A solitary supper

What a beautiful day. After a week of wet and gloomy weather, it was the kind of golden day that makes my heart sing with the sheer joy of simply being alive. Such a pleasure and treat to be outdoors again, basking in the warmth and peace of a sunny Asturian autumn day. Bliss, in fact.

I love the way each week brings changes, small and subtle and understated, others banging and crashing in, all fanfares and fireworks. How did the autumn crocus, dotted and spotted through the meadow grass suddenly become great swathes, a tide of soft lilac rippling through the green?

They are things of great beauty, delicate faerie cups bearing saffron candles; I’m hoping the cows don’t return to trample them under hoof too soon.

The chestnut trees, ever the tardiest to green up in spring, don’t rush into autumn, either, but suddenly they are lit up in shining bronze and gold against the dusky eucalyptus.

I wasn’t the only one relishing the return of the sunshine. The garden bustled with butterflies – mostly red admirals, peacocks and fritillaries in their painted splendour – and a sudden outbreak of the biggest bumble bees I’ve ever seen. There were baby lizards everywhere, too, almost impossibly tiny but completely perfect and full of life and curiosity.

This was a day for activity in the garden, time to clear a space and start planting for next year. I can’t believe what a difference using green manure and keeping bare earth covered has made to the soil this year, so that a patch that formerly housed summer brassicas with white clover and yellow trefoil carpeted below yielded a deep, loamy, moist, warm, luscious area just crying out for planting. In went ‘Imperial Green’ broad beans and ‘Douce Provence’ peas; these will germinate in no time then sit quietly over winter ready to give an early crop next spring. I also put in a few small purple kale plants left over from the main planting weeks ago. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about them but they’ve soldiered on, rootbound in their section trays, unwatered and unloved – well, they really deserve every chance now and in my opinion, you can’t have too much kale in the garden.

Returning to green manure, and I’m beginning to wonder if I will really need the seed I have for next year since volunteers are popping up all over in a sort of self-perpetuating cycle. On the squash terraces, the winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares is going well; I love that fresh green muddle of bright grassy blades and ferny tendrilled vetch but hadn’t quite planned for the nasturtiums deciding to join in of their own accord. Mmm.

Eating an evening meal on my own is a very rare occurrence these days; planning, preparing and enjoying our main meal of the day together is a large part of our life and something that brings us great satisfaction, especially when most of the ingredients come from the garden. It felt a bit strange, with Roger away at a race, to be thinking about dinner just for myself. Cooking for one is not always easy; apart from missing the social side, I find it hard to work in tiny quantities and also to muster much enthusiasm – in the past, and especially when I was working, I tended to default to a jacket potato or mushroom omelette. Even worse, eggs on toast or cheese on toast. Or just toast. There’s such a difference between eating to live and living to eat, so with this in mind -and trying to avoid the lonely toast option as much as possible- I cooked a bit of buckwheat in the morning and left it to cool with a vague notion of turning it into some kind of salad. I’m a great fan of buckwheat, that humble little seed packed with phytonutrients; I far prefer it to its fashionable friend quinoa as it’s chunkier and more substantial somehow, with a pronounced nutty flavour. I’ve grown it for the first time this year and I have to admit I am completely under its spell: green manure, companion plant, weed suppressant, perfect food source for bees and a hoverfly attractant as well as being a handsome plant with pretty flowers . . . buckwheat really cuts the mustard. My only disappointment is that after conducting a bit of research, I discovered the variety I’m growing is no good for human consumption as it has a very bitter flavour. Shame.

Anyway, back to my salad plan. We still have a good selection of salad leaves and herbs in the garden, baby carrots and young Florence fennel, the occasional late courgette and although the aubergines have finally given up the ghost, the sweet peppers are still going strong in the tunnel. Possibilities, then.

As I pootled about the garden, though, I started to think that maybe this would be a golden opportunity to see if I could create something different, a recipe new to me that used as much home-grown produce as possible and gave me the chance to further explore the ingredients we buy in terms of economy and environmental impact (something I started investigating closely a few weeks ago). As the soft afternoon light played across the vegetable patch, my eye was constantly drawn to the bright fire of beetroot leaves; ah, here was a good place to start!

Roger is not a huge fan of beetroot but I love it and this year I’ve made successive sowings to keep me supplied for many months. I threw this last lot of mixed seed in as a random patch rather than formal rows and it’s bursting with plump baby beets; the leaves are a bit ropy but the roots are sweet and succulent. I usually grate them raw as a salad or roast them to eat hot or cold but this solitary supper called for something new, so I decided it was time to sit down for a mug of tea and a quick blast of sock knitting with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Well, obviously not the man himself but two of his books, River Cottage Veg Every Day and Much More Veg; we were given both as gifts and they are fantastic, much used and well thumbed. It’s handy to have a good supply of recipes that make vegetables the star of a dish; we’ve made many of them from both books, and often return to old favourites simply because they are just so delicious. Time for a bit of beetroot love, then.

I really liked the sound of Beetroot and Chard Stir Fry with Chilli, Ginger and Lime and quite fancied the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat, too; the problem for me was that even with my open-minded attitude to food, I felt Chinese meets Moroccan (or maybe Indian?) was definitely up there on the confusion cooking scale. In the end, Moroccan won the toss, not least because we didn’t have any lime but we did have a jar of preserved lemons just ready to eat. We’ve been making our own preserved lemons for years; it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, simply pouring salt into the split fruits and packing them into jars with extra lemon juice (although Roger has now branched out into slightly cheffier ideas which incorporate things like rosemary, too).

They are utterly divine (I could quite happily eat them straight from the jar which would be pretty disgraceful behaviour) and are such a fantastic ingredient to use. It’s a shame that unless we are lucky enough to be given some lemons, we do have to buy them as when we moved here, ours was the only house in the village without any citrus trees. Two lots of good news, though: first, Spanish lemons are superb quality, cheap and plentiful and we can buy them loose without any packaging; second, the lemon tree we planted three years ago is bearing fruit – not quite enough for a jar of preserved ones yet, but where there’s fruit and flowers, there’s hope.

One of the many things I like about Mr F-W’s cooking is that he encourages changes and swaps, seeing his recipes as starting points or guidelines rather than rigid prescriptions. For that I am truly thankful because I’m not sure he would have recognised his works of cheffery by the time I’d finished with them. First things first, the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat which I decided was crying out for the addition of walnuts . . . and what lovelier pastime on a sunny afternoon than doing a bit of outdoor food prep?

Next, a sally forth into the garden to source some veg: beetroot obviously, some yellow chard (the youngest, most tender stems), a small bulb of fennel as the row really needs thinning, a handful of purple kale, a green chilli, red and green sweet peppers and some fresh coriander and mint. Not a bad little haul (and yes, already looking like far more food than one person needs).

It’s true that for a meal like this, the preparation takes way longer than the actual cooking (and eating) but then, that’s part of the fun. I love the sensory pleasure of prepping ingredients, all those yummy colours, textures, scents and flavours mingling before the cooking proper has even begun. Using the wickedly sharp paring knife made by my cutler nephew Harry always reminds me of the joy and satisfaction of crafstmanship, of using fingers and thumbs to do more than just press buttons or touch screens. This is what I ended up with (excuse the onion being obliterated by sunlight in the photo, the late October light brings us a blast of rays straight through the kitchen window at around 6:30pm):

Top board. clockwise from top left: Florence fennel, chard stalks, chard leaves, purple kale, beetroot leaves, red and green peppers. Bottom board, clockwise from top left: garlic, green chilli, green olives, mint and coriander, preserved lemon, beetroot, onion.

The only bought ingredients were garlic and green olives. It’s frustrating that we can’t grow garlic here given how well the allium family thrives but it doesn’t get the blast of winter it needs and rots in the ground; any that manages to grow doesn’t keep so we’ve stopped trying and buy Spanish stuff in loose bulbs instead. Olives are one of our store cupboard essentials, we use them in so many dishes. We can’t grow them here – the Asturian climate is not Mediterranean enough – but there are plenty of good Spanish varieties available and we buy them in large jars which we reuse for storage or making big preserves. Other bought ingredients I used to cook the meal were olive oil (Spanish, bought in five litre bottles to reduce packaging), sea salt (Spanish, bought in large containers), cumin and peppercorns (both large packs bought during a UK trip as we’ve failed to find anything other than small packs here . . . and cumin just won’t grow in the tunnel, despite my best efforts) and a squeeze of lemon juice (see note about lemons above).

With all the prep done, cooking the meal took literally minutes. I heated some olive oil in a frying pan and stir fried the garlic, chilli, onion and beetroot with coriander seed (saved from the garden) and cumin for a couple of minutes, added the peppers and fennel and cooked for another couple of minutes, then stirred in the olives and preserved lemons to heat through. After seasoning with sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, I scattered the greens over the top and covered the lot with a lid to let the leaves steam gently. Meanwhile, in another frying pan, I dry toasted more coriander seed, cumin seed and the chopped walnuts from earlier then stirred in the previously cooked buckwheat; I added a glug of olive oil to loosen everything, heated until piping hot then finished with a squeeze of lemon juice and scattered the chopped fresh coriander and mint over the top. Job done. Fast food indeed!

Having tasted the veg, it transpired that the little green chilli was a bit on the lip-tingling, ear-steaming side so I added a dollop of cooling Greek-style yogurt (bought stuff sadly, I discovered the hard way that the house is too cool for making my own without The Beast lit) and headed outside for an al fresco supper. The dish was totally delicious and very substantial; needless to say, I had made far too much so there was enough left over for lunch the next day (it turned out to be great cold, too). It was lovely to reflect on the fact that we can create interesting, nutritious and tasty meals based on what’s good in the garden and that more and more, our awareness of what we buy is leading to a focus on local / Spanish ingredients with reduced food miles and packaging. As the sun sank, treating me to another of those beautiful light shows across the sky, and the first tiny bats came out to play in the twilight, I also had to admit that when it comes to a solitary supper, there really is no excuse for toast! 🙂

Dye another day

Mere colour can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

Oscar Wilde

I love colour. I love bold blocks of brights and paler ribbons of pastels; I love wide, sweeping brushstrokes and precise pointillist dots; I love the way harmonious shades melt together with heart-aching beauty and others clash in eye-opening shock; I love colours smudged and blurred like hazy rainbows or making strong statements in sharp outlines. I believe colour really does speak to the soul in a thousand different ways and for me, there is no greater source of this sumptuous soul food than in nature. Even grey skies have a singular beauty.

What a delight, then, to have the chance to spend a couple of nights recently on the Galician coast and drink in the colour and character of that wild landscape. I have to come clean and admit that I’m always left feeling a bit undecided about Galicia whenever we visit. Much of it is picturesque rolling green countryside clothed in densely wooded hillsides and draped with vineyards currently aflame in the glory of their autumn colours. The Atlantic coast is a gem, all wide estuaries and squiggly islands fringed in white-sanded beaches and studded with intriguing rock formations.

So, why do I struggle to love it? Well, after Asturias it just always seems so very busy, so full of buildings and traffic and people, the coastal roads snaking through miles and miles of built-up areas with only rare glimpses of the countryside beyond. Understandably, tourism is huge; there is a plethora of campsites, hotels, restaurants, bars and the like, many closed or looking slightly forlorn now the tourist season is over, all serving what must be an immense influx of holiday makers over the summer months. I’m not being critical, just saying all this busyness is not for me . . . and happily – as in so many other places – once you leave the hustle and bustle and impact of human activity behind, there are many stunning wild spaces that really hit the sweet spot. Even when it’s pouring with rain.

Yes, the weather was spiteful with blustery, heavy showers becoming more organised into almost 24 hours of torrential downpours as glowering skies dumped what felt like much of the Atlantic Ocean on our heads. Still, nothing daunted, we set out to make the most of it; it’s the first time in many, many months my hiking trousers and jacket have been out for an airing but they’re wonderfully waterproof so I was as dry and warm as toast – still looking skywards for enough blue to make a pair of sailor’s trousers, though! Well, a little optimism never hurt anyone.

This was the Playa Con Negro near O Grove, billed on a wooden signpost as ‘nature’s art park’ and there was no arguing with that; it was like landing in a surreal Henry Moore -inspired landscape or – to my rather overactive imagination – a giants’ battlefield from some ancient folk tale. Certainly, the geology hinted at past times of terrible turbulence and violence, immense granite boulders hurled into precarious positions and sculpted into spellbinding shapes. What an extraordinary place.

Between the dominant monoliths were veins of a different darker rock, tortured and twisted and shattered into sinuous strata, all sharp edges and angles in complete contrast to the smooth curves of the lighter, speckled granite.

Caught in hollows and gullies were rock pools, the crystal clear water revealing a captivating spectrum of colours in the rock. Reds, greens, oranges, yellows . . . now this is definitely my thing.

What isn’t my thing is litter and it was sad to find several plastic drinks bottles (and, rather bizarrely, a Fairy Liquid bottle), glass bottles, cartons and other plastic detritus scattered across the otherwise pristine sandy beaches. It’s likely they had been washed up by the tide rather than discarded in situ but either way, they shouldn’t be there. We gathered them up and placed them in recycling bins provided in the car park but given the whole issue of plastic in the oceans, it felt like the tip of an enormous iceberg. The area, quite rightly, has protected status as a special natural environment; there is no charge to park or to visit and you can wander wherever you like to enjoy and appreciate the raw beauty of the place. It is a privilege to do so and there should be no question of a single piece of rubbish being there. Ever.

On a happier note, though, I am always amazed and comforted by nature’s resilience and the sheer adaptability and determination of living things to thrive, even against all odds. From a distance, this landscape might seem barren, almost lunar in character, but on close inspection the rocks were carpeted in lichen and even the tiniest cracks boasted a variety of courageous plants making little wild gardens full of colour.

We wandered up the coast a short way and the sun decided to put in a welcome appearance, albeit very briefly. Incredible how that shift in light altered the colour in the landscape, filling the rockpools with fragments of blue sky.

Mmm, look at those beautiful blues and greens now, that creamy pink sand. Where’s my spinning wheel? 🙂

We crossed the sweeping curve of a bridge from the mainland to the Illa de Arousa and spent several hours wandering along the coastpath and beaches there. Once again, this was just our sort of place, much of it a special nature reserve with protected nesting sites for the multitude of wading birds scurrying and stabbing along the tideline and regeneration projects focused on the dunes, wetlands and native woodland.

The beaches were breathtakingly beautiful and literally carpeted with shells. My goodness, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many in one place.

Isn’t beachcombing a joy? We found ourselves totally absorbed, heads down, sifting through the piles for beauties that caught our eye. The shapes, structures, colours and patterns were exquisite and some of them were so tiny, I could sit several on a fingernail. If I were an artist I would have felt inspired to create something with such an engaging medium, a sort of impulsive, indulgent Andy Goldsworthy moment on the beach; as it was, I simply looked and touched and enjoyed . . . and thought of wool.

Where inspiration was concerned, the beaches hadn’t quite finished with me yet; there was so much colour and texture in the seaweed and plant life amongst the dunes. Forget the tourist attractions, this is all I need. Grazas, Galicia!

Home to Asturias, my head reeling with possibilities and a need to play with more natural dyes; this desperate urge has far outstripped my ability to spin white skeins quickly so I’ve been dipping lengths of wool top instead. The simple pleasure of gathering plant material from the garden and turning it into a dye is just perfect, although I’m going to have to address the mordant issue eventually. My latest little experiment has been with the French marigolds that have been blooming for months, two self-set plants that have mushroomed through the summer to shrub proportions and are covered in literally hundreds of blooms; there’s plenty to go round so I felt the bumbles could spare me a few.

I’m getting quite lazy with this process already, simmering a pile of flower heads for a while then throwing in the wool without straining the plant material off first. The flowers produced a gorgeous ruby colour in the dyepot . . .

. . . and turned the wool a pale, creamy, ‘barely there’ yellow. Out of idle interest, I snipped a small piece and dunked it in an alkali bath. Wowzer, now we’re talking! What a shade. In went half the wool. I’m already planning projects for these two, and as overdyeing yellow with indigo is a good way to get greens, I decided to dry another pile of those marigolds for further forays into the world of yellow. It’s good to plan ahead, don’t you think?

When Roger wandered into the kitchen and observed in his patiently resigned way that ‘the woolly stuff goes on and on and on‘ I had to admit – after a cursory glance around – that he had a point. Various bits and skeins of dyed fleece and silk were hanging from the overhead airer, going through the final drying process; a further batch was simmering on top of The Beast in a pot of marigold soup; the exploded body parts of a half-crocheted teddy were scattered across the coffee table, which itself was thrust out into the room to make space for my spinning wheel (sporting a bobbin partly spun) by the sofa; almost an entire work surface, save for the bit where flower heads were spread out to dry, was covered in lengths of fleece and silk being carded into fluffy rolags whilst numerous baskets and bags of projects started or projects-in-waiting were scattered across the floor. This is not to mention the growing pile of knitted jumpers and crocheted teddies mounting up in the bedroom so that I don’t forget to pack them for our UK trip next month. Even by my lackadaisical standards, I realised that something had to be done: much as I love wool, drowning in a sea of it is probably not how I’d choose to take my last gasp. Death-by-flowers neither, for that matter.

I started by finishing the teddy so it could join its friends in preparation for the journey. Along with a patchwork crochet blanket and some knitted finger puppets, these colourful bears have helped me to finish up a huge pile of yarn scraps this year, something I’m feeling very chuffed about. I’m hoping they will bring some smiles to little faces and the packets of sunflower seeds saved from our patch and hidden in their bags will help to spread the gardening love.

Next, I made a concerted effort to tidy up the finished dyeing projects and put them into safe storage until required. I couldn’t resist a little photo call first, a sort of ‘madder three ways’ moment – it’s a bit like a trio of desserts but better for the waistline.

I’m normally very slapdash with finished skeins but given that I’m hoping to build a reasonable collection over time, I appreciate the need for careful labelling so I can identify everything in the future: type(s) of fibre, yardage, weight (by which I really mean mass in grams) and ‘weight’ as in thickness, as well as information about the dyeing process. I find to my surprise that it’s actually quite a satisfying thing to do.

Putting them carefully into storage in the attic, I was congratulating myself on how I’d managed to start turning a box of plain fleece into more useful supplies and used up most of my spare yarn when a little bag of forgotten bits caught my eye: several ends of balls left over from previous sock knitting projects. On their own, they don’t amount to much but together weighed in at a couple of hundred grams which is enough for two pairs of adult socks. I sorted them into two vague colour schemes, one based on greens, the other on blues and purples and decided to launch into a brand new project (oh come on, I’d finished the teddies . . .): introducing Operation Scrappy Socks.

Now I am the first to admit that these are probably going to look pretty ridiculous knitted in large bands of totally mismatched self-patterning yarn but then, does it really matter? (By the way, I’m finding it a really fun way of working, but maybe that’s just my warped sense of humour.) As far as I’m aware, not too many people go round studying my socks and to be honest, if it’s cold enough to be wearing them then they’re going to be hidden under long trousers and inside slippers or boots most of the time. I’m not overly happy with the idea of knots but then plenty of sock patterns use more than one yarn colour so it’s not like I’m committing some dreadful crime and at the end of the day, I’d rather use the yarn than waste it. Anyway, there’s something about the season in these greens that pleases me. Whether the finished articles are funky, freaky or just downright daft they will keep my feet snug and give me a few more Brownie points on the waste not, want not scale. That’s a win-win, I’d say.

Now it’s time for a bit of a confession – well, quite a lot of one, in truth – on the subject of my attempt not to buy any new yarn this year. I’ve tried so hard to stay on the yarn wagon and I managed nearly ten months but I’m afraid to say, I’ve taken a bit of a tumble and bought a new blanket project. I do feel a wee bit guilty BUT in my defence, there is a very good reason for it, namely that I wanted to order a yarn kit from the UK and with Brexit looming with all the uncertainties regarding tariffs, international postage and the like I thought it better to buy now rather than wait until January and run into possible problems. It’s a sad fact that several small family businesses I use for things like seeds have postponed all orders from outside the UK until they know what’s happening so I feel slightly justified in my decision. Of course, what I really, really should do is hide the yarn away and promise not to start the blanket until the New Year. Yep . . . and pigs might fly! 🙂

Rich pickings

I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.

The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.

There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.

We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.

Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.

In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.

Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.

Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.

We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.

Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.

The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.

It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.

Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.

This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.

Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.

Parasol mushrooms are a culinary delight.

There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!

Heading home with dinner.

Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.

So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.

I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!

I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.

This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.

Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.

I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.

Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .

I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂

How to dye happy

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the unexpected consequences of deciding to start blogging when we lived in France six years ago is the pleasure I have developed in taking pictures. I am not a very good photographer but I love wandering about snapping this and that and it’s amazing just how many of my posts start with a set of photos – or maybe even a single one – rather than an event or idea. For me, it’s an ongoing exploration of a new world of creativity, albeit at a very basic level; no doubt there are zillions of settings on the camera I haven’t discovered yet and don’t even get me started on Photoshop and the like. Like so many of the practical activities I enjoy, it’s simply about being in the moment and having fun. My current obsession is capturing skies.

With this in mind, having been granted permission to walk in the stunning Muniellos Nature Reserve once again last week, the camera was the first thing packed in my rucksack. As luck would have it, the battery ran out the day before so we could charge it fully in readiness for what I hoped would be some beautiful shots during our 20 kilometre walk. We can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres along the path before the first photographic opportunity presented itself and . . . disaster! The camera wouldn’t work. There wasn’t so much as a spark of life. Nothing. Nada. Dead as a dodo. Not even all the jiggling and poking and manly checking of things mechanical by Roger could coax it back into life (it transpired the battery had somehow discharged itself overnight which theoretically it isn’t supposed to do.) Well, darn it. Needless to say, apart from hoping for some lovely photos to compare with our first walk here last June, there was an embryonic blog post taking shape in my hind brain and now it would have to be ditched.

Or would it? On reflection, I decided I would go ahead anyway for two reasons. The first is that I can recycle some old photos into the post; yes, the ones of the walk were taken in June rather than October but at least they give an idea of the scale of the landscape in which we were walking. In a nutshell, Muniellos Nature Reserve is an area of protected ancient deciduous woodland – some of the oldest in Europe – which covers almost 55 square kilometres and the circular walk rises to 1400 metres, making it higher than any peak in the UK. It is believed to be the best preserved oak forest in Spain and is home to a wealth of tree species and wildlife, including wolves and the Cantabrian brown bear. Access is by prior permission only, individuals can only apply to visit once in any twelve months and no more than twenty people are allowed access each day; astonishingly, it is completely free of charge.

For me, this place is about as close as it comes to paradise. Imagine standing on the side of a mountain, completely surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which sweeps right to the tops of the rocky peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. Apart from possibly nineteen other people, there is absolutely nothing of mankind here: no roads or buildings, no fields or farms, no pipelines or pylons, no fences or gates, no machines, no man-made noise. These unspoilt forests are as they have been for millennia, wild and beautiful, pure unbridled nature in the raw; it is a rewilder’s greatest dream. I cannot begin to describe what an utter privilege it is to spend time walking, looking and thinking in this most precious of environments.

So, my second reason for writing this post is actually the very fact that the camera didn’t work; yes, it’s frustrating not to have the images but in reality, it meant spending the whole day totally focused and absorbed with what was going on around us. We would only have memories to take away and making them meant indulging in a masterclass in ‘mindfulness,’ being completely aware and present in each moment without the distraction of technology. To be honest, it was bliss.

The walk is a tough one and definitely not for wimps. First timers have a long and detailed briefing from the warden before setting off and fairly strict times have to be adhered to as the gates are locked at night. It’s no exaggeration to say there are a couple of sections that find me literally crawling on all fours across a rock face on the way up (and very much not looking down) and the first hour of descent is no stroll in the park either as it follows a steep,rocky and perilously slippery stream bed. It’s necessary to keep eyes on the path much of the time so regular stops are needed to drink in those stunning vistas; otherwise, it’s a great opportunity to focus on the small things. How beautiful the perfect symmetry of a fallen oak leaf, half yellow, half green and studded with pearly rain drops; what a treat for the fingertips the knotted fissures of oak bark, the smooth striations of papery birch, the lacy haze of lichen; what colour and texture and form in starbursts of fungi at every turn.

Although we chatted to each other now and then, much of our six hour hike was spent in companionable silence. This is partly because on walks like this, Roger leaps and hops confidently from boulder to boulder like the proverbial mountain goat while I flail along several metres behind like a nervous mountain giraffe (I’ll leave that image with you for a moment 🙂 ) but also because somehow talking here just seemed, well, rude – like making dirty footprints in a pristine carpet of snow or pulling the petals off a rare flower. Human voices felt like an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s symphony and being quiet and simply listening, I tuned in to far more nuances of sound: the rush and chatter of the river, bursts of birdsong, the gentle whisper of the breeze and the way it played different melodies through birch, oak and holly, the hollow clomp of my boots across rocky scree slopes and the softer thud on packed earth, the sounds of my breath and heart constant reminders of being alive in this wonderful, invigorating place. What a completely magical moment to stand in silent stillness together and watch a pair of ibex on the rocky slope above us, such elegant, statuesque creatures.

Although we were a little early for the full glory of the autumn colours (no surprise that the rest of October was fully booked!), there was a plentiful feast for the eyes and it wasn’t long before I realised that instead of looking at my surroundings through a viewfinder, I was using the lens of my dyer’s eye.

What word would I choose to describe that precise colour of beech leaves as they melt from their fresh summer greens into buttery yellow? How could I create the flaming russet fringe of feathery bracken or the pinker dusky rose of bilberry bushes or the flamboyant screaming scarlet of jewelled rowan berries? Would a light touch of palest grey, a fine detail of charcoal and a splash of the most delicate soft sage green do justice to a lichen-encrusted birch branch? As for the fungi, where to start . . ?

Six hours, two sore feet and a very happy heart later it was time to say goodbye to Muniellos once again, but with my head ringing with the earthy delights of bark and berry, leaf and lichen, moss and mushroom and everything else that creates the essence and spirit of all things sylvan, I was already planning an appointment with my dyepot . . .

My first thought was to finish spinning a current skein of Romney, then try to recreate a mix of some of the colours I had enjoyed as we wandered through that vast forest. However, on reflection, what I felt I had brought home with me from Muniellos was a deep awareness of unblemished nature and this should be my starting point rather than any specific ideas of colour and shade. Yes, the time had come to finally stop procrastinating and try some natural dyeing. For anyone who knows me, it may seem strange that so far my forays into Dyeing World have involved synthetic dyes rather than natural dyestuffs but there is a good (or at least, thought-provoking) reason for this. Most plant materials used for dyeing are adjective, which means the fibre needs to be treated with a mordant (from Latin mordere – to bite) in order to fix the pigment. The most commonly used mordants are alum, iron, copper and tin – all metal salts, none of which is particularly pleasant and some of which are downright poisonous. Every time I have teetered on the edge of having a go I’ve drawn back, wondering if this is really any better for the environment than the specialist acid dyes I’ve used so far.

Time for some research, then, and in particular into which tiny number of plant dyes are substantive and therefore not in need of a mordant . . . and how thrilled was I to find that top of the list was walnut, both hulls and leaves. Now walnut trees are not native to Spain, but they’ve been here a long time – since the Romans brought them, in fact – they grow like stink and we have a whole nuttery of them. How perfect for my ‘essence of woodland’ dyeing adventure.

To make the dyebath, I collected green walnut leaves straight from the tree, chopped them into small pieces to help yield more dye and simmered them in spring water on top of The Beast for an hour or so until the liquid was a rich caramel brown. What a lovely, spicy, herbal smell – definitely far better than those chemical dyes. Roger said it smelt like something good was cooking!

I usually prefer to dye skeins of spun yarn but as this was a huge learning experience I decided to opt for combed Merino top instead and, just out of interest (this felt like a day for being daring), I added a small amount of unbleached tussah silk as well. My plan was that if everything went pear- shaped at least with unspun fleece I had more rescue options than with spun yarn.

Normally, I soak the fibre in a commercial wool scourer before dyeing; I expect raw fleece to be dirty, smelly and greasy but it’s amazing just how grubby the commercially washed stuff is, too. However, in the spirit of all things natural, I used the tiniest amount of an eco washing-up liquid instead.

I strained the dyebath, returned it to the pot and cooled it a little, then in went the fibres. I simmered them gently for half an hour then removed them from the heat and left the whole lot to steep overnight.

The next morning revealed the final colour, which had deepened from a pale latte to a creamy coffee fudge in the wool and an even deeper shade of brown in the silk, which I found interesting. Obviously, the silk was a darker shade to start with but whenever I’ve coloured it with chemical dyes before, it has always come out several shades lighter than the wool.

I could see straight away what a different quality this natural dye had to a chemical one, softer and more alive somehow as if smudged and blended from a range of shades like a muted rainbow. Those harsh synthetic edges just weren’t there. What’s more, there was enough dyebath (which interestingly smelled of prunes!) left to keep and use again – and if I didn’t want to do that, the spent leaves and liquid could simply go on the compost heap without causing any environmental concerns. Well, how wonderful. Now I was on a roll. Why stop there? I mean, if you’re going to experiment with something new and interesting, you might as well do it properly: enter the world of modifiers. Basically, dyeing is chemistry and much of what unfolds is down to pH as much as anything else (also the quality of water – it’s no coincidence that dyeing workshops used to be located in soft water areas). By steeping the dyed fibre in an acid or alkaline modifier it is possible to change the shade and so create several colours from one dyestuff and so I decided this had to be done, at least with the wool. I made an acid bath from citric acid crystals and water and an alkaline one from washing soda and water; no need to heat again, just pop the fibre in . . . anything that’s going to happen apparently does so within half an hour. The change in the acid bath was so subtle as to be barely noticeable; I’m interested to see if there is a greater difference once the wool has dried. The alkaline bath couldn’t have been a more different story. Wow! What’s fascinating isn’t just the extreme change to a more yellow colour but the range of different shades that appeared, including a very deep brown and reddish rusty colour.

Hung out to dry in morning shade. From left to right: unbleached tussah silk without modifier, Merino with alkaline modifier, Merino without modifier, Merino with acid modifier. The actual colours are richer than the photo suggests.
In afternoon sunlight, starting to dry and fluff up again. These colours are truer: can’t wait to get spinning! 🙂

Well, I am just so very happy! This is exactly what I’ve wanted dyeing to be and I feel completely inspired to continue, albeit in the knowledge that at some point I am going to have to confront the issue of mordants once again. In the meantime, I have another substantive dye – madder root – to play with and a wealth of natural seasonal beauty on the doorstep to inspire and feed my colour habit. Not a bad way to dye, don’t you think? 🙂