Friday, 29 August 2014

Caiguas grow in Asturias and they taste lovely.

The Caigua plants growing in the hotel vegetable garden
Although we give preference to growing local varieties and local crops we also like to try new varieties and new crops to help increase the range of home grown fruit and vegetables that we provide for our guests. Any new crop or variety  we plant has to be evauated to see how it grows under our specific conditions and to see if the fruit or vegetable has good eating qualities.

Fruits ready for picking
With this in mind we tried growing caiguas this year, from some seed which I brought back from Nepal where it is grown and greatly appreciated. This vegetable has many different names including achojcha, slipper gourd, stuffing cucumber, korilla, olochoto and kichipoktho  but the most common name is caigua which comes from South America where it is grown the most.

Fruits ready for eating raw, juicing or cooking.
From the information I could find I knew it was a vigorous creeping vine which likes a lot of warmth and water and needs between 90 and 100 days before it starts fruiting.

The young growth full of tendrils
The plant is certainly very vigorous but this last week, two months after we planted it in our vegetable patch, it is starting to produce an abundance of fruit. The fruit are lovely to eat raw but also absolutely delicious sautéed tasting something like a cross between a pepper and a cucumber. There are also many recipes from South America for stuffed caiguas which we have yet to try. And apart from tasting good according to all the literature caiguas are a miracle health food helping to regulate cholesterol levels and they even have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. 

The plant has both male and female flowers these are the clusters of male flowers

The female flowers are born singularly or in pairs in the leaf axle
The plant is hardy and disease free and unlike other cucurbits we grow such as cucumbers or courgettes the caigua doesn’t suffer from mildews.  This is where I see the interest in this crop for our vegetable plot; to start producing lots of fruit in late summer when our courgettes are starting to suffer and produce less.

It’s the first year we try the caiguas but we will definitely try them again next year and what is sure caiguas grow in Asturias and the guests love them.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Magnificent in their glory, trees on the farm.

False Acacia trees on the farm in winter
It was a stormy summer’s day and the farm was in her best clothes, magnificent giants guiding the way. I suddenly looked up and saw these beautiful specimens paving the way.
It made me think about the farm, Asturias and how local people have cared for these trees which in return reward them with their ware.

Walnut tree outside the dinig room window
Take the noble walnut tree, not only a delicious fruit in the autumn, but in years past the timber was used for fine furniture. We have the most magnificent tree outside the dining room window. One of the local pastries here is Casadiellas, filled with walnuts and anis.

Walnuts from our farm

Ash trees providing shade for stone stables in the mountain
The Ash trees grow quickly and abundantly, spreading their branches offering shade from the midday sun for the animals and then in the autumn coppiced for extra winter fodder. If you travel in the Pico’s you will see the stone stables surrounded by the ash trees.

Hazelnuts from the farm
Around the hedges are found the Hazel trees with many stems, these in the past were trained to produce fences. The nuts are collected in September, if the boars and badgers don’t get there first... Many a beautiful basket here is made from the hazelnut tree.

Traditional cart made from hazel twigs
As traditions go there is a local Hazelnut fiesta in Infiesto the first weekend of October, then in Arriondas there is the Chestnut fiesta in November.

Catkins on the chesnut trees
We have many chestnut trees on the farm; I was amazed by the beautiful catkins’ on the male trees.
The village people here talk about the famine during the civil war and chestnuts were boiled and eaten as a meal. In some areas, La Molina, you can see the remains of stone like igloos Quires’ made for storing chestnuts in the winter.

Thorns on the Acacia
It is strange to think that nearly all the trees had their uses, even the intrusive Acacia was originally grown for its timber to make the fences around the farm, not one of the friendliest trees with its huge thorns, and if it wasn’t for the animals who trim the young shoots it would take over the farm. I believe this was originally brought in by the people who emigrated to South America and returned to Asturias.

Laurel leaves and flowers
For culinary purposes we have the Laurel tree, the leaves used in many stocks and sauces, the animals will eat a mouthful, and then move on. On Palm Sunday local people take a sprig of laurel to church to be blessed by the priest; this is then given to the godparents, who in return nowadays buy a special cake for the godson or daughter.

Lime tree and fruits
There is a large Lime Tree at one end of the farm, the people here used to collect the flowers to make an infusion; it was supposed to help you relax. We have many cherry trees with sweet and sour cherries, the sour ones called guinda are used here for a liquor, made with anis. A very popular drink in Asturias.

Sweet cherries waiting to be eaten; mmmm!
Blog entry written by Joe

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Growing for Flavour

So we have an excellent group of chefs at the hotel but what do we do in the vegetable garden to maximise the flavour of what we grow and serve?

The varieties we plant
Probably the most important factor which influences in the flavour of the crop we grow is the variety we choose to plant. You must have come a cross a rock hard tomato in a supermarket which tastes like cardboard. This is because originally these varieties of tomato were bred to travel long distances and sit in the supermarket shelves for weeks. When the plant breeders produced these long shelf life varieties they had no consideration of flavour, but after the introduction of these tasteless tomatoes the overall sales of tomatoes actually started to decrease. That’s when plant breeders started to select for flavour and now there is a wide range of modern and heirloom varieties available which taste good.

The very tasty tomato Suncherry Premium grwoing in our greenhouse
At the hotel we plant the tomato variety Suncherry Premium in our greenhouse which I must say has outstanding flavour, not only is it sweet but it has an excellent sugar acid ratio. The fruits are slightly larger than a cherry tomato and the plants are easy to grow. If you’re after flavour I really would recommend giving it a try. Another tomato variety we sometimes grow is Sun Gold its claimed to be the sweetest tomato there is (and probably is) but lacks a little bit of acid and so flavour isn’t quite as good as Suncherry Premium.

Top tasting fruit varieties
Strawberries are another example of a fruit where breeding for shelf life came in detriment to flavour. How many times have you come across giant firm red strawberries which look great but are such a disappointment to eat? Well there is now an excellent variety called Albion available especially recommended for organic growers it’s easy to grow and tastes sublime. We managed to get hold of some plants a few years ago and since then we have replaced all our strawberry beds with this tastier variety and boy do you notice the difference.

We are also trialing some new blackberry varieties and again flavour is one of the major attributes we are looking for.

The flavour of leafy crops and root crops are also greatly influenced by the variety you grow. Little gem and Batavia lettuce are the best flavoured lettuce, Mona Lisa is an excellent tasting potato, the list of tasty varieties goes on…

The superb flavoursome potato we grow; Mona Lisa

If you’re interested in flavour before buying your seeds or plants try and find out a bit about the eating qualities of the different varieties, internet is an amazing source of information.

The length of time and conditions between harvest and cooking
However good a fruit or vegetable tastes when freshly picked from the plant once picked, its flavour will start to decrease. This is because once picked the sugars the fruit contains will slowly start to turn to tasteless starch and many of the other flavour components will start to break down into simpler less flavourful molecules.

Freshly picked vegetables to be prepared staright away.

Here at the hotel we normally harvest in the early afternoon and the cooks start preparing the food a couple of hours later. So our fresh organic food as well being healthy for you tastes incredible good.

The amount of sunlight they receive whilst growing
The more sunlight a plant receives the more sugars it can make and potentially have more flavour. There is not much we can do about the amount of sun we get but in general for flavourful food its best to have your vegetable garden in full sun and avoid shady areas.

Our vegetable garden in full sun 

The amount of water and type of fertiliser the plants receive whist growing
The amount of water and the availability of certain salts (or more correctly cations such as sodium, potassium and magnesium) influence on flavour. Plants grown with an excess of water tend to have larger more watery fruits with less flavour where as plants grown with more “salts” tend to have smaller fruits, lower yields but more flavour. When I worked with tomatoes many years ago in the south of Spain there was a time when Marks and Spencers actually asked the growers to irrigate their crops with a mixture of sea water to help increase the flavour of the fruit

Strawberries cope well with dry conditions and it makes them taste even better

Care needs to be taken as you can easily kill or weaken a crop if you use too little water or too much fertiliser, particularly if you have a clayey soil. But a practical tip for increased flavour is mulch with leaf mould as it is high in potassium and has none of the detrimental effect an inorganic potassium fertiliser might have. So start saving all you leaf falls this autumn.

Finally careful control on watering can improve flavour; don’t over water but at the same time make sure you water enough to maintain a healthy plant as a weak unhealthy plant will never taste as good as a healthy plant.

So as you can see the chefs play a huge role in the preparing the flavour of the food, but so does the gardener!

Our salad buffet; grown and cooked for flavour!

Happy eating.


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.