Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Shifting Down

Outside it´s trying its best to rain. I think the sky has forgotten how.
We have not seen real rain here for weeks. We water the vegetables, we water the flowers, we water the fruit trees, each in its turn, after the chickens and dogs and cats get theirs.
One of the black hens died.
Tim´s foot is much improved, but he is still lazy as hell.
The fields are baked brown, the weeds are crunchy alongside the roads. The farmers spread manure this time of year, a job that lays stink over the town like fetid towel. Their plows turn the dung over into the soil. Their tractors carry great rooster-tails of dust behind them, and when they disappear behind a knoll it looks like something´s on fire out there.
The tall trees are turning yellow and flinging leaves down on the breeze.
There´s a breeze. It is cool in the evening, chilly in the morning. Evenings come earlier now, dawn comes later, and night is inky black. The Milky Way spans the sky from horizon to horizon, and galaxies invisible on moonlit nights suddenly shimmer into sight.   
The church is back to being closed all day, even though the pilgrim numbers have not dropped much – they keep coming through in great waves. Some evenings they fill up Bruno´s albergue, and the scent of pasta Carbonara floats down Calle Ontanon. It´s a vast improvement on manure!
The swallows will go soon, if they aren´t already gone. They slip away so quietly.
The windows are still open, the blinds are down to keep out the flies. Sounds roll up from the town and bounce off the front of our house. We hear the radio over at Pilar´s garden, tuned to old men arguing politics. The voices keep the birds out of the fruit trees and grape vines. The vines are loaded, grapes glisten from the stems down along the ground – that´s how the table-grapes are grown here, low down where the leaves shade the soil and hold the moisture. We don´t have a vineyard. Everyone else in town does.
This afternoon, Fran came to the door with a shopping-bag full of table grapes – the second in two week´s time.
This evening, Milagros came to the door with a cardboard box full of table grapes and green figs.
And so we will make Ajo Blanco, one of the great delights of Arab-Andalusian cuisine. It is weird, delicious, mouthwatering food, utterly seasonal. You eat it cold, for Indian Summer. With fresh-cut table grapes like these, it is fit for a king. But try it in January, with hot-house fruit, and it´s almost inedible. Ajo Blanco is not local food. I made some last week, and shared it with Paco and Julia. They had never tasted it. I am not sure they liked it, but Fran did.

You should try it. Here is the recipe I use.

AJO BLANCO de ALMENDRAS (“White Gazpacho”)
Serves 6

1/3 cup blanched almonds
1/3 cup pine nuts (just almonds works fine when piñones are too costly)
2 cloves peeled garlic
1 teaspoon salt
4 handfuls seedless green grapes OR
4 one-inch cubes honeydew melon (I am allergic, but it sure looks good!)
3 slices good quality bread, de-crusted
6 Tablespoons good olive oil
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 cups ice water
Another handful of grapes OR melon balls, for garnish

Grind together the almonds, pine nuts, garlic and salt to a powder. Add and puree grapes or melon. Soak bread in water, squeeze it out, add the goo to the processor piece by piece. Slowly drizzle in the oil and vinegars. Gradually add water. Adjust flavors of salt/vinegar.

Chill well. Taste again before putting into individual bowls or cups and garnishing with grapes or melon. Serve cold.

Forgive me if I wrote up this recipe on the blog in the past. I have given it to many friends, and I cannot always keep track of where and to whom I sent it.
Pilgrims love this stuff, this and gazpacho and vichysoisse (leek soup). Patrick and I make them by the ton, especially when the garden is in full swing. We used to burn through it all fast, but now we do not have pilgrims to feed. Just the occasional guitarist, or Couch Surfer, or someone who stayed here before. (Occasionally the chickens end up eating the leftovers. They love soup, but I hate feeling like I am wasting good food.)

We are shifting roles. I no longer call myself a hospitalera, and I am stepping away from teaching others how to become volunteer hosts. Strangers will always be welcome here, but people who can afford it ought to patronize Bruno or Martina´s businesses – I sometimes feel I am taking food from their mouths when I have a full house and they have nobody.

I miss the hippies, though. And the missionaries. The nuns and the scruffy old tramps, the fresh-faced schoolboys and the lost souls.
But I know that winter is coming, and Bruno and Martina will close up and go back to Germany and Italy for a couple of months. We will once again be the Only Place in Town.
And then we´ll get our pilgs. The hard-core Winter walkers, the True Believers, the cold and frozen lunatics from off the path.

Heavens! I never thought I would look forward to winter!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Devil Seed

miles and miles of espigas

Nature is cruel. Beautiful as the world might be, it is fraught with bad design. Factor in "the Law of Unintended Outcomes," and your best dog ends up with Devil Seeds lodged in his joints.

Yes, Tim had his right rear paw opened up yesterday at the university veterinary hospital in Leon. (they soon will name a building after us, we´ve endowed them so generously.) He is now at home, recovering slowly and grumpily (crankily? crabbily?) (enough parentheticals already!)

His journey began back in July, after the oats and rye were cut.
When oats and rye are cut, the seed-heads fly, along with several tons of dust, up into the sky and back to earth, where the wind drifts them along the fields and roads like dry, golden snowflakes.

These grains being seeds, they do what they can to travel far, so they can populate new fields and make more rye and oats. They are engineered for hitch-hiking, their husks studded with needle-sharp tips and pointy, backward-facing barbs. They are tiny fish-hooks. They are Devil Seeds. They get into the laces of your boots and they itch like crazy til you pick them out, one by one, from where they´ve worked themselves into the fiber of your shoe-collar or sock or pants-cuff.

Rye espiga, up close. Yow.

Unless you are a dog. In which case, the Devil Seeds will lodge in the spaces between your toes and foot-pads. And if you are a Brittany dog like Tim, your toes and pant-legs have decorative tufts growing on them, beautiful sweeping soft fur that rye seeds find irresistible. Every year we pull espigas from our dogs´ ears and from between their toes. When Bella showed up in July, we thought she was blind in one eye. She would have been soon, but just in time the veterinarian pulled two devil seeds out of her cornea.

Tim, being a fastidious and dignified dog, fusses over his tufts as a matter of course. We did the usual espiga-checks, but didn´t worry too much about him til his toes swelled up. We clipped the tufts, put some Betadine on the swellings, and eventually took him to the vet when things did not improve.

Three times we took him, and each time was more horrific. The vet made an opening between Tim´s toes and went in after the espiga with a medieval-looking tool. He took out some bits. He made Tim scream. He worked with no anesthesia, and we were expected to hold down the dog while he worked.

Tim was not the only creature in need of anesthesia. 

I interrupt this blog for a moment of Divine Providence: Last week some Dutch pilgrims discovered the peanut butter stash and wiped out our last scrap. I asked Santi to send some more, so I won´t have to go back to America while an election is on. And just now, an hospitalero from California on his way to serve two weeks at Foncebadon stopped here for a coffee. He brought along what? Jif Extra Crunchy. He gave me an entire jar. There is a God, and He brings His beloved peanut butter.

Back to dog feet. Despite the vet´s enthusiastic work, the rogue espiga traveled around Tim´s foot-bones and ulcerated itself behind his ankle. His leg swelled up like a balloon. Poor Tim still did not limp, but his energy level dipped. He took to lying beneath the apple tree out back, where everyone but Momo left him in peace. The infection was confined to his foot, but he was clearly unwell.

The veterinarian went on holiday. The university veterinary hospital in Leon went on holiday. There was nothing to do but feed the dog more antibiotics, and wait. So I went on holiday too -- to my annual five-day sand-and-surf break in the Portuguese Algarve. (That´s when the marauders got the peanut butter.)

When all of us got home, Tim was taken off to Leon for contrast X-rays. The espiga showed up right away, just above the open wound behind his ankle -- it was heading north. The doctor took it out, bound shut the incision, jacked him full of pain-killers and sent him home. Today Tim takes his ease in his bed. He snores. We are confident this is the end of his espiga odyssey. Please, God.

Tim in his favorite place in the world

It makes me wonder, though, about design. These seeds are so good at boring into live creatures, evidently an ability developed over millions of years of survival. How does that serve the plant? It´s not like it can sprout inside a dog´s ham, or between its toes, or in the tops of my socks. (althought it is kinda fun to envision Tim with tall stalks of rye growing from his folds, I do not think he would enjoy  that so much.) Does an espiga in a field of dirt bore into the soil the same way it bores into muscle and skin?

And just why do Brittany dogs, bred for hunting and running in fields, have toes and ears so susceptible to this ever-present threat? Whose idea were those fancy toe-tufts and curly fringes?  Our other dogs, with their short coats and bare toes, only rarely pick up Devil Seeds, and they are easily seen and dealt-with. 

I would continue to conjecture, but that might be boring. And it is time for lunch. Paddy made vichysoisse. It will go perfectly with peanut butter crackers.