Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Enclosures

We're doing a bit of enclosure, with one of the Croft's communards - who has a lifetime of experience in fencing - building the most solid sheep fence I've ever seen, including this clever box brace: 

Crofting and enclosures are uneasy partners - the Crofter Act of 1886 (source: was the result of street protests in the 19th Century by the Highland Land League against the injustices of the Highland Clearances (Fuadach nan Gàidheal, the "expulsion of the Gael", source: Wikipedia.) Land was enclosed by wealthy or hereditary landlords, and people driven from their smallholdings. 

Now, ironically, we're enclosing in order to stay, more efficiently, on the land.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Whether or not to have a Bellwether

Yesterday, I started training the bellwether, Button, using the long rope technique recommended in Tim Tyne's book on sheep keeping "The Sheep Book for Smallholders."

What's this rope thing?

OK. A step closer. Just to keep the old guy happy.

Hmmm. I can see he has some grain in his hand but I'm NEVER going to get to it...

Ça va, savarin

My Christmas surprise was a savarin, made in our wood-fired bread oven (baked in a slightly too hot oven, it was done in 10 minutes):

Syrupy savarin
300g flour
4 tablespoons warm water
15g fresh yeast
4 eggs, beaten
5g salt
25g sugar
150g unsalted butter
Some brandy

For the syrup
250g sugar
600ml water
Peel of one lemon
3cm piece of vanilla pod, or a chunk of root ginger
Juice of half a lemon

Make a dough with the flour. Make a well in the centre of the flour and crumble in the yeast and add the water. Leave until the yeast goes gooey. Then add salt, sugar and eggs (NOT the butter) and stir together. Now start a process of lifting and dropping the dough with your hand (it makes a good slapping noise) to get as much air into it as possible. Keep this going for 5 minutes until the dough is really elastic.

Cover the bowl and stand in a warm place. I allowed mine to rise overnight, and then beat it back in the morning.

Warm the oven to 200ºC (or, in my case, start a fire in the bread oven and leave to burn for about 3-4 hours.)

Warm butter so that it is soft, and beat the butter into the dough. It will go quite shiny.

If you have a circular baking tin - the type with a hole in the middle - then use that. Otherwise aim for a relatively shallow tin so that your cake ends up wider than it is tall.

Butter the tin generously.

Spoon dough into tin, and sit in a warm place for 45 minutes to rise again.

Bake for 20-25 mins, or until the savarin is brown and shrinks away from the sides of the tin.

Remove, cool a little, remove from baking tin.

Meanwhile, prepare the syrup by boiling the water with the sugar, the lemon peel and the vanilla pod for about 5 minutes. Cool a little, and add the lemon juice.

Now place the savarin into the syrup (that's what's happening in the picture) and spoon lots of syrup over it. Keep doing this until the savarin has swollen a lot.

Pour a little brandy over the top and serve to ooooohs and ahhhs of your satisfied audience.

Galling, for the Holm Oaks

I saw this gall on the leaves of one of our Holm Oak Quercus ilex:

Insect gall, I think...


A Christmas walk today up from the Croft to Turó de Samon. Found a wonderful example of owl pellets - egagròpila in Catalan;

Could this be Strix otis, the long-eared owl? Or Strix aluco, tawny.

and what I think might be a Beech Marten's droppings - Martes foina

From behind a Marten

Thursday, 29 November 2012


It snowed on Turó de l'home, the Montseny mountain that overlooks the Croft.

Turó de l'home, white, Arbutus unedo red-and-white

Autumn winds, winter white.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Sweet Saly

The Salamanders (Salamander salamandra) are back - heading across the track to their winter hibernations. Last night we had to stop 6 times on the track home to move a little black and yellow crawler onto the safety of the verge.

Long, tall saly

And then, dismantling an old chicken shed I found this near-caterpillar in its cocoon. It likes dark, chickeny places:

A future bug

Monday, 12 November 2012

No kissing, Bufo

I found her in the compost heap yesterday:

Bufo bufo

Sadly, kissing her did not produce the princess I'd hoped for.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

An Arabian Feast

It’s Eid al-Adha, and I have been cooking Al-Andalusian-Catalan food again – this time, “Panellets.”

These are small sweetmeats made of marzipan and covered in almonds or pine-nuts. The marzipan,  “masapà” in Catalan, comes from the Arabic mahsaban, which means “wooden box” according to my Diccionari etimològic. Perhaps this was the wooden box in which the sweets were offered. (Wikipedia lists a lot of other possible origins for the word, including the Arabic phrase "the king who sits still." Hmmm.)

Back to the cooking:

First, make the marzipan:

200g    finely ground almonds
200g    sugar
20cl     water – about a wine-glass full.

Add the sugar to the water and boil to make a syrup. My recipe from Cuina Catalana by Ana Maria Calera says boil the syrup to what she calls the “hard ball” stage. This means 116º on the sugar thermometer, but frankly this seems a lot of fuss for a sugar syrup, so just boil for a bit…

Cool, and add the almonds. At this stage you can also add flavouring – the scraped inside of a vanilla pod, or some grated lemon peel or pretty much anything else you like that will taste good in marzipan.

Add an egg.

Stir a lot, then put onto a marble surface and knead, for 10 minutes if you can bear it.

Second, make the panellets:

You’ll need about 200g of chopped almonds and 200g of pine nuts.
Thoroughly butter a baking tin
Heat the oven to 170ºC.

Make small balls of the marzipan – the size of a Brazil nut – and roll in the chopped almonds or in the pine nuts.

If you are in a hurry, just pop them onto the baking tray. If you are not, then dip the panellets in egg white and give a coating of icing sugar. Really, darling, the calories…

10 minutes in the oven, and you should get this:

Now resist eating them. Impossible.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

From Birmingham Jail to Palautordera

In his letter of 16 April 1963 to "My dear Fellow Clergymen" from Birmingham Jail ( Martin Luther King Junior said:

"In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? ...More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

The vocal underground, at Palautordera

We, the good people, sheep-like in our appalling silence.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Fungal growth

It's time for bolets - fungi - and the many, many boletaires - mushroom hunters - who come by here looking for the tastiest wild treats. I have absolutely no confidence in my fungal skills, so am happy to leave the selection to the experts. Here are two that I think I have identified, neither edible. The first, seen just before the recent rains, is (I think) Calvatia utriformis:

A big wolf fart (honestly, its name in Catalan...)

The second, seen just after the rains is appropriately called Estrelleta de la Pluja - Little Rain Star:

Astraeus hygrometricus

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Quince, walnut and fig flapjack

It was a rainy weekend, so I did some baking.

Jelly on a tree

The quinces (Cydonia oblonga) are out, and so are the walnuts (Juglans regia) and figs (Ficus). Here’s a recipe, adapted from Good Food magazine’s 101 Cakes and Bakes, that combines the three:

  • Quinces           450g, peeled and cored
  • Brown sugar    25g
  • Lemon 1
  • Fresh figs        100g
  • Butter  140g
  • Light brown sugar       50g (yes, I know. I didn’t use “Light brown” – I just used “brown.”)
  • Honey 140g
  • Oats    250g
  • Ground cinnamon       half a teaspoon
  • Ground nutmeg           half a teaspoon
  • Walnuts           25grams, chopped
  • Preheat oven to 190ºC.

Slice the quinces, add the brown sugar, the fresh figs and the lemon juice, and cook over a very low heat until the mixture becomes quite dry. Use the liquidiser to produce a paste – it should be the consistency of a good paté…
Melt the butter, light brown sugar, honey and add the oats and spices. Add about half of the walnuts. Stir.
Thoroughly butter a 20cm x 20cm (approx.) baking dish. Press half the oats/honey/butter mixture into this. Spread the quince/fig paste on top. Now press the remaining half of the oats/honey/butter stuff on top of that – so it’s a sort of quince sandwich.
Sprinkle remaining walnuts on top.
Bake  approx. 30 minutes.
Mark with a knife into squares while it is still hot.
Leave to cool completely.

Eat. Leave a little for your friend.

Granola, from the Isle of Lewis

I've just made another batch of granola. It looks like the landscape of Mars, but tastes great:

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it.

My recipe comes from Ravenstar, a B&B in the Isle of Lewis. I’ve adapted it to the Mediterranean:

  • Olive oil           4 tablespoons
  • Runny honey  2 tablespoons
  • Vanilla pod      the seeds and goo from inside a 1 inch piece of pod
  • Porridge oats (small, rolled, oats)       120 grams
  • Oats (large, rolled, oats)         120 grams
  • Sunflower seeds         60g
  • Walnuts and almonds 120 grams total
  • Dried fruit – I use dried figs, apricots and raisins        120 grams total

Preheat the oven – I use the lower heating element only to avoid over-toasting the granola – to 190ºC. Oil a large baking tin.
In a pan over a low heat, mix the olive oil and the honey. Add the vanilla seeds and goo.
Add all the other ingredients except the dried fruit and stir a lot, and then tip into the baking tin.
Place in oven and bake for 20 mins, stirring every 5 minutes.
Turn oven off.
Stir in the dried fruit and put back in the oven for 10 minutes more.
Leave to cool completely, and then store in large jar.

Delicious with milk or yoghurt, any time of the day.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Living, renewed

We had been considering it for a while. With the kids leaving home it seemed like the obvious next step. And then, just a week after we'd agreed that we should do it, our friend Pau put us in touch with a friend, and we've started. It's house-sharing, again, and it is wonderful.

In London and in Bristol we shared houses with friends. It is not only sensible (why have so many bedrooms if you don't fill them?) and economical, and ethical (we have space, and people need room), and communal (to fight the endless dash to individualism.) It's also fun - I love the energy, the new ideas, the debates, the discovery and the different views that people bring into the shared home.

A shared croft makes a happy Crofter.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Our fig trees are in full fruit, so it's time to make some chutney. I've used a combination of recipes - from the up to date River Cottage Cookbook and the very venerable Constance Spry Cookery Book - I have a 1956 edition, published a year before I was born and four before old Constance died. It's great - full of mysterious references to what "RT" would cook in certain circumstances, and packed with a mix of French, English and Indian Colonial recipes.

My gallimaufrey of a recipe is:

1.5kg fresh figs
500g squash, cut in small cubes
500g onions, cut in small dice
500g sugar
350g raisins
100g garlic
600ml white wine vinegar
50g dried tomatoes, rehydrated (I threw in the water they had soaked in too)
100g fresh ginger root, sliced
2 teaspoons of peppercorns
50g mustard seed
1 teaspoon cardamons
1 cinnamon stick, crumbled
12 cloves
25g salt

Put the whole lot into a big pan, bring to the boil, and simmer gently for about 3 hours, making sure it does not stick to the pan.
Pot into clean jars and seal. Label. Store for at least 3 weeks, preferably longer.

Looks weird, tastes wonderful (the story of much of my cookery.)

Friday, 14 September 2012

Continues dry...

It has still not rained. The traditional belief is that after an increasingly hot and humid summer the weather breaks on August 15th (the Assumption, and the saints day of St Tarsici, according to my Calendari dels Pagesos).

This year the rains did not come. The year, so far, has been the driest we have had here.

Not drowning

All part of the new climate-changed world.

Get ready for it.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Pots of Jewels

The potter wasps - Eumenidae - have been having a wonderful year, building their wee clay pots all over the house, then filling them with paralysed spiders, baby food for the grubs. They sing as they build - a high pitched buzz that can wake us in the morning.

We tolerate them, but this time they went too far, building half a city of pots in Crofter's partner's jewellery box.

Jewel residence

Taking the Tube to Work

There is a good side to the double life led by crofters.

I woke up at 5am, thinking about two things: a complicated piece of research using a database, and our VAT return. Either one of these work nightmares would be enough to wake me – both together got me jumping out of bed in a cold sweat.

A couple of hours later I was doing this:

Bertie gets it in the stomach. Directly

Delicately sliding a plastic tube into the stomach of our new lamb, one-day-old Bertie (thank you, Dominic, for the name…) to try to ensure that he stays alive.

And of course I was thinking only about little Bertie and his need for milk. Everything else, databases, tax, research… were all blown out of my mind by this one, desperate, caring need.

Take the tube to work. Forget all your other worries. 

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Mother's milk, and fat lambs

Our lambs are growing fast:

Button has set the record, growing at an average 365.8 grams per day since birth (Stitch and Rap are nearly as fast, at 350 g/day). Today, 41 days old Button weighs 18.5kg. Most of this weight gain is thanks to copious quantities of his mother's milk. But part is explained by his enthusiastic feeding regime:

Trough scoff

The technical bit
This makes Button a full kilogram heavier than the heaviest lamb in the ANCRI/Autonomous University of Barcelona test series in February this year. ANCRI is the Catalan National Association for Ripollesa Sheep. In 2010 they ran two test groups of lambs to check growth rates. They ran another test in February 2012. The lambs in the test are a bit older than Button and Stitch; the test starts at around the point that the lamb stops suckling, around 40 days. The fastest-growing lamb in the February 2012 series put on weight at 364g/day. We'll see how well Button and Stitch compare.

Monday, 20 August 2012


The brambles are out, and so was I, picking enough for an apple and bramble crumble.

Mimosa the donkey helped.


And then I saw this - a short-horned grasshopper. Any ideas which one? Family of the Acrididae, I'd guess:

'Hopper, full

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Life's a ball

I'm a crofter. I'm a cook. 

But above all, I love to dance. 

Hello. Do you come here often?
 This spring Paula, a student at Tot Dansa in Santa Maria de Palautordera became my teacher for a season. She choreographed a great piece and then taught me the steps (with infinite patience.) It was a dream.

Teacher, floored, and pupil

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Birth of Broch

Fidget gave birth this morning to a strong wee female. We've named her Broch, in honour of the Iron Age broch being dug by Greer, near Auchterarder (

A small Catalan Broch

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Keeping the heat in

We have a fine new door for our bread oven. Made by Marc Herrero and Miquel Xirau, members of the Metalworkers Association of Catalonia (Gremi de Serrallers).

Miquel featured in this TV programme on the artisans of Catalunya. He is the fourth generation of metalworkers in his family - the firm, Xirau Serralleria in Vilanova del Vallès, was founded by his great-grandfather.

It's baking in here

Downsize in Catalonia

A good article in Monday's La Vanguardia about the growing degrowth movement in Catalonia.

The Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) has a research group working on the topic, with the omnipresent Serge Latouche involved, both linked to Research & Degrowth. The article includes a number of downsizing communities, including Xicòria - a group of four friends working a garden in Montblanc (the Catalan Montblanc...). Degrowth is even happening in Spain.

Time to get smaller.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Saved by a tube

Rap was born into the warmth of the evening of 6th July.

Is he really suckling?

He started OK – seemed to find a teat and seemed to have a suckle, but by midnight he was looking weak. I had given him a couple of shots of Thermovite (as recommended by Tim Tyne) but was not too happy with his appearance. We milked Morag, a new and slightly reluctant mum, and gave him some from a dropper.

By 9am on the 7th I was really concerned about him.

Pep the Vet had kindly given me a stomach tube for lambs, and encouraged me to use it. So I read the instructions in The Sheep Book for Smallholders (Tim Tyne, The Good Life Press, 2009) and in The Sheep Keeper’s Veterinary Handbook (Agnes Winter and Judith Charnley, Crowood Press, 2007).

After a couple of failed (and scarily gurgling) attempts I used the syringe to get a few ml of milk into his mouth. This seemed to help him swallow. I managed to intubate Rap, and got 100ml of milk into him.

The effect was immediate. He got up and went over to Morag and started suckling. As though the intubation had given him a start and now he wanted a lot more.

I had been determined not to lose another lamb after losingLuna. Rap had many of the same characteristics – a weak lamb, not that interested in feeding, not finding the teat, preferring to lie down and rest rather than feed. Luna had faded away like that. Intubation seemed to kickstart Rap’s feeding reflex.

Thanks for the tube, Pep!

Summertime, and the going is easy

We’re having a busy Summer at the Croft. Thanks to clever sheep management (by the ram, not by me…) we’ve got a batch of lambs appearing during the August holidays.

Button and Stitch aged 2 weeks
 Isi (who’s living with us) and I have built a new chicken shed, named the "Anti-Ziggurat" for its decapitated pyramid shape:

The soil is rock hard – in the month from 2nd July to 5th August we had just 3mm of rain…

Pick a hard place

…but with our recycled water supply we can irrigate, and have been harvesting the tomatoes planted by Emily Hornett.

A source of tomatoes

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Bigger Button

Button and Stitch are growing. 500grams in a week - it does not sound like much, but that's a 10% increase in bodyweight.

Friday, 20 July 2012

A stitch, in time

Button and Stitch arrived on Monday.

Stitch, and most of Button

We'd been waiting all last week. Predictably, they arrived (...on the button...) just as I was getting on a plane to rainy London. The human family coped brilliantly, and got both started on feeding. Pep the vet came and gave them the all-clear. 

I weighed them yesterday - Button, the male, weighed 5kg, and Stitch the female, 4.5kg.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A Moving Jewel

He's like a moving jewel. Iridescent skin - beige, with a brown border - and a flickering curve of movement as he skitters away from me on the tiles in front of the house.

Chalcides striatus
His name - he's a skink - belies his beauty.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Bed Lamb

Thanks to an old bed from Ikea we've got a new maternity suite for the lambs:

Lambing shed luxury

I've copied the design from the excellent Tim Tyne, using eye bolts and a bamboo pole as a hinge. That way, if the sheep panics they only break a bamboo rod, and not the whole suite.

Thank you, Tim.

Sperm Tales

We're all pregnant!

Pep; the udder expert

Pep the Vet came up on Friday and scanned our six females. I mean, our six female sheep. All six are pregnant, with two due very soon, two due in 2 months and two in 3. 

One (see scanner photo) is giving birth to a bird…

A Sober Crofter Looks at the Thistle

‘A Scottish poet maun assume
The burden o’ his people’s doom,
And dee to brak’ their livin’ tomb.

Mony ha’e tried, but a’ ha’e failed.
Their sacrifice has nocht availed.
Upon the thistle they’re impaled.

You maun choose but gin ye’d see
Anither category ye
Maun tine your nationality.’

Crofter shows his cards
Hugh MacDiarmid, born Christopher Murray Grieve in 1892 in Langholm, Dumfriesshire, died Biggar 1978, excerpt from “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Life on the Croft

It’s been a month of animal care.

Our sheep developed a fungus – a relative of ringworm. So I devised a lotion, made of 2.5% sulphur, 20% betadine gel (iodine) and 15% Clotrimazole (an anti fungal, normally for athlete’s foot) in Vaseline. 

Pep the Vet came up with the suggestion that we increase the alkalinity of their diet, mixing 1% sulphur into sodium bicarbonate (from Solvay, in Belgium) and adding the powder to their food trough. It all seems to be working.

A Belgian solution

Then I left Mimosa the donkey grazing in a field of alfalfa. Stupid – I meant to leave her for an hour but got distracted. As a result she filled up with food, and then filled up more with gas. She stopped eating and drinking, and then Pep found she had a heart murmur. So he poured 5 litres of liquid paraffin, 5 litres of probiotics and more water into her via a naso-gastric tube. 

The result was, er, explosive. 

But now she’s fine – fully recovered, and merrily kicking me each morning when I take her feed.

Tube that donkey

And it's been shearing time here at the Croft: 

Shearing Phoenix, 16 June 2012
Shearing wool for which there is no demand and which, like all the local shepherds, I've had to compost. But the sheep are happier.

Do Not Stand in the Hatched Area

I saw the sign on East Croydon station a couple of weeks ago, above an area painted in yellow criss-cross lines, next to a building site. “Do not stand on hatched area.”

I nearly stood on this hatched area:

Pyrrhocoris apterus, Fire bugs, emerging, 15 June 2012

English. A language designed to confuse. How can “hatch” refer to a pattern of parallel lines, an animal emerging from an egg (and, as a noun, to a small trapdoor, normally in a boat?)*

*Answer: because English is language soup. Hatch, as in egg, comes from Swedish häcka - that's our Viking forebears. Hatch, as in crossing lines, comes from the French hacher - that would be the Normans. And hatch, as in a small door, comes from Middle Low German  heck (it says here in my Oxford Dictionary) - so thanks to the Anglo-Saxons. 

"Don't stand on the hatched lines when you climb through the hatch to the hatchery." Easy, really.

Tweet, to eat

We named a chick. Here, then, is Twitter:

Tweet's sweet

There is some secret anthropological significance in giving an individual name to a living thing. I read once that in parts of West Africa a person is not considered dead until the last person who remembers her or his name dies. And so it is with animals. Give them a name and they become untouchable.

I saved little Twitter as an egg. He'd been abandoned by the bantam who was incubating him so I put the egg into my robotic incubator and he hatched a week later, strong and healthy. He's growing fast. One day, in about 6 months, he'll be ready for eating.

But could you eat your Tweet? Named, he'll now live forever.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A flapjack for Julianne

Julianne asked for my recipe for flapjack. That’s “flapjack” in Scottish English, not in her native American.

150g    butter
100g    soft brown sugar – Fair Trade if you can get it
4 level tablespoons of liquid honey
350g    rolled oats
50g      whole almonds, roughly chopped
50g      Raisins
25g      pine nuts

This is really easy.  Warm the oven to 180ºC. Oil a baking tin, using baking paper to line the base if you want guaranteed non-stick.

Put butter, sugar and honey into a pan and warm so that everything melts together. Add the other stuff. Stir a bit. Squish down into baking tin. Place in oven for about 20 mins, until browning a bit.

Now – there is one trick to flapjack: remove the tin from the oven and while it’s still hot, run a knife around the edge of the tin to release the flapjack, and mark into squares or fingers or whatever. Then walk away. Let it cool right down. Now remove the flapjacks with a fish slice or similar wide flat implement. Get this wrong and you’ll end up either with a solid block of goo locked into your baking tin forever, or a pile of sweet porridge crumbs. You have been warned.

Wara Einab, or dolmades

Life is too short to stuff a mushroom, said Shirley Conran. But not too short to stuff a vine leaf, says Crofter.

Fast food, Crofter style

Here’s my recipe for cold dolmades. Actually, like all recipes, it’s a variation on another, in this case the recipe in my crumbling copy of A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden (Penguin, London, 1968). I’ve abused her recipe a bit to speed it up, because life is not too short but time is precious…

250g    vine leaves
250g    Basmati rice
2          tomatoes, chopped
1          large onion, finely chopped
A big handful of fresh mint, finely chopped
One level teaspoon ground cinnamon
Half teaspoon turmeric
Salt, and a load of ground black pepper

Trim the stalks from the vine leaves. Wash, then drop for 30 seconds into boiling water.

Cook the rice till just done. Mix with the tomatoes, onion, mint, cinnamon, turmeric, salt and pepper (and anything else nice hanging around the kitchen – raisins, pine nuts…)

Take a vine leaf, put a spoonful of stuffing on the side of the leaf with the raised veins, fold in the leaf and roll to produce a thing like a… well, Ms Roden says cigar but that’s only because she’s never rolled a joint.

Put a vine leaf into the bottom of a good-sized pan. Add a layer of stuffed and rolled up dolmades. Then another vine leaf and another layer of dolmades. Make as many as you like.

Add to the pan:

15 cl    water
15 cl    olive oil
Juice of one lemon
4          garlic cloves

Bring slowly up to the boil and simmer for 30 mins.

Remove from the plan to plates. Allow to cool. Eat slowly, because life is not too short to stuff a vine leaf.