Thursday, 29 December 2011


It's Yuletide. The humans are feasting, and so are the wild boar, Sus scrofa. Their particular feast is the fallen fruit (in English they are "strawberries", in Catalan "cherries") of Arbutus unedo. This beautiful tree flowers and fruits at the same time, around Yule:

Arbutus unedo, the Strawberry Tree

We have passed the Winter Solstice by a week, but the festivals go on. Here in Catalunya my favourite is the one that links me to my Northern roots - the Yule log, known here as Caga Tío. A strong log is placed next to the fire, wrapped in a blanket, fed food scraps each evening (which, of course, it consumes in the night) and cared for. On the evening of 24th December the kids run around the house singing a special song. When they return they hit the log with sticks...and it, er, shits sweeties and wee presents. 

Scatological and celebratory all at once, turning the year with food, fertility and warmth.

Crofter's Christmas Pudding

It's Yule, so here is my Christmas pudding recipe. I know. It's late for Christmas 2011, but the idea is to make it for next year so that it has time to mature.

It starts with the most complicated part - the suet. In Scotland (infamous for its high-fat diet) you can buy shredded suet over the counter. Here you can't. So I start by buying three lambs' kidneys with their surrounding fat, and then pulling the fat (pure suet) out from the membranes, nerves and blood vessels around the kidney. (I fried and flambéed the kidneys for supper - delicious.) This fat is lamb suet - finer than the beef suet we buy in Scotland.

Then take one large bowl and throw in:

1500grams (yes, 1.5 kg) of dried fruit. I used Malaga raisins, Spanish figs, dried apricots and dates from Morocco.
1 apple, grated
Rind of 1 orange and 1 lemon, and the juice of the lemon
50g almonds, blanched, skinned and chopped up
50g-100g of candied fruits - I used pineapple, mango and papaya - chopped finely
300ml of dark beer
half a glass of whisky (no, I didn't use the Laphroaig; too good, for cooking.)

Stir and leave to stand for a couple of hours in a warm place, so that the fruit absorbs the alcohol...

Stir, for luck

Then mix:
Suet from 3 lamb kidneys, chopped up
120g wholemeal flour
0.5 teaspoon of baking powder
220g of white breadcrumbs
450g of sugar
Half a nutmeg, grated
6 cloves
Half a teaspoon of cinnamon (I grated mine from the bark)
Four eggs (Maran eggs, of course)

Stir all this lot together for as long as your arms will take it. You get a wish.

Now spoon into well-buttered bowls, and cover with a double layer of greaseproof paper and a folded tea towel. The string is always the fiddly bit, especially if you have had the cook's privilege of a glass of whisky as you go...

Now boil for eight (yes, 8) hours. Tricky to keep the pan topped up, but if you don't you'll get a congealed mass of carbonised pudding and broken glass in the bottom of your favourite pan...

Once cooked, this pudding will store well. Take off the greaseproof paper you used for cooking. Pierce all over with a skewer, and pour over your favourite whisky. Cover with fresh greaseproof paper and tie tightly down. Every 2-3 months, add more whisky. By next Christmas this pudding will be, er, mature. Cook for a couple of hours (really, to heat it through) and then serve, flaming. Cannae beat it.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A bun in the oven?

Thistle is pregnant again.

Due, if I calculate correctly, in February (she has been pregnant for a while).

And here is the happy father, Phoenix:

But what about your other females, matey? Get a move on, or we'll have no Spring lamb...

Sheepskin - solved

Geisha, one of our ewes, is being hit by a mysterious skin condition. It's a kind of eczema that affects her forehead and eyelids.

Geisha, looking a wee bit glum

 She is losing condition, getting a bit rough-looking, but nothing I am treating her with seems to help.

Pep the Vet, and Ramon Bach the veterinarian at ANCRI, the association for Ripollesa sheep, suggest that this is Sheep Scab, caused by a mite called Psoroptes ovis (on which there is a great deal written - I found this article useful.) Treatment, started by Pep, is with ivermectin injected under the skin. I will do the second dose of the treatment in a few days. When the sheep are clipped in the Spring we will wash them with a chemical that should help kill the mites, but they are persistent and I expect that we will have to work hard to eliminate them.

Psoroptes is an insect from the Astigmata order.  "Sheep Scab" is, indeed, a stigma for sheep and shepherd.

Poor Geisha. I'll try to help her get over it.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Merveilleux Oeufs

Ils sont arrivées!

The first Maran eggs have arrived, six months after their mothers hatched from the eggs of the same chocolate brown colour. The eggs almost glow with the rich deep colour of the shell.
Chocolate Eggs
To celebrate, our friend Pete helped me build a nesting box for the chicken shed.

Pete with his nest-egg

Friday, 2 December 2011

It's Gitanes time again!

Yoooo hooo!

It's time to start practising our footwork for the Gitanes dances. 

Dancers, with Crofter's son on the left...
Weeks of hard work, ending in a wonderful Sunday-morning show (19th Feb 2012) in which 20% of the population of the village dance in the main square. Pure brilliant.

Here's the link:

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Olives, live

It's the olive harvest here on the Croft.

Alive for olives
Here's this year's harvest. Pathetic, isn't it?

I have a lot to learn about olives. A hundred years ago the Croft had around 200 olive trees, and fed a nearby mill. The few that remain are untended, bushy sticks. But generous - the olives have a wonderful warm, oily feel when you pick them - soft and easily crushed down to the rock-hard pip inside.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

All the world's a stage...

...and Crofter is acting upon it.

I am the bad guy in a new play by Marta Álvarez, "La Cantina." We open on Friday 11th in Sant Celoni, then play Sant Esteve de Palautordera on the 13th.

I am so lucky to be part of a community of people, working together. 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Xop, chopped

I took Xop the lamb to the slaughterhouse today. He looked fit, healthy and well cared-for.

I had expected a load of emotion at the final doing of it, but it was a calm, peaceful process thanks in part to the help of two neighbours who keep sheep, Carles and Jordi. We filled out the papers, put a wee numbered clip in his ear and popped him into the back of the Land Rover. The slaugherhouse is about 3km away - so no long journey in a lorry, and absolutely no distress (Jordi said that you can taste in the meat when an animal has been distressed). At the slaughterhouse we put him into a pen, next to other pens containing sheep. He had a drink. Sometime around now, about an hour later, he will go to the next neighbourhood (as the Catalans euphemism goes.)

This is the best kind of end that one could wish for, given that we're going to eat meat. And that, of course, is a whole other debate...

Friday, 30 September 2011

Composted Chicken

Six chicks!

We found this lot yesterday, just hatched under the compost heap, thanks to the care of our most prolific Bantam mum.

It's eggs from compost, life from decomposition.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

(Un) Identified Crawling Object

We found this yesterday, clearing grasses from a steep slope behind the Croft.

Agrius convolvuli

It looks like a snake, shortened. In fact (and I only know this thanks to my friend Constantí Stefanescu at the Catalan Butterfly Monitoring Scheme) it is a final stage larva of the Convolvulus Hawkmoth. At the end of the summer, says Constantí, they burrow underground in preparation for pupating.

The good news is that her or his name, Convolvulus, comes from the fact that they eat Convolvulus arvensis, Field Bindweed. As we have to wage a constant war against the horrible binding weed around the Croft, it's great to know that we have an ally. And a meaty one at that.

Magnifique Marans

The Marans...

M. le Coq

...are getting bigger. Here's the growth chart. The neat graphics make it look accurate, but think for a moment about how Crofter weighs a struggling, flapping chicken that is intent on escape/attack/bowel movement, inside a darkened chicken shed (darkened, in theory, to calm the chickens.) So, dear reader, please take these weights as approximate...
Putting on the pounds

Thursday, 18 August 2011

...and now for the real crofts

Just back from a week sailing on the West of Scotland, in the area around Oban, Crinan, Tobermory and Loch Linnhe. There are still crofts here. Only a few. Most have been converted into holiday homes and now the West of Scotland is a wonderful mixture of long-term residents with lilting accents and new residents with every accent, and most of the languages, under the sun.

As my wee map shows, none of this is new. The venerable Book of Kells, written around 800AD, contains lapiz lazuli traded from Afghanistan, by French traders who anchored their ships on an island off Crinan...

A modern ancient map...

Cultural diversity, under the rain that raineth every day...

Monday, 1 August 2011

Fat, on frog

Spotted, yesterday amongst the strawberries in our vegetable garden, this Grass snake (Natrix natrix) who had just eaten a frog.

Ssssspot the sssssssnake

Friday, 29 July 2011

St John's wort

Here is St John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum.

Take my wort for it, it's lovely

We have lots here at the Croft, growing wild on the field margins. It has just been in flower – in time for St John’s day (John the Baptist) on the 24th June when people used to hang the plant above the icons in their house to ward off evil spirits. The leaves held up to the sunlight seem to have tiny holes in them (the “perforatum” in the name.) These are little packets of plant oil.

It’s an enigmatic plant. It is good for humans; here in Catalunya an infusion of St John’s wort is used to treat mild depression, and an oil made by soaking the plant for 40 days in olive oil is used as a rub for strained backs and muscles. But it’s bad for sheep – the plant makes them photosensitive, and can make them seriously ill.

I want to grow more, but the seeds are tiny and hard to collect. If I succeed you’ll hear about it first, here.

A land of milk and honey

It’s the land of plenty here on the Croft. The plum tree is laden with fruit, the first of the fig trees (we have around 40 fig trees…) is producing kilos of figs each day and the vegetable garden (worked by Crofter’s partner) is sprouting Swiss Chard:

It's a chard life...
All of this at the same time as my friends in Oxfam (, UNICEF and other NGOs are desperately fighting starvation (again, again) in the Horn of Africa.

The market is not working, not distributing from those of us with plenty to those without. The financial market crash, the attacks on the Euro and the Swiss Chard in the Croft garden are all part of the same systematic breakdown. 

There must be a better way.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Fritillary Time

Thanks to the spotting abilities of Constanti Stefanescu of the Catalan Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, who was here at the Croft last month, and with the help of Christopher Wheat and his colleagues who were over here on a research project, we’ve found a colony of Marsh Fritillaries Euphydryas aurinia at the Croft. They are nesting above the house, in a honeysuckle bush (Lonicera spp.) The nests are the grey spiders web objects on the bush.

We have no marshes – the land is dry as a bone – but the “Marsh” Fritillaries seem perfectly happy here. In the UK the Marsh Fritillary is rare. Here, now I know where to look, they are everywhere.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Xop. Pronouced "chop"

We have a new kid on the block. Born into a dewy early Wednesday morning, he took a while to dry out and to start feeding. He looked very skinny and weak at the start.

Xop and Thistle

We had to hold his head up, clear out his mouth, and direct him to Thistle's udders to get him started. Today he is altert and lively, and back with the flock.

His name, of course, is a cruel joke. "Xop" is Catalan for wet, which is what he was when he was born.  It's pronounced "chop", as in "I'll have that lamb chop with the mint sauce please..."

It's a tough life, out here on the Croft.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

A Natural God

I am an atheist. At least, that is the theory.

But this morning I had to sacrifice (note, the religious-sounding word) a wee Maran chick who had fallen seriously ill. She was dying anyway, but it was the right decision. I confess (yes, more religious words) that I put up a wee prayer for her soul as I did so.

Working on the Croft with life and death, births and blood, sickness and Springtime, brings one close to the sensitivities that must have created the first religions. 

God, in the Croft, is Nature.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Tranquility and Chaos

Last night, around 3am, I looked up to the heavens and saw a sea of tranquillity. The stars in their constellations and the Milky Way slicing across the sky. The sky was sparkling hypnotically as we spun slowly below.

Down on spinning Earth it was a different story. A rat (Rattus rattus, the country black rat) had burrowed into the cage with the Maran chicks and had attacked one. There was blood and feathers everywhere – and one still-living chick. I took her inside and coated the puncture wound with StockholmTar. This morning she is still on earth…although her journey to the chicken Milky Way may be not far away. She is in a makeshift chicken hospital, the hen equivalent of M*A*S*H.

The other Marans had covered their wounded sister to protect her, and made enough noise to wake me (that’s a lot of noise.) They are doughty fighters, so I hope the survivors will make a strong brood.

Heaven and Earth. Tranquility and Chaos. Especially at 3am.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Crofter's Tiff

We had a typical crofter’s tiff last night:

Her, just arrived home after a hard day at the office: “The ducks haven’t been fed!”
Him, sulky: “I was busy”
Her: “But you’ve been here all day, working at your computer”
Him, more sulky: “Yes, I was busy”
Her: “But didn’t you have a moment?”
Him: “I was busy…”
Her: “During your coffee break?”
Him: “I was busy… drinking coffee.”

We do a funny thing when we, the urban, busy Northern Europeans attempt a smallholding. We import stress. We’re so addicted to our stressed working lives that we can’t resist recreating them even in the tranquillity of a Catalan smallholding. We manage too many animals, we manage too much woodland or too many fields. And we do it, just the two of us, living with (possibly enjoying?) the stress we have imported.

A hundred years ago this house would have had 8-12 people living here in an extended family – parents, kids, grandparents, an aunt… The four hectares of the Croft would have been easily manageable, allowing one or two members of the family time to get paid work.  We are trying to do the same thing with a modern nuclear family.

Sometimes the nuclear family is a bomb.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Les Poussins sont arrivés

The chicks hatched on Saturday – 12 lovely, strong, fluffy Maran chickens.

They had arrived by post from France, sent by a helpful member of the Marans Club of France.
Chocolate eggs, anyone?

I washed them and put them into a friend's incubator. 21 days later they started to hatch, chipping a ring around the shell from the inside and then pushing and pushing until the membranes broke. It took the first chick more than 12 hours to get out, but later hatchings took place in just a few hours.

Maran eggs are, like shaken (not stirred) Martinis, a James Bond favourite.  So our first chick will be Sean (Connery), the second James (Bond), the third M and the fourth Goldfinger. This means that one poor blighter will have to be Smiert Spionam ("Death to Spies", from The Living Daylights)...
(And just for comparison, here is our natural incubator  - a photograph from our bread oven chimney yesterday.)

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Nature wins

A family of Great Tits (Parus major) has made their home in the chimney of our bread-oven. I see him, mornings and evenings, tirelessly catching flies to feed first the female and now the hatchlings. Bread-making is off, for the moment.

Look closely...
...and you'll see...

...a bird

This is how I imagine the world will be, after our next Silent Spring, when Homo “sapiens” finally kills himself off with a genetically modified E.coli or a fossil-fuel-fired blast of climate change.

The birds will be the first to occupy our abandoned houses, then the mosses will sprout from the walls and the plants will creep in.

There are squares of stones near the Croft, just a shadow of a marking on the slope. Once, a hundred or so years ago, these were homes. Nature, always, wins.

The Orchids are Out

I have been corrected by my friend Christopher Witty, who knows his Montseny plants. I thought that this was a Bird’s Nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), growing at the edge of a woodland of holm-oak (Quercus ilex) on the slope above the house, around 350m above sea-level. It is not. It is a Broomrape, a parasitic plant. Possibly a Bedstraw Broomrape, Orobanche caryophyllacea?

Orobanche caryophyllacea??

And this is a Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), growing on a more open area of shrubs.
Anacamptis pyramidalis??
But, please, be my guest and correct me.

An Udder Viper?

The photograph is a little graphic, but it’s an interesting case. This is the udder of Ballachulish. See the red spots, in pairs?

Spot the Udder
I did, when I turned her over the other day for a regular inspection. I called Pep the vet, who came the next day. We treated the udder with antiseptic.

Pep says that these spots may be puncture marks where a viper, possibly an Asp Viper (Vipera aspis) has bitten her. When a sheep walks over the spot where a viper is lying, it reaches up and bites the nearest pink flesh it can see – which, in poor Ballachulish’s case was her udder. He would normally expect the tissue around the bite to become necrotic (dead) but this has not happened – so maybe it’s not a viper. 

Maybe its an udder biter…

Monday, 23 May 2011

Market, imperfect

We've been fleeced

No-one has died. It is just the fleece from Phoenix the ram. 3kg of the grubbiest wool you ever saw.

Quim the shepherd sheared Phoenix and Thistle on Friday. I asked what he does with his wool – he has 20 sheep, a retirement flock after spending his life walking the hills around here with 150. He buries it, as compost.

Years ago the shepherds here made good money from their fleeces, sold to dozens of weavers here and in the area around Terrassa. Now there is only one purchaser of wool for weaving and he only buys the best wool, by the lorry load. No demand for my 3kg of wool, nor for Quim’s 60kg, and the same is true of the Spanish state, where exports of wool have fallen year by year in the last three years, from US$30m in 2007 to US$11m in 2009 (source I will probably do the same as Quim and bury my fleece for compost.

The fleece is part of the spring glut. At the Croft we have trees full of cherries, a garden full of lettuce (there are only so many lettuces that one can eat) and we will soon have too many figs, hazelnuts and walnuts. Meanwhile, my friends at Oxfam and at MSF struggle to feed millions of people in the global South.

The market is imperfect. No wonder that people are Indignant.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Cherry Jam

 There are two ways of getting cherry jam onto your toast in the morning.

Either grab a jar of cherry jam as you race around the supermarket this evening, or…

…or, do as I did, and spend around an hour picking 3kg of cherries from our first-fruiting cherry tree. It is on a steep slope so the process involves hanging onto the tree with one hand while picking with the other. 

Then spend an hour (and that is quick, thanks to my new cherry-pipper) taking the pips out of the cherries. Then boil with lemon juice and cracked pips for about an hour. Then add the sugar and boil until it looks like it might set. Add a knob of butter to dissolve the scum.

Then remember that you have not yet found enough jars (3kg of cherries makes a fair amount of jam) so climb the ladder at the back of the store-room and find the dusty jars. Spend a load more time scrubbing them, washing them out in boiled water, sterilising them for 20 mins at 100ºC in the oven. Now ladle the jam into the jars and, as you do so, spill it over most of the kitchen surfaces too. Seal and label. Clean up pans, cooker, kitchen, my shirt… And you have done it. Cherry Jam, in around four hours. 

Easy, isn’t it?

Why do I do this? What primeval urge makes me want to spend four hours, as opposed to about four seconds, making jam for my toast? A hibernating instinct – fill up the store-room for winter? A defensive instinct – cherry jam, in case we are besieged by the Mongol hordes? Hunger and a secret passion for jam? It’s none of these for me. For me, it is having something made with love to give to other people (I know, it is a tragedy to have to write such gushing prose, but it’s true) and it is having home-made things – to make a home. Worth the four hours. I think…

Monday, 9 May 2011

Scent by night

It is the world’s most romantic flower and it has just opened in the croft garden. Pure, pure white, so white that it glows in the waxing moon light. That would be lovely enough, but the romance comes from its scent. The scent is night time only, strong, oranges, vanilla and magic, so that every time I walk into the garden and brush past I get a head full of romance.

Love, flowers
Its names (Philadelphus, “Mock Orange,” “English Dogwood”) belie its beautiful nature. For me, it’s Romeo and Juliet in flower form.