Archive for April, 2009

Of Dikes and Dams


Now everyone knows Spain has an issue with water. And we all know now that global warming is beginning to have an effect on countries like Spain, which in the southern parts are already beginning to experience increased desertification as a result. Obviously the solution (apart from globally trying to reduce ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions) is to manage what water resources we have.

At the grass roots level we can all do more to conserve and preserve what water resources are available to us in our homes. In a single ‘rainfall weather event’ here at Los Gazquez our rainwater harvesting system can collect up to 50,000 litres of water for use in the house. It’s free too.

The irony of the economic downturn in Spain, particularly in construction, is less demand on these precious water resources. Fewer golf courses would help too. I should add that nobody wants to see people unemployed but with the right initiatives a ‘green’ economy could be built here if govornments were prepared to initiate principles for sustainable tourism.

Managing water resources is a huge problem, and here is one of the reasons why.


This is the dam for the ‘Embalsa de Valleinfierno’ built (I believe) by Franco in the 50′s. I don’t know the history of the construction in detail other than to know it didn’t work. The reservoir that was supposed to be supported behind the construction rapidly filled up with silt making it a beautiful but useless white elephant.


It’s now a shallow lake of Phragmites and Tamarisk and  rather pleasant waterfowl. However it is about to experience a transformation.

One of the unexpected challanges you encounter in attempting to conserve your water resources on such grand scales is the unforgiving character of the land you are trying to work with. It is a reservoir fed from the fragile clay barrancas and ramblas of the Parque Natural Sierra  Maria-Los Velez. The water that feeds these dry ephemeral streams comes from extreme weather events. When I say extreme I mean deep winter snow, very large national weather fronts and summer thunderstorms. The consequence is that these fluvial systems suddenly fill up by several meters on occasion and cause massive amounts of soil erosion. The detritus from this erosion ending up in the reservoir.

The solution…


is to build huge dikes extending back miles through these river systems in an attempt to filter out the silt.


If this system works (and to be honest our barranca is littered with the broken predecessors of these exact same systems) then the urban centres like Lorca and the fields of vegetables which surround this market town will succeed. For such grand schemes to work they will need to combat the erosion and to do that is to preserve the flora on the land in the mountains thus combating the erosion.

I have misgivings about such schemes in this environment prefering to preserve water as we do, at one’s home. It’s not appropriate to some developments now of course but it is something that should be encouraged within new building legislation or with grants to adapt existing homes.

Another irony is of course the fact that the builders who endure baking summer heat to build these things are protected from bush fire by the health and safety executive who cut down all the plantlife on the forest floor prior to work starting.

I once knew a sculptor who worked with wood and he told me ‘never make wood bend to your will, it will never work. You must work with the wood and understand it’s nature’.


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Bowl of the Scarlet Oaks / The Guest Blog


I step from the door and look aloft to the azure sky expecting to see the white scratch of the sun seekers jet stream reaching from the north moving south.

But not here, here the sky is clear celestial blue, and high, in a rising kettle, I count seventy six vultures, tea trays in the sky blown upward in a levant. And beneath this tower of griffons pass a pair of golden eagles preparing to quarter the forested hillside, a surprise offensive against  breakfast.


Our home, our secret Spain, is a cortijada, Cortijada Los Gazquez, a collection of small cortijos folded across a mound in the Hoya de Carrascal, the bowl of ‘scarlet oaks’.
These oak, Quercus coccifera or kermes oak were historically important as the food plant of the kermes beetle from which a cochineal type of red dye was produced. Kermes is the origin of crimson. It is more of a prostrate shrub than a tree, it’s leaves akin to the leaves of a holly its acorns sitting in a spiny cup. It’s evergreen and perfectly exploits the limey soil forming thickets called chaparrals.
Within these chaparrals  on the edge of the barranca springtime brings a tribe of yellow bee orchids to flower. Ophrys lutea clearly displaying it’s mimicry of a  bee abdomen on it’s extended lebellum, drawing unsuspecting andrena bees to fertilise a flower, not a fellow bee.

Here too we have seen to pass three ibex, strangely unperturbed by our presence and wild boar, the progenitor of our domestic pig, concealing their preponderance behind  mauve and white florescences of rosemary.

The cortijada lies in the centre of the Parque Natural Sierra Maria-Los Velez in the top right hand corner of Almeria. It is a primal place of semi-wilderness and long abandoned farm houses. Life, as it was in this alpine desert, was hard and fleet footed farmers moved to France years ago, never to return to the campo. Fifty years later time and the cortijada  has changed.

Los Gazquez today, the power of the sun and the wind provides hot water and light within. Wood fires of almond, olive, poplar and pine, centrally heat the floors on cold winter evenings. Routine is to  carefully stack the kitchen wood pile with chopped almond in preparation for cooking supper on our Spanish range.

Rainfall is collected from the roof in a series of acequias directing water to the aljibe for storage and provides the house with all it’s domestic needs. A series of reed beds cleanses waste water and grey water from the showers and basins is filtered and used to irrigate the orchard terraces.

And today we make the final touches to the grey water system. We have prepared three south facing terraces, away from the north westerly wind. Their walls built from dry stone from the fields. On each I mark a corridor with string running the length of the terrace, as wide as I am long. This area I turn with a fork and rake smooth. And here we plant a pear, kaki, fig, apricot and more making wide circular depressions around their bases which are filled with wood bark to mulch the trees. On either side of the corridor I leave the profusion of wild flowers that sing with insect life, poppies and tangier peas, pheasants eye and tassel hyacinth. Next I make clay from the soil and fashion a small canal. When it is dry, baked by the sun, the grey water from the household is directed to the base of each of the saplings. Our grey water contains only ecologically sound detergents so it will not damage the tree nor taint the flavour of the fruit.

Like every other member of mankind I am not a figure in a landscape but a shaper of the landscape. I manipulate land and life form to suit my needs. As an artist I have made this project fulfil my aesthetic needs as well as my practical needs, I am an explorer of nature who has made his home in this wonderful place. And when I look aloft to the golden eagle in the sky at the apex of the food chain, I take great sustenance from having fulfilled a project that aimed to exist benignly on this land and that our being here will no more effect the natural ecology other than to serve it.



Notes from Spain / Cortijada Los Gazquez


There is, in Madrid, a fantastic resource called ‘Notes from Spain’ . And as their strap line suggests ‘Travel - Life - Culture’, it is a marvelous amenity as well as being very inciteful and entertaining. Ben Curtis is the author along with his wife Marina Diaz and their site is packed with fantastic stuff. They do ‘podcasts’…. ‘Notes from Spain’, ‘Notes in Spanish’ and ‘Cusine from Spain’, which you can find in ‘iTunes‘. They also have a lively ‘forum’ as well as Spanish tuition.


So good are they that they have just won the ‘Lonely Planet’ travel blog awards for 2009.

And today ‘Cortijada Los Gazquez’ is the ‘guest blogger’  at ‘Notes From Spain’, about  which we are very pleased. If you have a moment have a look and maybe make a comment. In the meantime let me say thank you to Ben and Marina for the opportunity to tell a wider audience about our special place.



Geronimo and the Van der Waals Force



I am happy to stand corrected, but I believe this little fellow is (or was) a Mediterranean Gecko Hemidactylus turcicus. Having lost a leg I assume his lack of mobility led him to fall victim to the dry rigours of underfloor heating. But let us celebrate him in death.

No, he is not ‘the‘ Geronimo, the gecko made famous by Gerald Durrell in ‘My Family and Other Animals’, but he is the same type. I love these little guys and I have little objection to them running up the walls and across the ceilings in pursuit of the less wanted fly or other insect. You can see why they have become such a multifarious corporate logo, their agility and benignity makes them very appealing.

But how do they climb so well? Apparently it’s all down to the Van der Waals force which is the attractive (or repulsive) force between molecules. Intermolecular forces have three ‘attractive’ components, electrostatic interaction, polarization and dispersion which is an attraction experienced by non-polar atoms.

This intermolecular Van der Waals force is called anisotropic which means they are dependent on the relative orientation of the molecules. Random thermal motion around room temperature can overcome or disrupt molecular polarity. However, the thermal averaging effect is much less pronounced for the attractive induction and dispersion forces.

Gecko toes are made with extremely fine hairs called setae. Every square milimeter of a gecko’s foot can hold up to 14,000 of these setae. The consequence is that a vast capillary exchange is how the animal exploits the ‘attractive’ components within molecular cells.

It is believed there is only one surface to which a gecko cannot exploit it’s unique talent and that’s on teflon. So if you are feeling peckish and your larder is a little bare you can always easily fry up a gecko or too. Although you might be better off letting them carry on being your natural insecticide.


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Los Fajardos y ‘Couve a mineira’ (Portugués no Español)



This beautiful Renaissance castle is the ‘Castillo de los Fajardos’ the home of the ‘Marquesas de Los Velez‘ in Velez Blanco. Rather famously the interior patio was sold to an American dealer in the first quarter of the C20th and now resides in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. At the time the family were clearly ‘broke’ and it was an end to a rather famous era.

 As always happens, these families become scattered far and wide and inevitably spread within the ‘latin’ world, Brazil being no exception. One such daughter of ‘Los Fajardos‘, being well aware of her family history, whilst surfing on the web happened upon this ‘blog’, based as it is in the home of her ancestors. Since then she, along with her husband Jose, have been following us and have been making great contributions. She, Cecilia Fajardo, has a bond with this place which I understand completely,  I being partly of German origin. You always have the feeling that you are from another place.

 Whilst discussing the profound goodness and beauty of fresh locally grown vegetables Cecilia sent us this recipe which is a Brazilian national dish. We go to the market in Velez Rubio tomorrow and plan to prepare Dorado baked in salt in the oven with this following dish. Can’t wait.

Salu2 Simon

Couve as seen in the nature

In the fryng-pan…


Ready to eat!

The step by step here:
This chief is Aparecida  “Cidinha”, famous in brazilian tv cooking shows.

The recipe here:

Couve Mineira (Brazilian Garlicky Collard Greens)

1 pound of collard greens, kale or Savoy cabbage
2 tablespoons of sunflower oil or olive oil
garlic to taste
salt to taste
pepper to taste (optional)

1- Wash and drain the kale or the collard greens.
2- Remove the hard stems of the kale.
3- Roll the leaves tightly together and slice into very thin shreds. As the shreds have to be very thin, the knife has to be sharp.
4- Sauté the garlic, the salt and the pepper in the oil (some people add a small union at this step - I don´t).
5- Stir-fry the shredded leaves quickly at high heat. It is important that you stop in time: the leaves have to wilt slightly but should keep their bright color.

Recipe from: DonaBrasil :

Try it, and let us know!

Cecília e José.


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Sacred Sierra



Now they say everyone has a book in them and I am no exception. Except, rather bizarrely, someone else has written mine for me. Except it’s about him. Or rather it’s a book about renovating an old farm and living in the mountains of Castellon. Ok, we are Andalucia, but apart from the language his experiences were the same as ours.  (Valencian is more akin to Catalan than Castillian and Andalucian is more akin to Castillian spoken through a pub microphone on music night. You only get to hear part of the word spoken).

 It is quite uncanny how similar his experiences were. The strange encounter with hunters, building disasters as a result of inclement weather, having a ‘thing’ about preying mantis, a wife who hates insect life (mine just hates snakes, odd in my book) and like me he is from the north of England. Not that that in itself singles him out as a man living in a parallel universe.

 Suffice to say I enjoyed the book immensely, how could I not. It’s a beautiful evocation of life in the southern Spanish mountains, this lifestyle and these people. What I like most is all the background he puts into each chapter, with folk tales and histories and the way they still shape peoples lives here. And best of all for me were the excerpts from Ibn al-Awam’s ‘Kitab al-Falaha’, The Book of Agriculture from a 12th century Moor.

 I look forward to reading more. Guerra is his book on the civil war in Spain. Duende is a look inside the world of Flamenco. I feel a small shopping spree at Amazon coming on.

 I actually dropped the author an e-mail via his web site to say how uncannily similar his experiences were to ours and I was very surprised to get a reply. He likes our blog too and has promised to make a link from his web page to this ‘if I can work out how to do it’ is what he said. I find that refreshing.


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Tuesday Tuna…


Another fine invention from Andalucia’s cousins across the Straights of Gibraltar, musama, or today more popularly known as mojama. There are many ways of preserving food without the benefit of refrigeration and this is one. When the coast is hot as well as windy and dry what is more obvious than putting sea salt on tuna fillets and hanging them in the sun to dry?

The principle can be applied to any variety of tuna as well as mackrel which would seem preferable. As they dry in the wind they shrink and become dark red. When ready to prepare you slice the fillets so finely that they are transparent. Marinade in olive oil for an hour then serve with toasted almonds. Delicious.

Our man here in Velez Rubio market also sells bacalao, a salted dried cod. There are many stories surrounding the invention of this dish. It was probably originated by the Vikings but I favour the Basques and the notion that they discovered America via the Newfoundland fishing grounds but kept it secret so that they could sell the world bacalao.

Lucky world.


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Yellow Bee Orchid


Beneath the chaparrals on the north facing banks of the barranca today we found the Yellow Bee Orchid Ophrys lutea.


Thanks again to Clive for the rapid identification.


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Mariposa de la Col


Col  being cabbage, mariposa butterfly. It’s still a beautiful creature despite the damage it can cause.


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Primavera 4



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