Saturday, January 29, 2011

January garden in Spain

Or at least, coastal Andalucia in January. When the UK is frozen solid or at least under blankets of snow, here in sunny Spain we have daytime temperatures in the late teens and early 20s in winter.

This means with mild temperatures and rain - gardening!! Not just tidying up and waiting for snowdrops and crocuses, but planting veg and salad crops. Our fallow season is summer when it is just too hot and arid for crops.

Come autumn, the fields around us are suddenly ploughed over again and busy field workers are out there putting in tiny plants by hand. When I see their beautiful lettuces planted out, I suddenly realise it is time for me to plant some too. Except I am too tight to buy plantlets, so put seeds in. And I actually like growing things from seed - when they germinate.

Not sure I will buy seeds from Eroski again, Chase Organics, this is what I really need, and where I used to source my seeds in the UK. Of course, the fact that half of mine haven't germinated could be a) due to the fact that I planted them too late and b) they got washed away as it chucked it down not long after I sowed the seeds. Nor is it very helpful when there is a chart on the back telling you when to plant things out - but doesn't talk about where in Spain. The climate in the north might as well be the UK - there is a huge difference between Galicia, Asturias, Pais Vasco/Euskadi, and Cantabria in the north, and Andalucia in the far south.

Anyways, so far I seem to have acquired a few cos lettuces, some reddish ones, and hopefully some rocket. There is an irritating weed in Spain that looks like rocket - but it doesn't normally grow in straight lines, or does it? We shall see. I stuck some more seeds in this weekend for the hell of it. Oh, and I have a couple of onions coming too. And the robust chilli plant is still flowering and producing the odd green chilli.

Rocket? maybe? some lettuce- hopefully? and chilli plants

Red lettuce

Lots of baby spinach/acelgas/Swiss chard (and lots of weeds)

A nice looking green lettuce here, hope they grow

Onto flowers. Well, the summer jasmine is still gracing the terrace in the depths of January, and the winter jasmine is about to come into bloom. Normally they don't overlap. They have some complicit agreement whereby the one agrees to suddenly stop flowering exactly as the other one comes out. The plumbago continues to flower, although I've pruned it well back, and the marguerites are tough as old boots and are blooming yet again. I must have chucked out hundreds of mini-plants that had germinated from seeds. Ojalá the lettuces germinated as well as the marguerites did.

The money tree - will we get lots this year perhaps?

The weeds, I mean marguerites

Faded summer jasmine

And budding winter jasmine

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ravioli unravelled

Inspired by an Australian friend's photos of the most delicious home-made ravioli, I decided it was time to have another go at making pasta dough.

It's some years since I tried it, and it was pretty unremarkable, not worth repeating so it was back to buying the hard shop bought stuff, that always worked perfectly well anyway, invariably in lasagna or as canneloni.

Over the years, I've managed to get the hang of most floury and/or eggy sort of things. Shortcrust pastry was made with the help of a French recipe book, a lot of butter and a Kenwood Chef. After success with that I decided to go for puff pastry - no Jus-Rol for me like mummy, oh no. Result - a gorgeous mushroom jalousie one evening, don't think I've ever made it since.

I did try croissants which is a similar technique to the puff pastry, ie enfolding the butter and rolling out, but they never seemed to fluff up enough. Yeast was obviously beyond me at that point. Egg things were ticked off the list too - omelettes, soufflés, hollandaise sauce - but not home-made mayonnaise. That was about as unsuccessful as croissants. My mum could do it, but rarely did, preferring to open a jar of Hellman's.

Bread was beyond me, although Partner managed to suss it out and kept us in a regular supply of wholemeal loaves. One week in a September some years ago, I had a week off. What to do? He was working so I had an idle week ahead of me. I decided I WOULD learn to make bread. I tried lots of recipes from a very good bread book, and eventually cracked it. The Rayburn probably helped too for rising and proving the dough, and the granite surface for working the dough.

From then on, I would come in from work and every other day would be bread-making evening. I'd chuck the dough together, make tea, eat tea, doze off, and usually remember to get the bread out before I fell into bed. Like the pastry, I started off using the Kenwood, but in the end it was as easy to do it all by hand. We bought huge sacks of flour - around 15kg that were delivered by mail order. Pizza, foccaccia, you name it, I made it.

Making bread in Spain was a bit of a shock - there is no strong flour - or not where I live. Plenty of yeast from Mercadona but using ordinary flour doesn't taste the same. So I stopped.

But the one thing I did learn in Spain - was mayonnaise. I finally cracked it with the help of a Spanish pal who happened to be a chef. As I watched him, I realised where I had always gone wrong, it was easy really. The egg yolk (he only used one) has to be really thick. Simple as that. It only took me 40+ years to learn how to do it. And the annoying thing was, when I looked at one of my (French) cook books, it gave some incredibly helpful and lengthy advice about how to make perfect mayo - and retrieve it when it doesn't work out. And the trick to that is - French mustard. I use Dijon - Grey Poupon.

As for mayo, I did start with baby steps by making one that includes a hard boiled yolk as well as a raw one. But when you have the feel for the consistency it works ok.

I give you this incredibly long preamble to point out that I am not totally incompetent in the kitchen, so pasta dough (it doesn't even involve yeast) should not be beyond me.

I decided on green ravioli stuffed with three cheeses. Seemed straightforward enough. First I did the easy bit and made the mushroom and tomato sauce. Next, cooked the spinach on low and just in the washing water. I think it was a 140 gram bag. Next I mixed the cheeses in a bowl with for some reason, an egg.

Finally the dough. Here are the quantities:
• 13oz flour (white/wholemeal/mixed)
• 2 eggs
• 200 grams spinach - as I was short I added less flour, I think (!)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt which I left out as too idle to add it.

I should add that I have no scales in the flat - but I can usually guestimate the flour pretty well. Except on this occasion either I didn't, or .....?

After mixing it all up into a soft ball (yes, very soft) and kneading it, you are meant to stick it in a damp cloth to rest for half an hour. Didn't feel like ruining a tea towel, so stuck it in greaseproof in the fridge. Works ok for pastry, although in retrospect this is not pastry, but I doubt that was the critical factor.

And then I rolled it out. Ha!! I say, rolled it out, but what I really mean is that I smeared spinach and flour all over the board and tried to make it look remotely like a sheet of pasta dough.

I stuck a small helping of cheesy stuff at strategic spots on the 'dough' and attempted to put the other 'sheet' on top to start enclosing the ravioli. Well, it worked after a fashion. But the raviolis were huge. For the ones that were just total slop I chucked some more flour around and rolled them into dumplings.

Next up, cooking the blasted things. Cook in plenty of boiling salted water for 5-6 minutes until tender. Oh no. I don't think so at all. Neither the few lumps masquerading as ravioli or the ones that had been mutated into dumplings wanted to cook until tender at all.

I think we ate two of them. The sauce was ok. Fortunately. I loathe tripe. You know how it is when you put a piece in your mouth and chew it and it just gets bigger and bigger and more and more chewy? This was not dissimilar.

We considered frying them up for breakfast, and there was a little sauce left too. We don't like throwing things out so we did. They were slightly better, which is hardly saying a great deal.

'They weren't bad fried up,' I said brightly.

'I don't think I'd be wanting them for breakfast every day,' he replied.

I doubt I will be attempting that one again in a hurry.

Start of the ops, the dough mix and the cheese mix

The 'dough' rolled out

The dumpling/ravioli balls before cooking

Here however, is a picture of some delicious lasagna using shop bought pasta. Can't remember what was in it, probably courgette, aubergine, onion, tomato sauce, and the topping is creme fraiche and veg cheese. I went through a phase of using creme fraiche instead of white sauce as - er, it was faster, easier and meant one pan less to wash. Thought I would leave you with a success pic to salvage my fragile ego.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


(In which our heroine admits her culpability regarding her ethics)

Those of you who know me - and my views on make-up, cosmetics and the whole so-called beauty industry - may be surprised at this post.

But as hair washing is not about changing, aka improving your appearance, but is basic hygiene and cleanliness, I don't feel a twinge of guilt in choosing this as a topic.

Of course, the shampoos I look for are not remotely basic.

Let's go through the check list. Here are our criteria, by which I mean mine:

▪ is not tested on animals, at any stage in the manufacture, and that includes ingredients sourced from elsewhere, ie the original raw materials
▪ does not contain any animal products, ie I don't want to wash my hair in dead animals
▪ is preferably vegan, vegetarian at the very least
▪ doesn't contain sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulphate (SLES)
▪ in fact preferably does not contain any artificial detergents, synthetic perfumes, any petrochemical product ... you get the idea
▪ oh, and some organic bits in there would be cool too
▪ and it should be an ethical company
▪ and if all of that isn't enough, cheap would be good. Unlikely though given the above list.

Sadly in life we all have to compromise. Even me.

Some years ago, visiting the UK, I bought some shampoo made by a company named Original Source. I was somewhat surprised to discover the same shampoo on sale here in Morrisons in Gibraltar. It was vegan and not tested on animals and all the rest. It wasn't badly priced. It did have far too many chemicals in though - I wonder if it did originally? Can't remember. It smelled nice, and left me with soft fluffy hair. And then Morries stopped selling it. Although they intermittently sold the body/hair wash stuff for men (why are men different? huh?) and shower gel for women.

Either way, I had dropped one. When I examined the container, not only was it definitely oozing SLS/SLES but it was also now owned by PZ Cussons (as of 2002/3). As soon as a really good individual company gets taken over by a multi-national - you might as well kiss its arse goodbye. You are no longer supporting an ethical moral company that was set up with decent principles, you are just funding yet another global pharmaceutical animal-testing crap company. (Useful link) And one that got into supplying evaporated milk and milk powder to Nigeria. Remember all the fuss about Nestlé? And how about PZ Cussons closing the UK Nottingham factory in 2005 to relocate operations to Thailand? Great for the local economy in the UK huh?

[Slight digression here. Who was not brought up with Imperial Leather soap? I tell you, we had the stuff overflowing in the house. Bars of it everywhere. The Cussons story is fascinating, so more of that later. Suffice to say PZ, a Greek company took Cussons over in 1975.]

So luckily I have had to find other shampoos. First up a Neem one that was a shampoo conditioner in one. Very good. Except I tended to use conditioner with it anyway. House of Mistry or something.

Have I yet mentioned the infallible law that always states shampoo runs out well before conditioner? My good friend Otter pointed that one out. Didn't help that I had just finished three different shampoos by the pesky OS/PZC company when Morries stopped stocking it and I had three half containers of conditioner left for now non-existent matching shampoo.

Well the Neem one ran out, eventually. Lasted ages and most good too. Didn't even realise it was for hair and scalp conditions whatever they are.

So the latest one is - if you have got this far - Desert Essence. First up, it isn't cheap. I don't consider £6.99 cheap when the OS stuff was less than three quid. But it does tick virtually every other single box on the list. Even if it smells like a cross between floor and furniture polish. That is unkind of me, suspect it is the antiseptic nature of tea tree oil. Possibly. And suitably disguised when I pile on yet more of the never-ending OS conditioners that I still haven't finished.

Oh and the real plus? It leaves my long, brown, wavy, scruffy hair looking fluffy and clean. Not lank and dismal like some shampoos. Not that I am vain or anything, or even care about my appearance particularly. Oh no. Not me. Perhaps I will pay more and shower less .......

Post script

Some friends have made a couple of suggestions ..

So thanks to Jill for suggesting baking powder - there is lots on the internet at a quick search for anyone who wants to know more about using that, and to Vicky for her link to ecohamster which is an interesting site that I haven't seen before. Cheers both of you.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

In which our heroine keeps her cool - just

It would be helpful, if bank staff could actually tell people that if they don't collect their cash card within a certain time they will destroy it. This may be particularly pertinent over the Christmas period, when gosh! shock! people may actually go away for a few days.

Or, how it went:

23 December c 6pm

Goes to cash machine to get out money. Machine eats card.

24 December before 12 noon (note this is Christmas Eve)

Go to collect card with little slip from machine.

Card not available as machine doesn't get emptied until end of working day - I'd fallen between two days.

Cashier informs me card will be available on Wed (Dec 29).


Go to Spain after Christmas and return to Gib in New Year


6 January

Feeling organised with all holiday stuff out of the way so trot off to bank once more.

Cashier takes some considerable time going to retrieve card but comes back and tells me it has been destroyed.

'The ATM Officer destroys them after five working days if they haven't been collected or there isn't a note to save them. It was captured on the 24th (23rd from my point of view) so it was destroyed on the 4th,' she said most unhelpfully.

Hello! How many working days is that? 29th, 30th, probably half a day on 31st - and destroyed on the next working day - the 4th???????

And what was the point in arguing? None whatsoever. Would achieve Jack Shit Nada apart from pissing off the cashier. Never mind that I was pissed off.

Could I have some money? Of course.

She couldn't find the account. Groan.

Eventually she found it, and I was despatched to the self-service telephone to order a new card.

This is where it all turned surreal.

Back in August/September when everything was stolen we obviously had to order new bank cards. Sadly I had a slight problem back then because my mother's maiden name was not her maiden name, so to speak, ie the one I had given the bank had been registered as something totally different. Nor was it my memorable word. Let me give you an example in case this is not clear. Imagine my mother's maiden name was Smith, and the memorable word is holiday. It was down on the bank forms as Saga. Huh? Where did that come from? I hope the computer operator who keyed in my details really enjoyed fucking things up for me.

Needless to state back then, I failed the security check and was treated as A Very Suspicious Character. I finally managed to extract some forms from the UK office to correct all my details and took them into the bank four months ago. Note: FOUR months ago.

Well, lo and fucking behold. When I rang up today? Guess what?

'Mother's maiden name, please.'

'Actually, it's my memorable word - holiday.'

'Er no.'

'OK (I didn't remember including my mother's maiden name on the change of details form, but anyway) my mother's maiden name is Smith.'

Long pause. Intake of breath at other end and ...'No.'

'Oh don't tell me it's Saga,' I almost screamed in disbelief.

Yes,' said the operator, obviously wondering why my mother had two maiden names and why I was sounding wound up about it.

I bored the operator with the story. I think she was laughing. She agreed to send out a new card.

I'm beginning to think I will stick with Saga.

Monday, January 03, 2011

... and New Year's Day

A lie-in. For no reason other than it was New Year's Day and we had nothing planned. Plus it had been a lovely evening.

But wait. What is that noise? Music? At 5.30, and er 6.30, and er every .30. The bar down the beach was obviously partying on in big style.

Early rising Partner dragged himself out of bed at some unearthly hour as is his habit due to lighting fires at 5.30am in the Welsh Valleys as a kid before he did his paper round.

I drifted in and out of sleep. After all, I have caught a pesky cold from our host on Boxing Day (so did everyone else).

'Shall we go back to Gib?' asks Partner brightly while I am trying to snooze. [Er, no, I am asleep and sick].

'Or we could go and get that cache at Comares?' he asks equally brightly. Ah, the one I couldn't find that he maintains he would find at the drop of a hat.

I realised what this was about. He didn't want to sit around getting annoyed at the noisy music - which wasn't down the beach at all - it was at the big finca across the road where they must have been partying on since midnight NYE.

I sprung into Lively New Year Mode. Ate pineapple (Christmas present from a Gib neighbour - forgot to mention that as it arrived Christmas Evening) and some heavily alcoholic grapes full of anis prepared a few months earlier by me.

Off we went. Up towards the hill in the sky yet again. I had mixed views about going for this irritating cache. If we had gone again in 2010 would we have found it or not? Bad year, another indicator of that or possibly a predictor of a crap 2011? Or if we had found it - would 2011 be good? Or if we didn't find it today - another bad year in store? But a find might indicate a bit of luck surely?

Well despite the fact that I had wasted hours up there the last time - Partner found it within minutes.

Smug finder of the cache

I have to say I was pleased about that. I would never have found it without the 'spoiler' pic. I may never have found it with the pic as my arms are not so long and my head for heights when leaning over even the tiniest of drops is non-existent.

Wandering around Comares afterwards

We also noticed there are some great walks around Comares, so need to think about planning a walking day or half-day up there.

And it was so quiet on the roads. So utterly tranquil. Most of Spain, or at least La Axarquia, apart from the usual old men on their normal daily paseo (walk), were obviously in bed after the revelries of the night before.

We came back home, chilled and relaxed, and ready for the trip back to Gib the next day.

In the evening as we wandered out with our dog, I heard some lovely music drifting across the village. The Hallelujah chorus? From Handel's Messiah? Not what I would normally expect in my Andalucian pueblo. Where I come from in Yorkshire it is very popular, preferably sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society. But to hear it in Andalucia drifting across the village on New Year's Day?

I skipped off to investigate. Eventually I found the source of the music. It was the Living Belen or whatever it is called, a Live Nativity I suppose. It's been going a few years now in our pueblo, initially free, then there was a charge of €5 or so, and now money is short again, it is free to watch so I wandered in for the last few minutes. It was good, and well-attended. It made a nice end to a good New Year's Day.

The final nativity scene of the Belen

Very best wishes to everyone for 2011 and hoping I have a bit more space and less stress in my life to post more this year on my blog. Feliz Año Nuevo.

New Year's Eve .....

I was looking forward to New Year's Eve.

Actually I was looking forward to 2011. It seems, that for a lot of us, 2010 has not been the best of years.

The journalist in me usually enjoys doing a review of the year. I think I'll skip quickly over this one and mention a few of the reasons that haven't so far been included on this blog.

After a disagreement on a job early this year Partner left that job. A few weeks later all the windows on our vehicle were vandalised leaving the vehicle undriveable. I have no idea if the two were connected.

Moving swiftly on to summer. On one of our trips back from the finca in Spain, we stopped as usual to let the dog out and give him a drink of water in the back of the vehicle. Meanwhile, some toerag sneaked into the front - this is a van body so you can't see the front from the back - and stole our bags with passports, ID, money - everything really. Not to mention my contact lenses, a nice pair of gold ear-rings, favourite Cross pen, Swiss Army Knife etc etc.

In the heat of the August sun, we left the autovia and searched for the nearest police station to make a report. It was too hot to leave the dog in the vehicle, so Partner went to find a shady parking spot and then sat outside with the dog while I braved the policia.

It seemed the whole world wanted to file reports at the police station - it is a popular activity after all. The nice officer at the station wasn't sure whether the denuncio would get us across the frontier. Great. No passports for any of us, including the dog, no ID cards, and no money. But it worked. The Spanish police let us through, helpfully saying - 'but you can't come back without passports'. So if the Gib police didn't let us in, we would be stuck between the two for ever and a day. Luckily they did.

So there we were grounded in Gib. And just a couple of weeks later, we were due to celebrate our Silver Wedding. I'm not sure that we would have gone out of Gib anyway, but as we were waiting for all our replacement papers to be processed we had no choice.

Our wedding was pretty small, just us, two invited witnesses and a couple of gatecrashers - they were known to us - but we hadn't planned on inviting anyone to the Register Office apart from the obligatory two. For our 25th, there was definitely just the two of us. I meant to write about it on here, but, somehow it's nicer to keep some things private. In our typical low-key fashion, we went down to Europa Point, the most southerly tip of Gibraltar and gazed across the Straits of Gib to Africa, and across the Bahia of Algerias towards southernmost Spain.

I thought about our wedding 25 years ago in Sydney (Australia), and everything that had happened in the intervening time. I defy anyone who's married not to have their moments when they wonder if they will make the next anniversary let alone a milestone one. But here we were in Gibraltar 25 years on, which oddly reminds us both of Sydney. Not least because we live in a tiny flat again.

Looking back on the year, that's the one day that stands out for me as being memorable in a pleasant way.

Moving on to December and our dog suddenly seemed to deteriorate. Before 8am we had put him in the vehicle and we were rushing back to see his vet in Spain where he is registered and who had seen him only the previous week for annual jabs. After a couple of days of waiting for the results of a blood test, it turned out he had very high levels of white blood cells and proteins - indicative of erlichia canis. Another couple of days and the confirmation was through that he had tested positive for that and we immediately had to double his dose of doxycyclin.

I have to say this news probably coloured my views about Christmas and my lack of interest in it. Erlichiosis can kill and cause a number of other illnesses depending on how far it has progessed. But for dog people out there, more on this later. Thanks at this point to everyone for their comments on my gloomy Christmas post, I did appreciate them all.

We'd agreed on no Christmas presents this year, a bit like no Silver Wedding presents. Seems a bit silly spending a load of money on presents when money is thin on the ground - another downer of the year, like many people I suppose. On Boxing Day, we went over to our neighbours' luncthime buffet and enjoyed a lovely afternoon. I guess it cheered us both up a bit and made the holiday slightly less of a non-event.

And for New Year's Eve, we were at the finca. Less fireworks for the dog than in Gib, a nice log fire, and fresh asparagus with beurre blanc for supper. So, my somewhat different annual review and ... onto 2011.