Thursday, 30 July 2009

A family hotel

All the family working in the hotel
For the first time we have all four members of the family working together at the hotel. Our daughter Samantha is working for the whole season and our son Sebastian started working mid July working for a six week period before he goes to England as a volunteer at the Schumacher College. Sebastian has been helping a lot with the hotel web page, translating certain documents we produce, serving in the restaurant at peak times and helping on the farm. So it really is a “family hotel” at the moment.

Our small diverse organic vegetable garden.

Over the last months we have been producing a lot of new information sheets in a series which we have entitled “How and Why”. These are documents covering different topics, mostly related to the farm, with the emphasis on sustainable, mixed organic farming techniques. They are intended for people who want more detailed information on these topics, and who may have an interest in starting or running a small-holding, allotment, or growing vegetables in their back garden. Some of these documents have been the base of previous blog entries but there are two information sheets covering new topics; one on biodiversity and one on organic farming versus industrial farming. These are two topics we fill very passionate about.

Biodivesity on the farm

On the farm there is always a lot to do and last week we made our traditional hay stack or “palancar”, and with that we finished all the work with the hay for this season. More information on how we make this traditional hay stack.

This years traditional hay stack.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Nutrient Cycle

Cleaning the sheep stable once a year

When we harvest vegetables or fruit, either for ourselves or for our guests, we are removing nutrients from the vegetable garden. So how do we replace those nutrients and keep the garden fertile and healthy, so it can go on producing lots of delicious food for everybody? The answer is, as always, lots of hard work!

Traditionally, there was always a cyclical flow of nutrients within each farm. But when farming became industrial agriculture, the nutrient cycle became a linear system of nutrient flow. Artificial fertilisers were brought in bulk onto the farm, agricultural products were taken in bulk off the farm, and somewhere in the middle of this high-input high-output production system, what was once a prized commodity became a polluting waste. We’re talking manure, and lots of it.

Two piles of sheep manure; this years on the left, and last years(more rotted) on the right.

On our farm, we have ditched artificial fertilisers and gone back to a cyclical flow of nutrients. Which means that someone has to get very dirty once a year and spend a week mucking out the stable. In local parlance this muck is called “cucho”, and a year or so later, after it’s sat in a pile outside the stable being acted upon by natural processes, it’s known as “cutrina”. Cucho is a nutrient-rich but rough mixture of hay, straw and sheep-droppings, which is too strong to use on plants; whereas cutrina is a nutrient-rich and ready-to-use mountain of lovely goodness. We hoe it lightly into the soil of the vegetable garden, or lay it on the surface as a mulch and let the living things in the soil do the hard work for us (earthworms mainly, who drag organic matter from the soil surface down into the soil, making it more readily available to the roots of plants). The fruit and vegetable plants think it’s all their birthdays and Christmases rolled into one. So a big thank-you to our sheep, who not only keep the grass short in the orchards and provide lamb for the hotel restaurant, but keep us well-supplied with nutrients for the vegetable garden too.

Kitchen waste ready for composting

Then there’s the compost, which is another way of converting “waste” into a valuable input. Our compost has many ingredients – kitchen scraps, grass cuttings, prunings, muckings-out from the chicken shed, weeds, old hay and straw, nettles, to name a few. And once it’s all composted down we get another rich source of nutrients to go onto the vegetable garden. For more information on our composting techniques please see the blog entry from 8th May 2009.

A Cape Gooseberry plant well mulched with compost.

But doesn’t all this mean a net inflow of nutrients to the vegetable garden? Aren’t we simply taking nutrients from the meadows and pastures, and, by means of the sheep, transferring those nutrients to the vegetables and fruit? This is not a cycle, but a linear flow! Well, what we are aiming for are nutrient-poor meadows and pastures (because less nutrients in those areas makes for greater biodiversity – please see the blog entry of 7th August 2008), coupled with a lot of nutrients in the vegetable garden, as that is the most productive area of the farm. Also, we must view the farm and hotel as a single system, in which case we can see that most nutrients are indeed cycled within the system. For example, weeds are taken from the vegetable garden and composted, and that compost is put back onto the vegetable garden. As another example, vegetables are taken from the garden down to the hotel kitchen, from where the peelings and scraps are returned to the garden via the compost heaps.

Sheep grazing in the "Cuevona" meadow

A linear flow, unlike a cycle, must have both input and output. The only input of nutrients into this system is the food that we can’t grow ourselves (we grow about one third of all food eaten in the hotel), and the only output is what gets flushed down the toilet. If anyone has any safe sane suggestions of how not to lose that from the nutrient cycle, let us know!

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The food we serve

Catalan tartlet a vegetarian dish with tomatoes, courgettes, onions, capers, raisons and egg.

Last year, we conducted a study of the food that we serve in the hotel, as eaten by our guests for breakfast and evening meal. We wanted to know, in percentages by weight, how much of the food is produced by ourselves, and where the rest of it comes from. It was very pleasing to find that about 30% of the food is produced on the hotel farm. Over 15% of the rest is bought directly from certified-organic local small producers. We bake all our own bread, cakes and desserts from basic ingredients, representing another 20% of the food consumed. We buy about 30% overall from a specialist organic distributor. It’s also worth mentioning that over 98% of all the products used in the hotel restaurant are certified organic.

Freshly baked bread
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

Mangetoute peas in the vegetable garden waiting to be picked.

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.

Sweet peppers harvested in late summer

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.

Preparing a "salpicon" salad in the kitchen

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.

Fresh soft fruit dessert

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.

Picking raspberries in the afternoon ready for the evenings desserts

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 has been saved in the village for 40 years now!).

The farm with the Asturian xalda sheep grazing in the orchard planted with Asturian cider apples

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.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

A day out in Pre-Romanesque Asturias

As a Spanish national born in the province of Palencia (Castilla), I grew up with the backdrop of the south face of the Picos Mountains but I lived in the UK for a number of years until recently returning to settle in Asturias. Spain is a beautiful country and as a Castilian I could be biased and invite you to visit the region I come from but instead I will invite, and guide you on a short journey which hopefully will introduce you or add to your awareness of Asturian pre-romanesque art. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this form of art, it is also known as “the art of the Asturian monarchy” which is unique to Asturias and was created when the region first became a kingdom while Spain was under the influence of the Muslim world. It spans the period between the VIIIth to the XIth centuries A.C. The style can be divided into three different periods coinciding with the reign of three different kings. Several examples are found around Oviedo, the capital of the region.

San Miguel de Lillo - Monte Naranco Oviedo

I will provide you with a very short and somehow simplistic history lesson. The Picos Mountains have always provided this region with both a protective and isolating barrier that has enabled Asturias to develop its own character and culture since pre-historic times. When the rest of the country was under the political and military influence of the Muslim world (Cordoba in the south was the capital of the Muslim empire), the Muslim hold on Asturias was less consolidated than in the rest of the country and in time, a group of noblemen started to fight back in a effort to re-conquer the region thus giving rise to the Asturian Monarchy and the beginnings of what today represents Spain. During that period the Asturian Monarchy developed a unique form of art and architecture that incorporated artistic influences from previous cultures such as Byzantium, the Visigoth, the Carolingian and the “Mozárabe” (Spain’s Muslims who converted to Christianity) and thus pre-romanesque art ensued characterised by tall buildings, built using pioneering engineering techniques. This new art style was applied to all forms of art including civil and religious architecture; in time, its influence spread across Europe. Personally, I enjoy this form of architecture and art with its tendency for heights and balance, basically I think it is an exquisite form of architecture and the location of the buildings is often magical.

San Salvador de Valdedios Villaviciosa

There are numerous sites that you can visit, several are within easy access from Hotel Posada del Valle and can easily be done in a day. I personally invite you to do all or part of the itinerary that I describe with what I consider to be the main highlights. If you aim to visit all the sites, I would advice you to check with the tourist office for opening times and have an early start.

El Conventín -Villaviciosa

Starting at Posada del Valle, drive to Oviedo city on the motorway and as you approach the city on the right is our first stop, “San Julian de los Prados” where you will be able to appreciate its architecture and the best examples of pre-romanesque Frecos. Our next Visit will take us up to the Naranco mountain on the outskirts of Oviedo with magnificent views of the city where you can visit some of the most famous pre-romanesque sites: Nuestra Señora del Naranco and few metres away, San Miguel de Lillo, two exquisite buildings with many surprises. By now it should be around lunch time and if you drive back to Oviedo city you can have lunch in the old quarter called “El Fontan” where you can see one of the only civil engineering examples of pre-romanesque arquitecture, a pretty fountain. While in Oviedo, if you make your way to the cathedral, you can visit the “Holy chamber” (Camara Santa) where you will be able to see a pre-romanesque canon barrel vault supported by columns carved in the shape of the 12 apostles, these sculptures are the highest quality stone carvings within this form of art, I never tire of visiting them. Within the Holy Chamber are some exquisite examples of pre-romanesque metal work, the most famous is the “Victory Cross” given to Don Pelayo (the founder king of the Asturian monarchy – the cross now features in the Asturian flag) and the box of agates that incorporates a much earlier and priceless Carolingian broach. You may also decide to have a quick walk through the cathedral museum to enjoy some of its pre-romanesque sculptures, triptics and metal work amongst its many treasures.

San Pedro - Villanueva de Cangas

On the way back to Posada del Valle, you can detour near the beautiful town of Villaviciosa to visit San Salvador de Valdediós and the Conventín, next to each other and nestled within a luscious green and cool valley- sunset is very peaceful here.
A last visit near home is the Church of San Pedro in the village of Villanueva de Cangas, outside Cangas de Onis with delightful stone carvings in the archway and the eaves around the outside. There are many other sites worthwhile visiting around the region but in my opinion, little surpasses a day spent amongst such works of art.

San Pedro - Villanueva de Cangas

Entry by Luis Laso Casas

More information about Luis and his artisan work; mosaic and furniture restoration (in Spanish)


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.