).
So here we will start with two stalls that will not be open properly until later this afternoon. The first is selling donner kebabs and the other Arabian herbal teas and very sweet cakes.

Moving on we come to the man selling potato crisps freshly cooked in olive oil. He was doing a good trade.

The Padilla churros stand was there, but I didn't manage to catch her serving anyone (just chatting!). Churros freshly cooked is one of my favourites. It is a stiff batter which is piped into a vat of hot oil in a big coil, and once cooked it is cut into about 15cm lengths and liberally frosted with sugar, and sold in a paper cone. It tastes a bit like doughnuts, but if left to get cold it can be very greasy. It is still served in many places for breakfast with a cup of very thick drinking chocolate to dip it in.

There are usually two big barbeques at this fiesta. The first one was well loaded with fat pink sausages. orange choritzo sausage, pork ribs, lomo (pork loin) and joints of beef (more unusual as there are very few cows in Southern Spain). He was doing a roaring trade until he ran out of beer! Well with all that meat and dry bread, you have to wash it down don't you?!

The second barbeque was massive with several racks of ribs and strings of choritzo artistically arranged on the top bars. Over the fire there was an assortment of sausages, choritzo, pancetta (fat belly pork), racks of ribs, black pudding and chicken portions. Just to the right of the fire there is a man cutting thick slices off huge rustic loaves on which he spread salsa and slices of serrano ham. There is quite an art to cutting this in wafer thin slices. A good knife helps too. This man was very good at it. We decided to buy our lunch here today. We had met up with my firend Sylvia, so between the three of us we ordered a 'plato completo' which was a plate piled up with pieces of sausage, black pudding, choritzo, lomo and ribs. We had a fork each and tucked in. Being in a naughty holiday mood, we also had a big plate of patatas between us, which were excellent. Chips do not ususually feature on this sort of menu, so fried potatoes were a nice treat, and they are a lot easier to eat than the rustic bread which can be very hard.

Then we come to the 'comida popular' which at this fiesta is usually migas. Here is how it is made.
First light up the fire underneath, and then boil up a vat of oil and water.

Tip in a few sacks of flour and stir and chop until it is all in small lumps. Add a few bags of salt, some meat and garlic and keep stirring until the meat is cooked.

On closer inspection you may just be able to see that the pinkish bits are hundreds of garlic cloves - they don't bother to peel them here. Then there are brownish baby sausages and the orange bits are choritzo. There are probably some cubes of chicken as well. This is served on paper plates around 3.00 and it is free to anyone who is prepared to stand in the queue. I happily queue when it is paella or tortilla, but I am not that fond of migas, which is quite bland and dry, and we were all well stuffed from our barbeque anyway. The custom I can't get my head around is that when you get your portion of migas, you are also given a handful of broad bean pods, and these are broken open and the raw beans are eaten with the migas. I have often eaten raw peas straight from the pod, but I somehow can't quite imagine doing the same with broad beans.

And finally, while on the subject of food, this barrow is loaded up with local produce including olive oil and wine, all donated by local farmers and companies, and the entire lot is offered as a single raffle prize, with all money taken being donated to our village children's charity Asadis. If you buy a ticket, you are given a small cup of aniseed liquor, and a few local almonds and dried figs.

For my 365 photo today I have chosen this one. Grown men dressing up as soldiers in the sweltering sun, to re-enact the scene at King Herod's palace when the three kings stopped there to ask where the new royal baby could be found. To me it sums up the whole day, one of fun, celebration and community participation. The Kings themselves were similarly over-dressed for the weather, but we don't really expect it to be 30ยบ in the sun, in the first week of January! (If you don't know what I mean by 365, pop over to my other blog by clicking here, to read all about it).

There were a few trade stalls in the market, as well as food ones, and there are usually some nice pieces of handicraft to see. One stall had bobbin lace book marks and bracelets and he was selling them at 20€ each! I told him it was too much, but when he asked me how long it would take me to make one and I said I could do one in a day, he said 20€ was not too much for a day's work. He had a point I suppose, but he wasn't selling them all the same. (Perhaps I have missed my calling!) The man I enjoy watching makes jewelry from old cutlery and coins. He has some fairly basic equipment with which he melts, bends and twists spoons and forks into all sorts of bangles etc. He also uses the ends of the handles for pendants, and Chris bought this one for me. I chose it because I liked the colour of the stone on it.

So that is it for another year. The fiesta will continue with dancing in the marquee tonight, but we won't go over again. It is time for me to take down all the decorations and pack them away again, and then we will get back to some sort of normality, whatever that is. If this year rushes by as fast as the last one, it won't be long before I am unpacking them all again!

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Spanglish New Year's Day

A Very Happy New Year to all my followers! I hope you all enjoyed New Year's Eve, however you chose to celebrate it. We always used to spend ours at home because of the younger boys, and the scarcity of baby-sitters on that night, but in later years we had some good times at our son Mike's bar, with lovely live music provided by our youngest son Ben. Since coming to Spain we have tended to go down the road to our local just for the company, but this year we knew we were going out for lunch the next day, so we decided to stay home the night before. We did manage to have the double celebration of the Spanish New Year(11.00 British time) - when traditionally they eat one grape for each knoll of the church bell and toast the new year with cava, and then the English one an hour later. The fireworks around London Eye were pretty spectacular, and I would love to have seen them in real life, but at a time when so many folk are struggling financially, you do have to wonder just how much money went up in smoke during that quarter of an hour?!!

Anyway, on to New Year's Day. Our good friends from the top of the village, John and Eileen, had invited us to lunch at around 1.30, so I went to church as usual but didn't linger too long over coffee afterwards. Chris was waiting for me when I got home and we walked up to our friends' house. They are English, but have lived here for over ten years and have many good Spanish friends in the village so we knew we were in for a 'Spanglish' affair. It turned out that we were the only English guests along with five Spanish couples, so with very little knowledge of the language, Chris was at a bit of disadvantage which he easily overcame by throwing himself into the event and obviously enjoying himself. I managed to converse a bit but I still struggle to understand when they speak to me, but apparently we were a big hit as they kept telling Eileen how wonderful we were! The guests were the village baker Sebastian and his wife Ana, the coffee-shop/bar owners Maria and Pepe, the lady who organises the Spanish side of the village charity Cati and her husband Pepe, Eileen's 'adopted Spanish daughter', as she refers to herself, Nuria and her partner Estoban, and the only ones we had not met with before, Hilaria and her husband Antonio. Until he retired, he used to go to the harbour at Garrucha every day and bid for the newly landed fish in the auction, and then drive to Murcia to sell it to the hotels. He prefers to be called Cabillo which is a family nickname handed down through the generations. They all just love it when the English folk can drop their natural 'reserve' and try to speak to them in their language, and join in with all they are doing. Needless to say there was plenty of drink flowing but I managed to dilute mine considerably with Casera - fizzy water with just a touch of sweetness and lemon which is so much nicer than lemonade or soda water as a mixer. The table was well layed with entremesas (plates of cold meat, cheeses, olives, crackers, bread and so on) and then we had the choice of two hot dishes. The Spanish ladies love this sort of meal and they always sit around the table eating nibbles and all talking at once, and they insisted I join them and chat too.

Our friend's house is a lovely old Spanish village house with lots of small rooms leading out of one another, and under the stairs they have a built-in bar which is John's home when they are entertaining. He used to run a bar, so while Eileen is busy with the food, John sits in his little kingdom effortlessly pouring all his friends their usual tipple, while also keeping a steady flow of music from the CD player and photographing the proceedings! When we had all eaten our fill, the music changed to a Spanish CD, with all the favourite songs on it and everyone had a good sing-song. Sebastian had a superb voice and he held us all together, and luckily Eileen had a file with a lot of the words in so I was able to join in with several of them. Some people started dancing, something else that the Spanish all love to do, (so does Chris!). Here I am after being guided (or pushed) through a pasadoble by Cabillo, who barely came up to my shoulders but who had a very big heart! He kept banging his heart and saying "Now you are my family; I am your brother". His party trick was to balance a glass on his head, so Chris had to have a go and then tried one on his knees etc. So Pepe then started the idea of using a plate (Chris used the dish of butter and I don't suppose I need to tell you where that ended up!) Then it was the ladies turn. Having just recovered from this hilarious stunt, some of the women went to the kitchen and returned with anything that made a noise, such as a saucepan and its lid, glasses and so on. An empty bottle and a fork were thrust in my hand. There were even a couple of people with castanets and a guitar that no-one could play, and we proceeded to march up and down the street making as much din as we could and singing a song that was something to do with welcoming the New Year. We managed to disrupt folks evenings in a couple of bars down the main street, but it was obviously a local custom and everyone greeted us with smiles and hugs. We managed to keep going until around 9.00 and then we went home, and having just settled the animals we went to bed and slept soundly! We have made some lovely Spanish friends and the New Year has well and truly arrived.

We took quite a few photos, but lots of them were not very clear, but I will put the better ones in a folder on my gallery. Feel free to share the fun by clicking here. There is also a 12 second video of my dance with Cabillo below this post. Just click the white arrow to view it. It is dark but it gives you an idea of just how much noise 14 people can make in a small room even as they are enjoying themselves!