Monday, 25 August 2008

A taste of the wild

Growing and producing our own fruit and vegetables for use in the hotel restaurant is a very important part of our ethos, and we dedicate a lot of time and effort to this end. But there are also a lot of different plants growing wild in nature whose leaves, fruits and flowers can be harvested and eaten. You may find some of these plants in natural habitats such as forests or in meadows and others may be growing as “weeds” in the garden

Once you start to learn about these wild edible plants and try them, you will discover many new, lovely and very special flavours. In the restaurant at the hotel we serve certain wild foods harvested from around the farm grounds in different dishes. These include: Elderflower sorbet, Elderberry cake, Nettle soup, and Amaranthus served as a vegetable

Harvesting from the wild can take many forms; collecting the leaves from the appropriate weed in the vegetable garden, as is the case with Amaranthus, taking the tops of young nettles growing on waste land, harvesting flowers such as elder flowers or fruits such as black berries from shrubs growing in hedge rows etc. When harvesting these plants it is obviously necessary to do it in a respectful way, taking into consideration the possible impact on the habitat where they are growing.

Wild Amaranthus growing as a "weed" in the vegetable garden makes a lovely vegetable

Looking for and sourcing plants from the wild can be very enjoyable. It also helps keep you connected with nature and lets us realise how good a provider and nurturer she can be. She is not dangerous or something to be afraid of, as modern society sometimes makes us believe. We believe it is very important for people to connect with nature, and activities like this can help people realise, that we are an integral part of nature and we need to care for her, as she cares for us.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Nigel and the horses

We came across this rather amusing photo on internet a few months ago. It was taken by a photographer who had come to the hotel to take the photos for an article about the hotel and the farm for a local newspaper. He liked this photo so much he decided to place it on his fotolog where, a friend of Sebastian discovered it and then sent it to us. (Neither I nor the horse got royalties though.) Just shows you how amazing the internet can be.

The Horses: Viboli and Tolivia

These are our two Asturcon ponies that are named after two remote villages in the Ponga Mountains. Viboli is the slightly lighter pony (on the left) and in the portrait photo beneath, she is quite friendly. Tolivia who is much warier of people is the one on the right in the photo above and slightly darker in colour. They are about 5 years old now.

The Asturcon ponies are the local breed of Asturias and were in serious risk of extinction 30 years ago. One of the last existing populations at that time lived on the Sueve Mountains (just behind the hotel.) Many of the ponies from that group formed part of the core population which was used for the recuperation of the race. The ponies are very hardy and robust, and well adapted to the harsh mountain life in Asturias.

We have the horses for pasture management. The sheep and ponies never graze side by side, always in rotation, keeping parasites to a minimum, in the same way as rotating crops keeps soil-pathogens to a minimum. The horses will eat longer grass which the sheep don’t normally like to graze and they will also eat certain species the sheep leave behind. We normally put the horses in a meadow first to get the long grass down, and then latter put the sheep to finish the grazing. This “mixed” grazing is an integral part of our diverse organic cropping system. From a sustainability or permaculture point of view, we should be using the ponies on the farm to haul loads or plough the land, but I definitely think these two ladies are beyond training.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Mari Carmen fractures her foot

Poor Mari Carman fractured her foot on Saturday. She just misplaced her foot whilst walking. She will be off work for at least a month
We all wish her a speedy recovery
Thanks to all the staff and people who have offered to do extra hours at the hotel whilst she is recovering.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

About our onions

We grow all the onions we use in the hotel our selves and yesterday we harvested the main crop. This onion which stores well and can be kept for use until April is an important part of the Asturian kitchen. They are used in dishes such as the famous Asturian bean stews, for making sausages etc.

We grow our onion from seed and save and produce the seed ourselves, like most of the small growers in the area used to do. We started growing onions about 5 years ago, and the first seed we used came from our neighbour Mari Jose. Her family are keen vegetable growers and have been keeping and producing the seed for this onion for as long as they can remember (well over 50 years.) What’s interesting is this seed always produces two different types of onion, a red onion and a yellow onion. The red onion is used mostly in salads and the yellow onion in cooking. This local onion variety producing two different coloured onions is very typical of the area.

Onion bulbs in flower, grown by us to produce seed

To produce the seed we save some of the biggest and best onions and then plant a few bulbs each of the yellow onion and red onion next to each other in late autumn. The onions start flowering late spring and the seed is collected in late summer. To produce the onion crop itself, the onion seed is sown in a seed bed in late autumn (which has to be kept weed free) and the plants are planted out in March. If all goes well the onions will be ready for harvesting late summer.

Detail of onion seed on the flower head, almost ready for collecting

Having worked for 5 years for Dutch plant breeding companies, in the beginning I considered selecting only the best most uniform red onions for seed (rather than follow the tradition of planting the two different onion types along side each other) so as to produce a special pure uniform strain. However I soon realised that his would be good for large growers who want to produce a uniform crop for the supermarkets where uniformity is so important. But for small growers who are producing for their own needs and saving their own seed year after year, this isn’t so good. For them a little variation coming from the seed is good, having a few different types’ means you are better prepared for different or changing conditions.

So were the local farmers who kept this “mixed” onion seed aware of the importance of a little genetic variation, or was it just a way of producing two different coloured onions from one seed sowing!

Isn’t it good we are not all the same?

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Flora on the farm.

Pyrenean Germander

The hotel farm is composed of a diversity of habitats, including pockets of woodland, a riverbank, hedgerows, and orchards, as well as meadows and pasture, and each area has its own character, thus providing a wide diversity of flora species. Ongoing flora surveys of the farm, centred on the three areas managed specifically for wildflowers, but taking the whole area into account, have so far identified 308 flora species. This includes grasses, sedges, rushes, and some shrubs, but excludes trees, bushes, mosses, lichens and ferns. This is a staggering number, representative of the renowned floristic diversity of this region, and looks set to increase. These flora surveys are a very useful step towards our wider understanding of the ways in which this landscape operates, our interactions with the farm, and its agricultural and wildlife potential.

Whorled Caraway

Our next project is to photograph as near as possible every species on the farm, to produce a flora identification guide to the farm. We hope you enjoy some of the photos already taken – more can be seen via the hotel webpage in the natural history section.

Common Centaury

So what are the origins of this diversity of flora in our meadows and pastures, and how do we help to maintain it?

When humans first cleared forest from the land, to use the wood for building and as fuel, they opened up new habitats for grasses and wildflowers. With the introduction of domesticated grazing animals from the Orient, permanent pasture was born. Later, with the development of haymaking as a winter feed crop for these animals, the wildflower hay meadow came into being.

A hay meadow is not a hay meadow unless it is cut for hay, and probably the most sustainable method of cutting is with the traditional scythe. This means lots of hard work in the hot sun, but the reward is a job well done (plus a glass or two of cold cider). Cutting for hay not only feeds our sheep over the lean winter months, it maintains low nutrient levels in the meadows (the hay is removed, so nutrients are lost) thus keeping flora diversity as high as possible (high nutrient levels means that competitive species displace less-competitive ones), and it prevents the meadow’s reversion to woodland.

A hay meadow is a semi-natural non-climactic ecosystem. If nature was left to take its course, our meadows would once again become woodland, probably passing through the intermediate stages of bramble-patch, and gorse- and heather-dominated heath land, a process which would take several decades or longer. But because we want to make hay for our sheep, and keep the beautiful diverse wildflower hay meadows for our guests to enjoy, we will continue the traditional haymaking process.

Hay is cut in June and July, as dictated by the weather. This allows the spring-flowering species to set seed ready for next year (blue iris, columbine, nine species of orchid, wild leeks and onions, yellow rattle etc…), and by autumn a new mix of wildflowers have covered the meadows (autumn ladies tressle orchid, autumn squill, devil’s-bit scabious, autumn crocus, wild garlic etc…). In between times there are the fallow pastures that are grazed later in the year, so there’s never a lack of colour, diversity, or interest.

Heath Spotted Orchid

Entrance written by Hugh Taylor.

Hugh is now working with us for his second season as farm worker / naturalist and kindly lets us use many of his excellent photos on this blog.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Cares Gorge

We thought it might also be interesting to write about some of the walks which we have done and are possible to do when staying at the hotel. We start with the most famous walk in Asturias, and one of the most famous walks in the whole of Spain; the Cares gorge or “Garganta del Cares”

The origin of the path comes from the construction of a hydroelectric scheme, where a canal was built from a small dam in the river Cares at Cain through the mountains to Poncebos where a power station “Puente Poncebos” was built.

The construction of the canal was started in 1916 and lasted 5 years. The path through the gorge was cut a few years after building the canal to enable its maintenance and was reconditioned in 1946, after which it soon became a tourist attraction.

The path follows the river Cares which separates the western and central massifs of the Picos de Europa. It connects two villages; Poncebos at 200 meters altitude on the northern side of the Picos de Europa with Cain at 500 meters altitude on the southern side.The villages are 11 kms apart along the path.

Its possible top start the route from either end of the gorge, but most people staying at the hotel start at Poncebos which is about 40 minutes drive. The first hour of the walk is a climb of about 300 meters and after that it is mostly flat.

As you approach Cain the gorge narrows and the path goes through various tunnels which are carved through the mountain and crosses the river a couple of times.

The scenery along the whole of the walk is stunning and it normally takes just under 6 hours there and back.

As this is a very popular walk it can get very busy from mid July to late August and bare in mind in summer it can get very hot so take plenty of water. However one of the most memorable times we walked the Cares gorge was with all the hotel staff in January a couple of years ago when the snow line had come down to the paths limit.

At the hotel we have notes and maps for guests use for more than 20 self guided walks.


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.