Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Summer vegetable harvest and diversity

Different aubergine varieties in the vegetable garden.

Late summer is always a good time of the year for home grown vegetables and here at Posada del Valle this year is no exception. This is the time of year when there is the greatest variety of produce to be harvested and we are certainly harvesting a lot of lovely different vegetables for the hotel restaurant.

There are the root vegetables; carrots, beetroot, parsnip and potatoes, the leafy vegetable; lettuce, cabbage and spinach beet. Then there are the onions, leeks and beans and finally the warm weather vegetables; cucumbers, aubergine courgettes, peppers and pumpkins. But it’s not only the range of different vegetables which add interest and diversity to the vegetable garden it’s also the different types and varieties of the particular vegetable which are available. The peppers, aubergines and pumpkins we grow are an excellent example of the type of diversity which can be found with in any one crop.



Leeks with a beetroot dressing!
This year on the farm we are growing four different types of peppers, three of which are particular to the north of Spain. The first to come in to harvest is the “Pimiento de Padron” which gets its name from the Padron region in Galicia. It’s a small pepper which is normally just fried and eaten whole, very often as a tasty tapa (a small snack). Normally this pepper is not hot, but just occasionally you can get a very spicy one which can blow your mind, so it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette when eating them! Another pepper we are already cropping is the Basque or “Gernika” pepper. Although it looks like a fearsome chilli pepper, if it is eaten young and green it has a lovely flavour and is not hot at all. If you allow it to ripen and use it when red then it can have a kick to it.

The Basque or Gernika chilli pepper

The third variety we grow from the north of Spain is called “la Isla” and originates from Cantabria. It’s very similar to the standard blocky California type which I assume it has been selected from in the past. The fourth pepper we grow originates from the Landes region in south west France; it’s fairly long and tapering in form with a thinish wall. It grows well in our area and we have been growing it for many years now. We save all our own seed from these pepper varieties and have been doing so for some time.

"La Isla" blocky peppers.

We started harvesting our aubergines about two weeks ago and this year we are trying three different varieties. One is the standard “commercial” hybrid variety “Bonica” (meaning pretty) and the other two are non hybrids. At this moment the two non hybrids look very promising, they are producing beautiful fruits, but slightly different to what you normally see in the shops. One is Rosa Bianca (of Italian origin I assume) which is producing round pinkie white fruits on a short sturdy plant and the other Tres Hative de Barbentane (presumably of French origin) producing long thin dark fruits on rather a tall plant. If the two non hybrid varieties are successful under our conditions then we will be able to save seed from them.

Standard commercial hybrid "Bonica" aubergine

Longer slender fruits of "Tres Hative de Barbentane"

Pinkey fruits of Rosa Bianca

Another crop where we are trying different varieties is pumpkins. We grow both the Potamaron and the Butternut squash varieties as standards, as they keep well and can be used in winter and early spring. We’ve grown these two types for many years now as they normally perform very well.

Potamaron pumpkin, one of our standards

Butternut squash; the other standard.

We are also growing vegetable spaghetti or “Cabello de Angel” as it is known in Spain for a second year. In Spain the pulp from this pumpkin is preserved like a very sweet jam (which sticks to your teeth) and then used in sweet pastries and cakes! We will most probably serve it as a vegetable like a marrow, though we may do a few experiments preserving it.

Vegetable spaghetti or “Cabello de Angel”

We are trying a new type this year, the Vasca-Mallorca type, (variety Marina.) It appears to be the highest yielding of the different varieties we are growing producing lots of large dark green fruit 60 cms long with a brilliant orange flesh. The first fruits should be ready to pick in a couple of weeks and as they are meant to be very tasty so I cant wait to harvest one to see if it lives up to expectation. If they don’t taste good there will be lots of them to feed to the goat

The big Vasca-Mallorca pumpkin

One of the many problems with large industrial monocropping is that the number of varieties being grown of any crop is being reduced drastically. However with small diverse cropping systems it is possible and beneficial to grow lots of different varieties, many of which are no longer of interest to the commercial growers but very often are culinary delights. Growing different varieties helps maintain agriculture diversity which is so threatened today and incorporates resilience into the cropping system. The popularity of trying heirloom varieties with amateur gardeners these days is an encouraging sign of the renewed interest in tradition and diversity and may also reflect a rejection to the excess of uniformity industrialised cropping brings.

Harvesting fruit and vegetables ready for the evening meal, enjoy diversity!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Inspiring Asturian Dream; Posada del Valle

Every so often it boosts our confidence here at Posada del Valle to come across an unexpected independent review. So it was very rewarding to come across a review by some of our recent guests: Ben and Marina Curtis and their young son Leo. Part of our aspirations for the hotel is to help spread the word about our aims and seems it is working.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


The "Eulegy of the Horizon" in Gijon

When I first set my English eyes on Gijón I thought “Wow, what an ugly city!”. The buildings are tall, the streets are narrow, and the one-way system is a nightmare. But cities are never best seen from their ring-roads or their bus-stations, and having not just scratched beneath the surface but actually lived there on and off for three years, I can now truthfully say “Gijón – it’s been a pleasure to know you”.
Plaza San Lorenzo Gijon
Gijón is a city with soul. It knows what it is and has no pretensions. It is the largest city in the Principality of Asturias, with 275,000 inhabitants, making it slightly more populated than Oviedo. In reality, Gijón is classified as a town, and Oviedo a city, a slightly skewiff way of looking at things. People from Oviedo look down their noses at Gijón, but I know where I’d rather live any day. The rivalry between the two is light-hearted and often comical, but can get more heated when it comes to Spain’s major obsession – football. Sporting de Gijón are currently just about holding their own in the top flight of Spanish football, which means that the big teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid visit Gijón once a year – whereas Real Oviedo are languishing in the depths of some lowly division, playing teams from the surrounding fishing villages.
Sporting fans pouring cider

One of the city’s main attractions is the beach of San Lorenzo, a long stretch of golden sand backed all the way by the high-rise concrete blocks of La Arena neighbourhood – “The Sand”. In winter the beach is smothered by shadows from these buildings, and in summer it is smothered by tourists. Many tourists come for the summer from the inland mining valleys, and others from the stifling plains of León, happily paying the tripled or quadrupled rents just for a glimpse of the cool sea. The city wraps itself around the beach, from the leafy suburbs of Somió in the east, past the sunspot of El Tostadero (“the toaster”), over the Piles bridge, all along the promenade of El Muro (“the wall”), past the big steps with their clock, past the old centre of Cimadevilla, San Pedro church, and up to the green ex-army-firing-range headland of Santa Catalina, now crowned with the city’s motif – a huge concrete sculpture by Chileda entitled “The Eulogy of the Horizon”. Stand inside the sculpture and the sounds of the sea and the waves crashing beneath are amplified.

Playa San Lorenzo full of sunbathers

San Pedro church was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, and rebuilt in the 1940s. Photographs of the period show tanks and bomb craters on the streets, and soldiers on the promenade. Hidden beneath the plaza at the front of the church are the subterranean remains of Roman thermal baths. A wall crossed the isthmus at this point, making the headland easier to defend. Now there is the city’s main square, where the Three Kings shower gifts in January, locals congregate to eat fish and drink cider at weekends, and the ecological and artesan market is held monthly. Beyond the main square is another square where King Pelayo raises his crucifix towards the setting sun, with the yacht marina at his feet, where a sardine is buried every Easter. The area north of here is the old fishing village of Cimadevilla, with its narrow cobbled streets and solid stone houses, now known more for its nightlife, especially in the square below the old cigarette factory, where cider is poured from great heights mostly onto the cobbles. There is a bar here, if you can find it, with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Leonard Cohen, and you can’t get more stylish than that.
Pelayo statue (for rent!)

Near King Pelayo is the Revillagigedo Palace, now a contemporary art museum. Also nearby is the Barjola art museum, part of which is an old chapel, memorable mainly for the three-storey-high fig tree growing from reception. Along the dock-front of the yachting marina is the old fish market (Antigua Rula) which also houses exhibitions. Whales were once hauled out of the ocean here to be cut up on the dock-side, using the stone ramp that rises from the water. The priest of a chapel just up the hill took his tithe from the whale-meat. Fragments of tram-lines are still visible in the pavement. Following the coast westwards we come to Poniente beach, a man-made beach on the site of old dock works, and a good spot for sunset watching. The railway museum and aquarium are also here.
Beach beyond Parque Providencia

Continuing west we enter the neighbourhood of La Calzada (“the road”), where the dock workers lived. La Calzada once had a reputation as the rough end of town, on the wrong side of the train-tracks. Pitched gun-battles have been fought on these streets between striking dock-workers and police. Now the ship-building industry here has all but died, and even the controversially expanding port of El Musel is suffering cutbacks. Beyond the up-and-coming La Calzada is the city’s third beach, Arbeyal, also man-made, wedged between ship-building cranes and gas-towers to lend it that gritty edge. Arbeyal beach is where Semana Negra (“black week” – the annual festival of crime literature) 2010 is being held, with its fairground rides, beer tents, live music, fast food, and a few bookish things on the periphery. I prefer watching the old people from the nursing home playing petanca (boules) in special pits just behind the beach. Look up from here and you will see big blue balls on the near horizon – to the right of these gas-holders is the headland of Campa Torres, with its mix of Roman and pre-Roman remains, settlements of the first Gijónese.

Semana Negra

The cultural highlight of the year is the Gijón festival of independent cinema, which invades the city for ten days every November. Six screens or more are simultaneously full, four times a day, with cinemarati feasting on offerings from around the world – forget Hollywood and Bollywood, this is the real stuff! Last year I saw an Armenian film about life on a farm from the point of view of a water-buffalo – fantastic!! The festival is a good way of getting to ask directors and actors about their work.

Young Campesina

Beyond the squares, museums, shops, streets, theatres, and pavement cafes of the city, are more attractions still. Out past the football stadium of El Molinón (“the big mill”) and the folk museum (renowned for its collections of buildings and bagpipes) is the Rastro, a sprawling weekly market held on Sunday mornings, where just about everything can be purchased (including all the useful things that the people of Gijón have thrown out over the week, handily recycled and providing a livelihood at the same time). Further out are the botanical gardens, and nearby, the “City of Culture”. Dictator Franco built an enormous boarding school on the edge of the city, known as El Laboral, chockablock with fascist symbolism and architecture, and this fascinating sprawling labyrinth is re-inventing itself as the “City of Culture”. Stone eagles glare powerfully across the large square once used by inmates for PE, to the domed church, above which looms the clock-tower, which affords views of all Gijón and the surrounding green hills. The complex now houses sports fields, an outdoor ice-skating rink in the winter, a theatre, workshops, art exhibitions, a café complete with mural of Asturian folk life, musical events, an hangar of industrial art, a theatre academy, a school of music, and there are plans for artists studios and low-cost apartments for young people.

Laboral Tower

I haven’t mentioned the café by the duck-pond in the park, or the museums of Nicanor Piñole or Evaristo Valle or Jovellanos, or the neighbourhood cultural centres, or the university, or my favourite sculpture “Mother of the Emigrant”, or the cocktail festival, or the walk along the coast for 10km, etc..etc..etc…
Mother of the Emigrant

Thank you, Gijón and your inhabitants!

Entrance written by Hugh Taylor who worked on the hotel farm for 3 years from August 2007 till July 2010

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Soft Fruit

Since 2004 we have been using organic food in the hotel sourcing quality local and organic products when ever possible. One of the problems we had experienced was sourcing good organic soft fruit. So when in 2007 we started looking at growing and producing as much food as possible on the farm for the hotel restaurant, growing our own soft fruit seemed an obvious choice.

In the autumn of 2007 we planted several different types of soft fruit including; raspberries, blackberries strawberries, tayberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and blueberries. When available we planted several different varieties of each of the different fruits with the idea of seeing which ones were best adapted to our conditions. Two and half years later we are now enjoying the fruits of our work and have gained a lot of experience about growing soft fruit.

We decided to dedicate the largest area of the soft fruit beds to growing raspberries; planting 5 different varieties with different harvesting times. Its the third year we are cropping raspberries and now all the varieties are in full production.
The raspberry beds in their first season (2 years ago)
The raspberry beds a couple of weeks ago
This year we started picking the raspberries in mid June and should keep on harvesting them till late September. On average we pick about 1 kg of fruit every other day. Over a 3 month period that adds up to a lot of fruit and a lot of raspberry desserts in the restaurant. We use about two thirds of what we pick fresh and freeze the remaining third for the times of the year when we don’t have fresh raspberries available. The raspberries have been very successful and the abundance of them has inspired many new recipes such as raspberry gazpacho!
Hazelnut meringue biscuit served with raspberries and kirsch cream, one of the many desserts made with our raspberries.
We originally planted 3 strawberry beds with the idea of having them as a permanent perenial bed. We had very good production the first year but noted the production was dropping in the 2nd year. So we decided to plant a new strawberry bed every year and only keep the beds for 2 years, pulling the old plants out at the end of the second year. This means we now have to incorporate strawberries in to our crop rotation cycle, but are getting a better continual crop of strawberries as a consequence.
Strawberry fruit waiting to be picked.

The blackcurrants have also been very successful, producing a good crop in early July. We started of with only one variety but have since planted 2 more different varieties to extend the season. We freeze most of the blackcurrants and then use them in desserts as needed.
Healthy blackcurrant bushes.

Blackberries, Tayberries and Boysenberries
We planted two different thorn less blackberries; an early and mid season variety. The mid season variety “Chester” is particularly good showing drought tolerance and producing large lovely tasty fruit. (It also happens to be the most planted blackberry variety in the world!) The early variety Loch Tay is quite good, but the fruit can be a little sharp. Both varieties have a good upright habit making them easy to train.

Mid season blackberries

The hybrid berries have been less successful. The tayberry is very early, fairly good eating but has a rather weak plant which never seems to be able to cope with the amount of fruit it produces and the fruit and plant can end up looking rather poorly. This is the first year we cropped the boysenberry (which is also supposed to be draught tolerant,) but on our farm it produced a rather small inferior fruit. Both the tayberry and boysenberry have straggly plant habits which are more difficult to train. I will keep them both for another year or two to see how they perform with time and then decide whether or not to grub them.


Gooseberries and Blueberries.
The gooseberry bushes are now three years old, but we still haven’t eaten a single gooseberry! On our farm the bushes suffer from a continual attack of saw fly. This wasp like fly lays its eggs on the leaves and then hundreds of small caterpillar hatch out and proceed to leave the bushes leafless. I refuse to spray the bushes so I think we will dig the gooseberry bushes out at the end of this year having decided 3 years is long enough to say they are not suitable for our site.
A leafless gooseberry bush!
Blueberries is the other disappointment, though it’s come as no surprise to me. They require an acid soil which we don’t have. However Joe loves blueberries and wanted me to try them on the farm. The bushes always look sick and chlorotic and practically produce no fruit. So those will be a few more bushes which we will be soon removing.

A rather poor blueberry bush (on the right) with lettuce and peppers planted in the same bed.

At present Joe goes to a pick-your-own farm about 30 kms from the hotel for the blueberries, where she picks all the blueberries we need for the restaurant. We will carry on doing this for the near future as the blueberries are not adapted to our site and Joe loves using them in the restaurant.

Site Specific

What I think is important to realise is that with small diverse systems a lot of the success and techniques are site specific. So for us (and other people setting up small diverse holdings) it is important to learn from traditional practises in the surrounding area but at the same time be open to new crops, varieties and practices. We believe it’s important to conduct trials and experiment so as to find what best suits your own conditions in your own location and be aware this can vary from year to year. With respect to varieties and variety trails, however good a single variety might seem at a particular moment we mustn’t be tempted to put all our eggs in one basket but always grow a few different varieties. This helps towards building a more resilient system and you never know when that will pay dividends!

The hotel vegetable garden with the soft fruit beds to the left and the mountains in the background, a rather lovely site!


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.