My farm is only 7 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, which climatically frees us from the extremes of temperatures that can exist inland, and gives us lovely sea breezes every afternoon. But for the land, the sea has left some unwelcome traces. At several times in the past, what is now my farm was seabed. Before the containing wall was built to stop corroding of the 6 metre high bank on the west boundary of the farm, one could see two distinct deposits of sea shells. These were separated by layers of alluvial silt.
So the soil is a heavy fine clay that becomes easily compacted and has areas with a high concentration of salt.
The salt is more of a problem than the clay. With the addition of lots of organic matter and some serious deep digging, the clay soil can be improved. There is always a problem with drainage and you learn fast not to try to do any work at all after a good amount of rain. I have been so stuck in the wet soil that it took two male friends and a rope to pull me out!
With a good amount of the irrigation water used here coming out of deep wells, this water generally contains some salt, add that to soil with salt residues and it limits the plants that you can cultivate. The technical experts in this area can tell at a glance the concentration of salt in the land by the wild plants that grow on it. When we bought the farm, our first plan was to plant vines and make wine, and with that in mind we built a beautiful wine cellar, but on analysing the soil and finding the levels of salts too high for vines we realised that this was a dream that would not become reality.
For growing vegetables one can pamper some small areas of the land, but for a big crop you have to go with what the land can support. Citrus will tolerate a small amount of salt in the land and the irrigation water, and olives will tolerate a slightly higher concentration. So we decided that for our main crop we would go with citrus, but as the farm is not so big at 7,000 square metres decided to plant limes which are not traditionally grown here. The price that small farmers in this region get for lemons and oranges is very low, so limes are a more profitable option.
Today though, I want to talk about the pampering that you need to do to successfully grow organic vegetables in this harsh soil and climate.
The first, second and third things that you need to do are dig, dig and dig. Then you add lots of well rotted manure, ash from any bonfires and well rotted compost, and then you dig some more. Investing in a small rotavator helps hugely with the digging.
Before planting any vegetables the land has to be shaped into furrows with a v at the top along which will run the irrigation pipe. As I said in Spring Planting Part 1 – Water, everything in the garden here has to be irrigated. There are several reasons that the vegetables have to be grown in furrows apart from not wasting the irrigation water and they are all to do with the combination of soil and weather that we have.
When we do get rain here, it often is a heavy deluge rather than light gentle rain. When this deluge beats down on the heavy clay soil it compacts it and sits on top of the soil, waterlogging it. Then, generally warm weather follows which quickly bakes the clay surface of the soil into a hard crust. If you had your plants in flat land, the soil would see-saw between being waterlogged which would rot the roots of the plant, to being dry and constricting on the roots. All plants need oxygen to be available to their roots, but if the soil is compacted and with a hard crust this denies the plant its oxygen.
So by putting your plants at the top of a furrow you are lifting them out of waterlogged ground and stopping the soil contracting around the roots of them. Also what rain there is collects in the valleys between the furrows and does not get dried by the sun as quickly as it would on flat land so continues to irrigate the plants for longer.
What makes it worth while to overcome the difficulties of the soil here, is the ability to grow vegetables all the year round. Although I have titled this spring planting, in reality I am sowing, planting and harvesting throughout the year. I grow different crops in each season.
In January and late August, potatoes go in, to be cropped in May and December respectively. March is the planting time for courgettes and summer tomatoes which have been started off in small pots in the greenhouse in February. Spring onions and beetroot are sown, and its the harvesting time for asparagus. In May the summer croppers go in. Peppers and chillis, all the squash family, aubergines, okra, purslane, lettuce leaved basil and edible loofahs. Almost all of these have been sown as seedlings in the greenhouse. The conditions here are so tough and the air so dry that seedlings have a very difficult time getting established, not to mention the number of super bugs that proliferate in a warm climate and are constantly looking for a tasty snack, so to give the vegetables the best chance of survival nearly all are started off in a protected environment. I mostly grow my own seedlings but there are lots of small enterprises here that deal in seedlings for the small grower, and the seedlings not at all expensive to buy. These are very useful when either you have had a failure with your own seedlings, usually through rot or greedy bugs eating them, or you have simply forgotten to sow the right thing at the right time.
In august for autumn planting the seedlings are started off in a cool well shaded greenhouse away from the parching summer sun. These are all the plants that are associated with summer sowing in the north of europe. Purple sprouting broccoli – which will sprout the following march, all of the endive family, carrots, peas, beans, cabbages, florence fennel etc.
In november the onion family go in, the leeks and onions having been started in the greenhouse about six weeks previously. And then the year will start again…….
I was invited to a lunch last week, and my contribution was to be the “amuse bouche”, a mouthful of something tasty to whet the appetite. I had been reading one of Claudia Rodens books on middle eastern cooking the night before, and this inspired me to create a dish using the fruit, nut and spice combinations of that area. Also my dish had to be something quick and easy to prepare as the lunch invitation coincided with my day for opening my farm shop – click on the La Micaela Farm Shop at the top of the page for more details.
In the freezer I generally have packs of a local product – Obleas – which are little rounds of pastry a bit thicker than filo pastry. The traditional Spanish filling is a small amount of a thick stew made from fried peppers, garlic, tuna and tomatoes. The rounds are then folded in half to make a semi circle and sealed firmly on the joining edges, then the Empanaditas are deep fried until crisp.
For lightness I prefer to brush the pastry circles with oil or butter, put the filling in the centre, fold the pastry upwards and pinch the edges together lightly, and then bake the little parcels. My favourite filling up to doing this one was of crumbly goats cheese and blanched spinach or chard bound together with egg.
MINI CHICKEN PSTILLAS
Filo pastry cut into 10cm squares or Obleas
100 gms cooked or raw lean chicken
small jar aubergine and red pepper salad – see Preserved Salads post for the recipe
50 gms toasted hazelnuts
50 gms golden raisins
a pinch or two of Ras el Hanout spices, or a mix of cumin, coriander, cinnamon and chilli all ground finely
Salt and pepper
olive oil for brushing the pastry
If you have not got cooked chicken and are starting with raw, cut it into small cubes and fry quickly in a small amount of olive oil. If using ready cooked chicken chop it into small cubes about half a centimetre square.
With a pestle and mortar crush the hazelnuts to break them up but not too small.
Put the chicken in a bowl with the nuts, salad and raisins. Season with the spices to taste.
If you have a tin for making miniature muffins or tarts it will be easier to form the little pies.
If you are using filo pastry and it is very thin you may well need to use two layers for your pies. Brush one side of a sheet of pastry with oil, lay another sheet on top and brush this with oil. Cut into squares of roughly 10 centimetres. Turn the two layers of pastry over so that the oily side is to the bottom and gently tuck the centre into one of the indentations in the muffin tin. With a teaspoon fill the pastry cup with the chicken filling. Lift the pastry around the pie and fold over the top of the filling to make a rough lid. Repeat this for each of your little pies.
If you don’t have a muffin tin, then use your hand as a rough cup, lay the pastry on your hand oily side down, put a teaspoon or so of filling in the middle and then bring the pastry up around the filling to cover it. Put the parcels on a baking tray to cook them. They may not look as neat and tidy as the ones cooked in a muffin or tart tray, and you may have the occasional burst, but they will taste just as good.
Cook in a preheated oven at 190 centigrade for 15 minutes or until golden brown and sizzling. Let cool a little before serving.
Waste is one of the biggest crimes of modern times, and particularly food waste. When you have gone to all the trouble of digging, manuring, digging again, then sowing and watering your own vegetables, and nurturing them into maturity, then the last thing you want to do is waste any of them.
No matter how well you plan to grow the amounts of produce that you actually need, there will always be moments when there are surpluses. This method of preserving deals very well with small surpluses. When I started developing these recipes I had an idea in my head of the use I wanted for the resulting preserve. I wanted cooked vegetables that I could use as either salads as part of a mixed starter, or as the topping for crostini or pizzas, or as the base for a pasta sauce. I love those cooked vegetable salads that the Italians serve as part of antipasti. They are cooked al dente retaining a bit of firmness, and are well flavoured with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and often herbs. Once you get your head around the basic principles of this preservation method and the flavouring you will be able to make your own combinations of ingredients.
Essential equipment for these recipes are jars. I find that as these salads are quite rich containing a large proportion of olive oil I don’t want to use a large amount at once, so save any small jars that come into the house. They need to have a screw top and plastic seal as so many modern jars do. They need to be scrupulously clean and then need sterilizing in a water bath just before use. Don’t be put off by the terminology, they just need to be put in a pan of boiling water with their lids and held there for five minutes.
I am going to start with Aubergine and Red Pepper Salad as this is one of the ingredients that I used in making Mini Chicken Pstilla which is the recipe that I was going to share with you today until I realised that it would be better to give you the salad first. The Pstilla recipe will follow I promise.
4 red peppers
6 large cloves of sweet garlic
300 ml olive oil
large sprig of fresh oregano
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel and coarsely chop the garlic.
Cut the red pepper into small dice.
Get the pan with the jars and lids on to warm. If you haven’t a pan big enough to take them all, start with as many jars as the pan will take and then you can add more once these are used. Don’t worry if they are ready too soon for the salad, you can always turn off the heat for a while and then reboil when needed.
In a pan large enough to take all the ingredients heat the olive oil slowly on a low heat. When it is warm add the garlic and peppers. Stir to cover with oil.
Cut the aubergines into dice about a centimetre square. Add to the pan. You don’t want to cut the aubergines in advance as they have a tendency to discolour and go brown. Stir to mix in.
Season with a good couple of pinches of salt and the chopped oregano leaves and stir again. Cook slowly for about ten minutes.
We are now getting to the tricky part, which is the amount of cooking. If you don’t cook the vegetables enough, they will ferment in the jar, too much cooking and you have a mush. It is a bit trial and error I am afraid. Start to check how cooked the salad is and add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
As soon as the salad is cooked turn off the heat. Drain the jars from the water and fill with the salad while the jars are still hot. Asbestos fingers are a help here. The salad wants to come to about half a centimetre from the top of the jar. Make sure that the rim of the jar is clean, so that you have a good tight seal, before putting on the hot lids. Put the lids on loosely for a minute or two and then tighten up.
Leave to cool totally before washing the jars and labelling. I always check that the jars are well sealed at this point. If the lids have a nipple in the middle you should have heard this ping as the jars were cooling and it should be concave and pulled in. If there is no nipple the lids should still be slightly concave and tight looking. If they are not then use these jars straight away.
Courgette Salad – I made this after returning from a short trip to find that my courgettes had turned into mini-marrows while I was away. Courgettes, peeled and diced, onion chopped small, garlic as above and a couple of peeled and chopped tomatoes. Follow the master recipe above for the method.
Red Pepper Salad – Strips of red peppers slowly stewed in olive oil to just cover and seasoned with salt and lemon juice. Don’t worry about the amount of oil, when you come to use the salad drain off the oil and use it for cooking or salad dressings later.
Artichoke Salad – As you clean and prepare the artichokes put them into water to which a good proportion of lemon juice has been added so that they do not discolour. Drain and stew in olive oil to cover. Season with salt – the lemon is already added.