Tag Archives: Veg

Gorilla in the Mist

We have been in Italy for 6 weeks in total. For each new person we meet or new village we enter we wonder if we’ll ever have a truly authentic Italian experience. Some time with a family would be nice or the chance to learn about home cooked Italian food. From the comfort of our Molise farmhouse we looked through the wwoof host list once again and although we usually steer clear of agri-tourism farms there was something wooing us towards our next host. It may have been the photo’s that Nina spotted of home made pasta and freshly baked wood oven bread. In fact I’m sure it was. We contacted Giovanni and he was keen to have us for a week in Busso before we left Italy for Greece.

Giovanni kindly collected us from our farmhouse in Faifoli. He has a friend with a mill nearby and was keen to pick up some fresh flour for baking and making polenta later in the week. He hinted on route that he was recently separated from his wife and it was obvious when we arrived at his house that the agri-tourism business had been laid to rest. The topic of conversation in the car was verging on obsessive and Giovanni clearly had a new passion – truffle hunting! It turns out that we had arrived in one of the most prolific black truffle hotspots in Italy and THE only region in the world where you can find the elusive white truffle.

Giovanni got up at 4am every morning to take two of his five dogs out hunting. He mentioned to us that he watches films or listens to music at around 2am each night and he was up past twelve every day that we were there. One day we found him randomly sleeping in his car at lunchtime and on day five he confessed to insomnia which gave reason to the silver-back nature we had experienced, calm and attentive one minute and explosive and unpredictable the next. We wanted authentic and we certainly got it. Our time in Busso was very testing but also very rewarding.

Our host, also a professional chef, was keen to demonstrate his skills in the kitchen and we were baking sourdough bread and pizza within hours of arrival. He cooked pumpkin risotto, wild chicory, potato and bean pasta amongst an array of other Italian delights with home made wine with every lunchtime and evening meal. Oh yes, before you ask, we were treated to the legendary black truffles, once with egg and once with the polenta on a friendly visit to parents for lunch. There is no other taste like it in the world. Delicate fungi with a buttery warmth that when grated, raw, has a distinct texture similar to parmesan cheese. I could see how they could become addictive and maybe why Giovanni was obsessed and a bit crazy.

Our duties as wwoofers were mostly helping out around the place. We emptied a wood shed and added some new acacia uprights for roof support before re-stacking it, we put up some fencing, we helped move things around that he couldn’t have done alone, we supervised the revival of an old lawnmower and we generally kept the crazy-maker’s kitchen clean. Plus we made another round of elderflower cordial, our third batch in Italy!

Giovanni mentioned a few times that he wanted to ‘do’ permaculture in his vegetable garden. On day four he went out to visit a friend and Nina and I set about turning an unused area of his vegetable plot into a synergistic garden. I’d learnt the basics from Elena a few weeks earlier. The process of setting it up is very easy and due to the no-dig nature it only has to be done once. On the slope I pulled earth from the high ground down to form one metre terraces, leaving a path. Nina added plenty of old sheep and rabbit poo and I then added a drip irrigation pipe along the top of each terrace and we heavily mulched, paths an all. We had some seeds collected from our journey so far, some seedlings that Giovanni bought plus whatever we could find around the property, like strawberries and mint. We designed a companion pattern for each bed and packed them full of food crop and beneficial plants like borage and calendula. Giovanni was very happy with his new garden and said that he was hoping to transfer the whole veg patch into this type of ‘easy’ growing system.

We were asked along to a morning truffle hunt one day. Up and out the door before 5am. Dew-proof trousers, a big stick and sniffer dogs in cages. It was all very surreal. We drove to an area just a few kilometres away, a young forest emerging from grassland. Oaks, blackthorn, wild apples, hawthorn, poplar and dogwood were all present. Giovanni showed us areas of grass die back where he expects to find truffles and sadly areas where some very competitive truffle hunters had dug up meters of soil around the tree. They do this once they have found just one truffle in the hope of randomly finding more. Not only do they take the unripe truffles but they break the mycellium and upset the symbiotic relationship of tree and truffle and any hopes of the same area fruiting again. Our guide has no need for this illegal type of scavenging as his dogs are so good at honing in to the spot. It was great to see them nose to ground, excited by what they may find. We didn’t find a truffle that morning. He never does when he takes people with him. We heard the horror stories of poison baits being left for dogs, easy for poachers to get the upper hand once your rival dog is dead. It’s big business and Giovanni has a friend who recently sold a truffle for $23,000.

I was worried for Giovanni and I was worried for his animals. I could have counted the number of hours sleep he’d had in one week on one hand. One moment he was full of joy and enthusiasm for his new garden and the next he was whacking one of his hounds in frustration. He was relying on truffles for an income and relying on his dogs for truffles. When little Ziggy got a wheat tuft in her ear it was the cost of removing it that seemed the major concern and not the welfare of the dog. I had to remind our host that the dogs had no water in their cages, cages that they spend every moment in when not truffle hunting. It makes me think about using animals as tools for profit related business. And it makes me think about relying on one stream of income and the pressure that comes with it. The permaculture principle of redundancy teaches us not to put all our eggs in one basket. The analogy of the spiders web demonstrates this perfectly, it can still perform it’s function even when a whole bunch of links are broken. I hope that Giovanni will be inspired by his new garden and maybe he will develop it further for less reliance on truffle hunting.

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Synergistic Gardens at La Fattoria dell’Autosufficienza

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I have just finished a week volunteering with Elena in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy.  Our main focus was in the vegetable gardens.  Elena follows Emilia Hazelip’s methods adapted to a temperate climate from Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming techniques.  A term referred to as Synergistic Gardening which is a fancy way of saying self fertilising garden.  The main focus is building soil fertility.  Here are the main principles;

  • Permanent raised beds with the ability to reach the whole bed without stepping on it.  Keyholes are best use of space but if you have room strips are easy to work with
  • No bare soil – permanent soil cover using organic mulch like straw or sheep’s wool.  I believe a living mulch could work really well too.  Adding even more life to the beds.
  • No monoculture – massive diversity in plants for all the obvious reasons; Resilience, beneficial insects etc.  There is no particular planting patterns it seems.
  • No chemicals! (pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones)
  • No tilling – yes that means no digging (apart from the original prep)!
  • No added compost (with the possible exception of demanding transplants)
  • No treating plants (i.e. for insects, illness, etc).
  • No pulling out plants (except for root vegetables)

It actually seems like a lot of rules but it’s pretty simple once the beds are set up – keep it covered, mix things up when sowing and interfere with the garden as little as possible.  If you want to remove the odd weed then cut it at the base letting the roots stay.

Helping Elena made me realise that keeping annuals can actually be very easy.  I helped her do her yearly irrigation system check, her yearly weed (by chopping at the base of the stem), yes once a year, and the rest of the time we were scattering seeds.  She likes to observe what does well in what situation rather then referring to a companion planting book.

There are a few logical sowing methods that I observed like salad plants taking up most of the edges for ease of regular picking and some larger rooted plants in the higher positions with more soil below.

Whilst walking around the gardens I thought to myself that one packet of seeds is roughly equivalent in cost to one vegetable, like a fennel or a pumpkin or something similar.  So compared with the effort that we put into annual gardening we may as well just scatter seeds and hope for the best.  If two come good then we have saved ourselves the cost of one vegetable and for the very very least effort spent.  Even less if we are saving our own seed!

Thank you for having me for a week and good luck with the continuing success of your experiments at La Fattoria dell’Autosufficienza

Wwoofing in the Spanish Pyrenees

We arrived by train from Barcelona to Figueres station where we were greeted by Amanda, Deno and their two dogs Rita and Lucy. From there we drove for an hour into the mountains and just past the small village of Albanya. The farmhouse is in an isolated location within a protected national park. We were truly blown away by the beauty of the area on arrival, between the rolling holm oak forests sat a 17th century farmhouse on a ridge above their vegetable gardens and fruit trees.

We immediately knew we would have an amazing experience there and within minutes we were kicking ourselves that we would only be staying a week. Amanda showed us to our room before we set off into the forest to explore the area, full of marron chestnut trees and meandering creaks. The dogs came with us and we were immediately friends! Later that evening Deno cooked up a lovely pasta meal and we drank wine and chatted until late. Deno is Italian and loved to cook.

The next morning we set about our week of work which was to include weeding then mulching the many raspberry, strawberry and artichokes patches, replanting mints as ground covers, strimming, making new beds for yet more raspberry’s, collecting butchers broom, a root crop for tea and compost preparation.

On day three I discovered a pair of disused tanks and a spring which looked like they were once used to wash clothes or something. Deno and Amanda expressed an interested in making use of it and I jumped at the chance of a fresh diploma project.  I spent most of my weekend off observing the surroundings of the tanks, any unused resources and carrying out some experiments with clay to understand the possibilities of a design. Amanda and Deno seemed excited about the possibility of “growing” fish and aquatic plants and my new found enthusiasm in aquaculture was rubbing off. Watch this space for a design and implementation plan for PR4.

Our time at CanColl was really rewarding. Amanda and Deno are in the early stages of a Bed & Breakfast to earn a living and with Deno’s amazing cooking and Amanda’s hand in the garden they are certainly close to living out their dream. Thank you so much for the wild boar sausage!!!

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Big Mountains, Small Money

It’s nearly the end of March and the last four weeks have been all about the Mountains and less about the money.  We are in Granada at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are still covered in snow although the temperature here is averaging about 26 degrees in the height of the day.

Since leaving our village building experience in Morocco we’ve not managed to get far away from the beautiful jagged edges of the landscape. We travelled by local bus through the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco up to Fez where we spent three memorable days exploring the winding medina streets of what is said to be the oldest surviving medieval and the largest non motorised city in the world.

Our next leg took us again by local bus up to Tangier for our ferry. We skimmed the Rif mountains of Northern Morocco of which we had visited on the way into the country 8 weeks ago. It was a whole lot warmer than when we arrived.

The ferry took us across the water into Spain with the giant rock of Gibralter to our east. Arriving in Spain only 3 hours later made Morocco feel a world away. We’d had a truly rich experience there and felt sad to leave.

Part of our journey design and the reason we are able to spend quite a bit of time in europe will be our careful use of money and here in Spain it was to begin. Areas we highlighted for scrimping were travel and accommodation mostly and so this was to be our first hitch hike of this travel adventure.

We wrote out our Malaga sign whilst on the boat and after a couple of badly chosen spots we found a good area and stuck out those thumbs! It was only 20 minutes later that we were scooped up by a local and taken 40 minutes or so towards our destination. He plonked us in a good spot to find another ride and it was only 15 minutes more waiting until a big old motor home pulled in to take us on to Malaga.

In Malaga we had arranged to couch surf with a couple who seemed to be professional couch surf hosts. Ana and Israel had hosted many other people and enjoyed the company and practicing their language skills. They were very kind and trusting and gave us a key and disappeared off to a family gathering leaving Nina and I their home.

Our next stop and another great money saving arrangement was our first Wwoof of the journey. We arrived in Orgiva by local bus but hiked the remaining 5km or so up a dry river bed to find the olive finca we were to be working on for the following week. Wwoofing is a great example of stacking functions as it has so many positives – we live for free with accommodation and food covered, the host receives two hard workers for 5.5 hours a day, we can to learn about local processes and cultures whilst exploring the area and we meet other like minded people who share the same passions about organic techniques.

Kate’s Finca was stunning, set in a valley of more snowy topped mountains with no road access. Her main output is olives but she also has tonnes of veg and other fruit trees and chickens etc. Wwwofers stay in little self contained Casitas with cooking facilities and fire places. It was a beautiful place to work for a week and we would have liked to stay longer.

My fourth Diploma project should now be in full swing but I am yet to find it and so moving on was unavoidable. We saved another bus fare by hitching and trekking to Granada to meet with our next Couch surf host. Andrea, who is studying environmental science here. We explored the city yesterday and cooked for her last night. Travelling on a budget feels very rewarding so far and it means we have a few extra euros for the all important ice cream and beer.

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Norfolk to Chefchaouen

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Tomorrow we leave Chefchaouen on route to Meknes.  Nina and I have been in Morocco two weeks now and the days have flown by since we left Norfolk.  We had the weekend in London and Brighton before catching our bus to Paris.  We picked up an overnight train to Madrid and had just enough time there to grab a churros, definitely needed to boost the sugar levels, still trying to get over the weird snotty face ache that I’d left England with.  We moved on again by train to Algeciras where we were to catch our boat to Morocco.  It was only 36 hours since leaving London and we decided to take a room for the night, hoping to catch the ferry early the next day. read more…

Forest Gardening by Robert Hart

I’ve just finished reading this amazing and insightful book by Robert Hart.  When learning about designing a food forest I kept hearing about how not to do it like Robert Hart did which intrigued me.  Mostly people have talked about his closed canopy temperate forest garden which didn’t allow much light to the lower layers.    I say that it’s a good job somebody didn’t do it perfectly as it has allowed the rest of us to learn from his non-perfect garden.  In this book however Robert talks in depth about his philosophies and world views with great suggestions and solutions whilst referencing some great work that I had not come across before.  A must read for perma-junkies or indeed anyone interested in world changing!

November at The Patch

On returning from our road trip we came back to a very different Patch.  As we move through autumn our vegetable garden has started to die back although there are still a few bits and pieces to harvest.  The trees have started to lose their leaves and the medlar has dropped some fruit.  The green roof is looking great and we’re really keen to get this finished in the next couple of weeks.   Other jobs in the coming weeks will be the planting and mulching of a new delivery of fruit and other interesting trees as well as soft fruit and nitrogen fixers for the food forest.  We’ll be planting and then mulching and adding other support plants to create balanced guilds that will have a better chance of survival in our absence.

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A visit to see Paul in Sheffield was also on the cards and it was a great place to start some ground work for my diploma pathway.  I made full use of Paul’s flat whilst he was at Uni and we even managed a walk in the Peak District which looks amazing at this time of year.  After a quick stop over for a party in London, I travelled down to Bradford-upon-Avon for my belated Diploma induction and a catch up with Richard, Michelle and Grace.  It was great to also see some other Diploma students and old friends permablitzing their lives!!!  Couldn’t help a little mushroom hunt when I got back to Norfolk.  Goose common is right next door to The Patch and is a great foraging spot.  Only poisonous fungi about today though…  Diploma work to do…