Monday, 1 March 2010

Isolation in Austurias

I've just returned to civilisation following two weeks in the wilderness of western Austurias. I was staying on a remote finca, called Valle de Castaños, hidden at the bottom of a deep valley in the foothills of the mountains that span the province. My hosts were a small family pursuing an alternative lifestyle with a strong focus on environmental sustainability – their commitment to which was both admirable and inspirational.

It was an experience in which I went back to basics, in almost every imaginable way; forget the telephone and internet, no need for modern appliances, and nothing by way of 'home comforts' that most Western households are used to. Fourteen days with almost no indication of the outside world, let alone the opportunity to communicate with it. Water came from the mountain spring, electricity - enough for a 12 Watt bulb in the kitchen - from a solar panel, and dinner was cooked on an open fire in the corner of the kitchen.

By day, we tended to the animals, chipped away at the seemingly endless list of odd jobs around the farm, and worked the steep terraced fields, which stretched further than the eye could see on either side of the valley. By night we sat exhausted in the kitchen, huddled around the fire for warmth.

The following post includes edited extracts from the diary I kept during my time at Valle de Castaños, which I wrote each evening by candlelight, sat in my caravan 350 paces up the mountainside from the farmhouse itself. Out of respect for the privacy of my hosts, I've changed the names of all the people and places mentioned here.

9th February, 2010

We arrive at the Valle de Castaños after driving for one and half hours through some of the most incredibly rugged scenery I've ever come across. We twist and turn through a winding pass, 1000 metres above sea-level. Mountains rise to infinitum on one side and drop away to nothing on the other. We take a sharp left, and head what seems like straight up the mountain side... By now the asphalt has stopped, and the 'road' is made of loose gravel. After about three kilometres, we reach a summit with breath-taking views on either side of the valley below. We stop the car, and begin transferring our bags into the 4x4 truck that is parked at the side of the road. A dirt track will take us down to the farm, and whilst the battered old tin can we've driven from the coast may make it down the hill, it doesn't look as if it make it back up again. With my hosts, Andreas, Carmen and their baby, sat in the cab, I take my place on the flat bed trunk, and hold on tight. It's a long way down.

Just as twilight turns into darkness, we reach the farm, which is in fact a semi-ruined village, dating back at least five hundred years, although there has probably been a settlement on that site for far longer. There are a handful of buildings; an ancient water mill sat on a bend in the river, a tiny chapel sat a little way up the valley, and a small number of neat, grey stone cottages. Some of these are entirely in ruins, whilst the others are inhabited by Andreas, Carmen, their baby, and their guests.

The temperature has dropped dramatically with nightfall, and we head into what looks like the largest of the cottages, which makes up the kitchen-cum-parlor-cum-living space. It's built straight into the hillside, with the foundations made of bedrock, and the walls made from the same slate as the mountains. Save from the dim glow of a single electric light bulb, there has been no modernisation in the building whatsoever. What looks like the original hard wood doors hang in the doorways, bare slate and clay are the only insulation on the walls, and there's not even a chimney built above the fire - smoke simply rises into the rafters, helping to preserve the pieces of pork that are slowly curing there, and the wooden beams from which they are hanging. The furniture and fittings are all handmade from the chestnut trees in the valley, whilst the shelves are lined with a hotch-potch of jugs, jars and containers, as charming as they are old. I look upon this characterful little room, and imagine it having not changed for hundreds of years.

I sit facing the fire with Edith, another of Andreas' guests on the farm. We talk about Valle de Castaños, my first impressions, and her experiences so far. I've still not quite come to terms with what I have walked into... A completely different way of life.

10th February 2010

I awake with the morning, to the sound of swaying trees, tweeting birds, and the bubbling river. It dropped to freezing last night but my caravan gave me shelter at least, with warmth coming from a hot water bottle, a sleeping bag and four blankets.

After a day of trudging up and down the mountain sides, clearing wood and patching up the dry stone walls, dinner feels like a god-send. We sit around the fire, eating hot chickpea and potato soup, almost too tired to speak.

11th February 2010

It feels like we've walked a marathon today, up and down the mountain sides. We return from being snowed on in the fields to a late lunch in the courtyard. We eat a salad of wild herbs, followed by delicious chorizo spaghetti, all whilst basking in the soft February sunlight.

12th February 2010

We trek to a plato, high up on the other side of the valley to tend to the chestnut trees. Andreas comes across a dazzingly bright red fungi on the way...and eventually decides it looks too good to eat! There's a brisk north-easterly wind, which brings millions of tiny frozen rain drops - Mother Nature's way of telling us that what ever we do, she is in complete control. I realise that living here means a different way of life entirely. We exist not by living off the land. To survive in the long term, we have to live with it.

13th February 2010

My back aches, my legs are like jelly, my shoulders are sore, my feet are wet, my lips are dry, and my hands are covered in cuts and grazes. We use each day to the full, spending every possible hour trying our best to make an indent on the seemingly never-ending list of half finished - or half started, to be more accurate - jobs around the farm. Just living here is a full time job - demanding physical labour. Yet the connection that I feel to this new way of life means that to opt out of work is not even something I consider.

We all carry out our tasks tirelessly around the farm. Whilst Andreas and I prepare a new enclosure for the donkeys and horse to graze, Carmen tends to the gardens, re-cultivating the land as it has been for generations before. She has also found time to make lunch for the weary workers - a bright and vibrant salad of pomegranate, carrot and apple, dressed with vinegar and sesame seeds. It's followed by a nourishing vegetable stew. After that, it's straight back to work... Stay still for too long, and you begin to feel the cold right through to your bones.

14th February 2010

Sunday. The day of rest. Or not, as the case may be. I'm working before breakfast, shifting chestnut rafters from one side of the valley to the other. Meal times come as a welcome break. We always eat very well here, but food can seem as much a necessity as it is a pleasure, taken either to refuel, or keep warm, or both. When the evening comes, we all finally relax. First, we eat salad, which includes stems of a curious-looking plant who's name translates to "Venus' belly button". After that, we tuck into a comforting chorizo and lentil stew, and finally dutch pancakes, filled with sliced banana and melted dark chocolate.

With the stove having heated sufficient water in the over-head tank, I finish the day with a shower. It's my first in six days. With that, and a good feed inside me, I have everything I could have hoped for this Sunday.

15th February 2010

A day spent shovelling cart-loads of donkey shit from the stable on one side of the valley, to the gardens on the other. A conversation with Carmen about life in Hackney. A discussion with Andreas about the rights of volunteer workers. A single text message sent to the outside world (there wasn't enough reception to call). My turn to make dinner - nettle risotto, and a salad picked from the hedgerows. Another unfathomably starry sky. Another sub-zero night in the caravan, which by now is beginning to feel just like home. Perhaps I'm getting into the swing of life in the Valle de Castaños.

16th February

I've decided to stay a few more days... To be here is both physically and mentally rewarding, and I'm enjoying the slower rhythm of life.

For lunch I use the left over risotto to make arancini de riso, or cheesy balls, as we call them. After lunch, the conversation once again turns to food, and I get the impression that both Andreas and Carmen are slightly puzzled by my obsession.

17th February 2010

My designated day off. Andreas and Carmen have gone to the coast to see friends and have instructed me to take it easy. I get going at my leisure, having the same breakfast as usual, boiled oats with fruit, but taking my time with two cups of coffee today, instead of one. I spend the day pottering in the gardens, and make a frugal soup for dinner from any of the veg I come across that looks to be on it's last legs. But when my hosts return, Andreas has other ideas... He has with him a whole chicken, which we cut into pieces and cook over the open fire. To accompany it, we fry potatoes in lots of pig fat, and eat the whole lot slathered in mayonnaise. I take it as a rather touching gesture of thanks for my hard work thus far, and dutifully chomp my way through second helpings, and then the remaining potatoes that are left in the frying pan.

18th February 2010

An afternoon carrying chestnut floorboards from the workshop, high on one side of the valley, to one of the houses on the other. When the job is complete, we relax in the courtyard, our exhaustion balanced by the sense of accomplishment that only a day of truly hard work can bring. Andreas and I toast each other's health with a well earned beer, working our way down the bottles as the sun dips below the mountain.

At dinner there is much talk of the following day's events. Tomorrow we are going to kill a pig...


  1. Dear Basil, I just found your blog today when looking for a terrine recipe... I have adapted your recipe and will send you a pic (more chk liver, raisins, cognac etc and only for 20 not 90) but never mind that...

    What a beautiful account of that magical Galician caper...and your Asador Etxebarri excursion - I wanted to eat my laptop! - positively orgasmic. Sadly I only made it to S Sebastian last year but did manage to eat jamon every day too.

    You may be interested to know that pig killing and butchering is still quite prevalent in Transylvania and there are still competitions where a team of two kill and butcher a pig.

    great blog - much appreciated


  2. Hi Rachel,

    Just seen your comment - many thanks for the feedback and really glad you liked the blog. Stay in touch