Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Pigs and more; the story of our free range pork.

Free range pigs rooting around in the wild
Ponga is a very little known mountain range directly west of The Picos de Europa. It’s a beautiful rugged area which was declared a Natural Park a few years ago, and is home to the most important beech forest in the Iberian Peninsular. It’s probably one of the areas we most enjoy walking in and have gone there many times with guests and the family

Ponga; an amazing mixture of mountains, woodlands and traditional farming.
Many years ago I had a really lovely experience in this area when I discovered a group of ten large pigs lying in the shade of the beech trees close to a small mountain stream. They were cautious of us, but not frightened and we could see someone had been feeding them old pieces of bread. They got up, checked we had nothing for them to eat and then started rooting around in the ground and slowly trotted away. To see pigs in such a natural environment is a really lovely sight and since then we have spotted groups of pigs on various occasions in this area. I often wondered who looked after them and whose they were.

The first group of pigs we saw in Ponga 
One day back in 2004 when we first started sourcing organic produce for the hotel I found myself in a large supermarket in Oviedo looking at long rows of pork chops in polystyrene packs. There were also a few odd packs of organic pork from Soria which is about 500 kms away. This made me decide to investigate what were the minimum conditions necessary for a pig to be certified organic. Obviously organic pigs have better conditions than their poor factory farmed counterparts but I was still surprised on some of the practices permitted and I didn’t really know what was going on at this farm 500kms away. I suddenly remembered the wonderful site of the pigs roaming freely in the forests and decided I would try and find out who owned them and if he ever sold them.

Our neighbour Victor 
I spoke about these pigs to our neighbour Old man Victor, who at that time was 73 years old and had been a farmer all his life. He knew there were farmers who still let the pigs run wild and fatten up on the beach nuts and chestnuts in the Ponga Mountains. It had been quite some years since he had been in that area and decided he would like to come with me to try and find the pig’s owner. We set of early one misty morning, he threw his small cigar away before he got in my car knowing I didn’t like cigarette smoke. We drove up the Beyos gorge and after talking to 3 or 4 local farmers in the area realised there were 2 farmers who raised these free range pigs. After a few more coffees in some rather pokey local bars we discovered who was one of these pig farmers and where he lived. Amador Crespo from San Jaun de BeleƱo.

Beech nuts on the forest floor in Ponga
We met him at his house at lunch time, he had just come down from the high mountain pastures where he had his cows grazing, he was quite a small person and very open. He told us he had up to 30 pigs grazing in the forests from late spring to autumn. Most of them were already pre-ordered by local people, being fattened up ready for “San Martin” the sacred dates when sausages would be made. He had a few extra pigs and so I said I would be interested in 2 of them and arranged to speak with him 3 months latter in October to arrange the best time to get them.

Autumn colours of the beech trees in Ponga
October came and the pigs were ready. Amador’s son has a lorry and so transported them to the slaughter house in Mieres where we went to supervise the jointing of them. No money was paid to Amador till after we had the pigs delivered from the slaughter house to the hotel and we knew their weight. We told Amador the weight of the pigs and then paid the agreed price per kilo for the whole pig. It all worked on trust.

Cows enjoying the magical mountain pastures in Ponga
Over the years I visited Amador various times and got to know how he operated. He often talked to me about some of the farming problems; wolves being the major problem with his animals which were running free in the mountains. I learnt that if the snow line came down in the autumn the pigs would come down from the mountain forests to the town where they would run around in the streets or shelter in some of his old stone stables. When they couldn’t graze and feed in the wild (because of the snow) he would feed them on a mixture of cereals, mostly barley and maize. He didn’t use organic cereal and certainly wouldn’t be bothered with all the bureaucracy that would be necessary to certify his pork organic, but for me he worked so well with nature he certainly had my vote of confidence.

 Abandoned village in Ponga
Very sadly he died in the spring of 2008 and at first no one in his family wanted to carry on his work. It seemed like it would be the loss of another traditional hill farmer. Then his son Marcos decided to give up his factory job and return to the family home to carry on farming like his father had always done. Each year we still get a couple of pigs from Marcos and although they are not certified organic we are more than happy with the way they are produced. We consider ourselves very lucky being able to spend the time needed to discover and get to know our suppliers. This first hand knowledge about our suppliers is very importante to us. Obviously you can’t visit all the suppliers of the products you consume so that’s when we rely on other forms of guarantee or certification normally an organic certification.

Beech forest in spring
Sausage the lesson for the global trade.

Buying whole pigs direct from the farmer has made us realise other things. There was a time when the hotel first opened (17 years ago) when we always served pork tenderloins in the restaurant normally with a prune and Malaga wine sauce. However when we started buying the pigs direct from the farmer out of the 200kgs of pork meat from the 2 pigs we brought there were only 4 x 1 kg tenderloins! So what about the rest of the meat.

Our pork sausages made from the free range pork
One of the most popular dishes Joe developed was sausages based on a Danish recipe for “frikadelas” By mincing some of the poorer cuts she produces this lovely dish served with a mild mustard sauce. Cooking for a slower life also means learning how to use all the different cuts of meat of an animal, so as to reduce the global movement of specific meat cuts, from one country to another.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Hawks Hill

Walking along Hawks Hill
A rocky limestone ridge starts right behind the hotel, it’s about four kilometres long and the section closest to the hotel is known as “Cerro Los Gavilanes” or Hawks Hill. 

The start of the Hawks Hill Ridge can be seen just to the right of the hotel

Here you can see the ridge towering up behind the hotel

The term Hawks Hill is a little misleading as rather than a hill it’s a ridge which is quite challenging to walk along. Some sections are covered in gorse, there is a lot of sharp Karst rock and a small but definite scramble is needed to traverse the middle section. However for the experienced adventurous walker it does provide some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and its right by the hotel.

Hawks Hill and it´s jagged summit

View from the summit of Hawks Hill

The start of the walk (climbing up to the ridge from the hotel) has always been the most awkward part of the walk but last week I discovered a new way of accessing the ridge.  Although this new “path” is slightly overgrown it is still easier to use to climb to the ridge rather than the way we used to go.

Sam and Andres climbing up to the ridge from the hotel on the "new path"

The full length of  Hawks Hill Ridge as seen from the Mirador del Fito

The summit of Hawks hill is 552 meters high and althought it is a low peak there are spectacular views of the Picos de Europa, the coast and the Sueve Mountains. It takes about two hours to reach the summit from the hotel and when you are on the summit you are only about one third of the way along the ridge. If you carry on the ridge towards the coast you come to “Los Escalarines” or small steps where some scrambling is needed and then shortly afterwards the ridge gets even narrower and more exposed!

Climbing down the very steep "Escalarines" or small steps

The ridge getting narrower and more exposed after the Hawks Hill summit.

However there are various points where it is possible to climb down from the ridge to join the road and walk back to the hotel or you can return the way you came to avoid the more difficult sections.

Farming scenery as you descend down the ridge towards the road.

As for birds you can normally see various raptors on the ridge including hawks, griffon vultures and there is even a nest of Egyptian Vultures.

Views towards the coast from the summit of Hawks Hill

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Preparing for a new season

The hotel in winter with snow on the Sueve mountains.
Although we shut the hotel to guests for five months during the winter there is always plenty to do preparing for the coming season.

One of the biggest jobs we have contracted this winter is the painting of the outside of the hotel including all the woodwork.  Over the years we have painted some sections of the hotel ourselves, those areas which have been easy to reach but there are other areas which haven’t seen a coat of paint in 18 years due to their difficult access! So this year we decided to hire a couple of local painters who our builder recommended to paint and treat all the wood on the outside of the hotel. They started painting in December and hopefully will be finished by early March.

Treating the woodwork on the outside of the hotel
Inside the hotel we (well mostly Joe) has been painting some of the walls as well as recovering the chairs in the dining room. Each year we send some of the sofas and bedroom chairs to be recovered by an upholsterer and this year is no exception. We also have had some of the wooden floors in the bedrooms filed and polished.

Revising walking notes; at the Mirador de Ordiales in the Picos
But the winter work isn’t only about decorating and maintenance within the hotel. It’s also a time when we can reflect on what we are doing.  We can check and revise our walking notes and we can also visit some of our suppliers and check if there are any new products we should be incorporating in our menu. This year we have found an excellent Pale Ale made here in Asturias so that will be on offer alongside the organic beer we have always stocked.

Asturian Pale Ale!!!!!
There is also a lot of work on the farm in the winter; cutting down old trees, mending fences and removing any prickly growth such as brambles which might be starting to grow in the meadows. And the animals always need checking and feeding.

Beetroot seedlings  for  fresh beetroot for late April onwards
Then of course there is the vegetable garden and all the jobs which are necessary so we can have a great supply of fresh produce for the restaurant during the months we are open. Last season’s crops have to be cleared, beds weeded, mulching and sowing seeds, just to name a few of the jobs

Mulching broad beans
Another big job this winter has been the preparation of the new hotel web. We wanted a web which is more visual and better adapted to small screens like mobiles or tablets. We have included a German and French version of the web as well as incorporated an on line booking system. The web will not be static and with time we will be incorporating even more information. Sebastian has been of great help with the web as this has been a major project.

Our sheep and the hotel with the Picos in the distance.

 Yes there is a lot to do over the winter but we do also get time to have some holidays ourselves and relax a bit and what a lovely envornment to relax in!  

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Food We Serve

Our home grown vegetables
Five years ago we conducted a study on the food that we serve in the hotel. We wanted to know how much of the food was produced by ourselves, and where the rest of it came from.

The vegetable garden in winter
We were pleased to find that about 30% of the food was produced on the hotel farm. Since then we have tried to increase this amount though it is actually been quite difficult. The percentage we produce our selves has gone up slightly but unless we start to grow wheat or keep cows and pigs we won’t be able to make significant increases.

Home baked breads
Of the food we don’t produce ourselves over 15% is bought directly from certified-organic local small producers. We still bake all our own bread, cakes and desserts from basic ingredients, representing another 20% of the food consumed. The amount we buy from specialist organic distributors is about 30%. It’s also worth mentioning that over 98% of all the products used in the hotel restaurant are certified organic.

Local producers in the market at Cangas de Onis

But what does this mean?
When 30% of the food we use is produced by ourselves, that means a lot of fresh food, so a lot of preparation time in the kitchen – scrubbing, peeling and cutting vegetables and fruit – no ready-prepared packs just waiting to be opened and cooked. It also means the cooking has to be adjusted to what is available and in season. Growing and farming are weather dependent, and however hard we try on the farm, we don’t always get a continual supply of the same food all through the period when the hotel is open. Most of the food is seasonal, and this means that the kitchen has to adapt to what is available from the farm at any particular time of year.

Stringing the onion harvest for storage

Our team of cooks

Raspberries galore

For example, in April there are normally lots of mangetoute peas, then broad-beans in May, an abundance of raspberries and strawberries in June, plenty of beetroots in July, courgettes from July to September, peppers in August, and so it goes on. And it’s not only the vegetables that are seasonal: the chickens lay lots of eggs as the day-length starts increasing in March and April; our lambs are at their best by July, having fattened up on the spring pastures; and then there is the apple harvest in October. True food is seasonal.

Our Xalda lambs in early spring
Imaginitive cuisine.
When I asked Joe what she thought was the most characteristic thing about the hotel cuisine, she said it is cooking with what is available. This means making the best use of what we have in the vegetable garden at that moment (or what is available from other small producers, or the market, or wherever), and using imagination in the way the food is prepared.
Imaginative and tasty cooking

Roulades are an excellent example of adapting the dish to what’s available. Roulades can be based on so many different ingredients – such as leaf-beet, leeks, or carrots for savoury roulades – or on soft-fruits for dessert roulades, such as raspberries or strawberries. And when you get a glut of beetroot, for example, it can be roasted with cheese as a vegetable to accompany the main course, or used to make soup, or served in a salad with an orange mayonnaise, or served marinated in honey – and of course in a roulade. It’s all about imagination and creativity, and Joe certainly has those when it comes to food.

Onion and apple delights
The result is a tasty, varied and healthy cuisine, using lots of fresh produce. It’s often only a couple of hours from the time the food is picked to the time it’s served on your plate.

Different lettuce varieties in the vegetable garden
Local products and varieties.
Is the food we serve typically Spanish? Probably not. But because of our belief in using local varieties and races, the food we serve is based on a lot of genuine Asturian products. We often grow local varieties, and even produce the seeds of some of them so as to help maintain those varieties, as is the case with our onions, dried beans, and maize. Our apples are all Asturian cider-apple varieties. Our lamb is the indigenous Asturian race the “xalda”, now recognized by the slow food movement. Our beef comes from another indigenous breed, the “casin”, or Asturian mountain cow, which we buy direct from a young organic farmer called Angel Merino. Angel grazes his cattle on the Sueve Mountain range just 5 kms from the hotel. We buy a whole cow, which gets sent to the slaughter-house, and then we go to the cutting-house to supervise how it is cut for us and to help pack it. We then have a whole cow, with lots of different cuts of meat, and imagination is needed again to think of ways to prepare the different cuts. Maybe we will serve fillets with a mild “Cabrales” sauce (Cabrales is a local blue cheese), or a stew with peppers and tomatoes, or maybe we will make sausages and serve them with caramelized onions (onions from the vegetable garden of course, and from a variety which was saved in the village for 40 years and we now maintain the seed stock.)

Local organic Casin beef with Cabrales cheese sauce
One thing is sure – a lot of work, time and effort are put into sourcing, growing, preparing, and cooking the food that we serve in the hotel restaurant. However, to serve food which not only tastes good and is healthy, but embraces our beliefs, respects the environment, and supports local communities, is a reward in itself for us, and hopefully for our guests too.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Winter Vegetables

The vegetable garden basking in the winter sun
We got back from our holidays last week and the first job on the farm was tidying up the vegetable garden after 5 weeks of neglect. With the help of some good weather and a few days work it’s now looking more or less like it should do. So here are a few photos taken this afternoon showing what we’ve got growing at the moment:

Italian peppers
Amazingly we still have lots of  peppers to pick! In fact we have got so many peppers that we have been making lots of chutneys and relish to use them before the bad weather comes and spoils them.

Blocky "Californian" peppers

More normal winter vegetables for this time of year are members of the Brassica family like cabbages, swede, turnips and brocculi. We have different Brassica planted; some for us to eat over the winter and some hopefully will be ready when our first guests arrive next April.

Savoy cabbage for spring harvest

Early purple sprouting just ready for picking

Late purple sprouting which should be ready for picking in March and April

We have lots of swedes. Some are for us to eat over the winter, some will be for guests in early spring and if we have too many the sheep love them!

These are the last of our oriental vegetables which are also members of the Brassica family. They grow fast and can be used either in salads or in stir frys.
We also grow endive or escarola for salads over the winter; they are hardier than lettuce and this variety "escarola rubia" tastes really good!

A lovely bed of leeks heavily mulched with horse manure and ready for us to enjoy over the winter months

and for our guests our onion seed bed. These plants will be planted out in March and the dried onions should be harvested June July time.

Broad bean plants which we should start harvesting from for Easter

In the greenhouse we are still picking plenty of tomatoes

and last but not  least oats, not for eating but for a cover crop; we sow them rather than having bare soil over the winter. They will help to help keep the soil in exellent conditions ready for the next crops to be planted here in the spring.


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.