WHERE THE GRASS IS (nearly) ALWAYS BROWNER…

…BUT WHERE THE ALMOND blossom is ALWAYS WHITER

I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.

In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.

And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.

But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.

So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.

STARTING OUR 28th YEAR AT FINCA CARMEL

WIshing all my friends, viewers and followers a happy 2020

The single most impressive feature of our lives since we purchased our mountain finca (smallholding) in southern Spain, and becoming part-time farmers in 1993, is how it dramatically increased our awareness of the passing seasons. A perception intensified by having planted the best part of a thousand trees, and then watched as they gradually transformed our immediate environment.

While there are many sobering aspects to the passing of the years, we have found both solace and joy through the metamorphosis of our humble hilltop. Hopefully, it will continue past a good few new years yet!

The house and finca in the summer of 1995, two years after our move to the Axarquia region of Andalusia, and 18 months after completion of the house. Some of our new trees can just be made out, such as the young cypresses lining the edge the drive. At this point, the farm comprised primarily the existing north vineyard (to the lower left of the house) and almond trees. We relied totally on solar energy and rain water, collected in a large tank constructed beneath the house…
…and this is virtually the identical scene taken this Boxing Day in the winter of 2019. The north vineyard is still there, and some of the almond trees, plus the cypresses are now 25 years older – and taller. However, in 2004 we were finally attached to mains electricity (and the Internet) allowing us to set up a remote control irrigation system and thus plant orchards (mostly olive, citrus and avocado) and a garden of sorts, and to surround ourselves with tall trees.

UNEXPECTED TERPSICHORE…

…and how two ice cream ladies ended up being PORTRAYED on the wall of the chilean embassy in london…

During our 1991 visit to Chile we took a day-trip from Santiago to Valparaiso, to have a look at the National Congress building, but mainly to try and get a feel for one of the great ports of the Americas. In the event, the building was nothing to write home about – an unresolved confusion of brutalist classicism – and the port area was more plain sleaze than the Hemingway sleaze I’d been hoping for. Sadly, we lacked the time to explore more of what was once described as “the Jewel of the Pacific”.

Although blurry, this photo inspired not only the oil painting below, but later an entire series of my most abstract attempts at capturing human movement…

However, as often happens when travelling, memorable moments occur when least expected, and from surprising sources. In this case for example, it occurred buying ice creams in a gelateira by the bus station, when my wife Dido and our companion Lynne got into conversation with the two ladies running the shop, about Chile’s national folk dance; the Cueca.

This spontaneous display perfectly captured a trait of understated assuredness that we often encountered in Chile – a trait for which the Cueca is the perfect expression…

How or why what happened next, I can’t quite recall, as the two women, in the sweetest and most obliging of gestures suddenly broke into song and started performing the dance. Fortunately I had my camera to hand and was able to get a visual – if slightly unfocused – record of the impromptu outbreak of traditional Terpsichore. Happenstance often resulted in my camera being my sketchbook, and this turned out to be a prime example as I found the fuzzy photos more than adequate reference for a later work back in my studio.

…a trait I endeavoured to capture in this,* and at least two more versions of the painting, La Cueca. The version here was included in an exhibition I had the following year at the Embassy of Chile in London, and which was subsequently purchased for the embassy. I often wondered what the two ladies would have thought if they knew?

* This was one of the first times I used black ground on a canvas (I’d often used the technique in commercial work), and I found it a dramatic contrast to the broad, bright impasto gestures knifed on top. The painting was about five-foot (about 152 cm) square.

VARIATIONS ON THEMES

obsession or INTERPRETATION?

Generally, one associates the concept of theme and variations with music. From Classical to Heavy Rock (e.g. Brahms’ wonderful takes on that tune of Haydn’s or more recently Leslie West’s fabulous live improvised versions of his own Swan Theme on the album Flowers of Evil) and all idioms in between and beyond, most composers have enjoyed playing around with a basically good tune (their own or other people’s) and taking it to new places.

This is the original photo of Dido in that doorway somewhere in the Alcazar gardens in Seville. This was our first trip abroad, soon after we met, and we could not have picked a more romantic city (including Paris!!)

However, this is hardly unique to musical composition and if anything, an exercise exploited far more by visual artists, and most famously by both the Impressionists (e.g. Monet’s Waterlilies) and then the post impressionists (e.g. Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire).

This was my first take on the photo, in oils, using a palette knife…

The greatest distinction between the musical and painterly approaches is that in the former the variations are normally presented together within a single work, whereas in the latter they typically appear as a series of individual pictures.

My favourite of the four versions here (there were several more in other media) – a roughly painted gouache

As a regular practitioner of the latter painterly approach in my past life, I often mused whether or not I was merely obsessed – struggling for an unreachable perfection – or rather practising the artistic imperative of interpretation.

1989, was during the height of my poster phase – hence this version

In the end, I came to conclusion that it was a mixture of the two and that in fact, the secret of all good art, and good science too for that matter, is an obsessive love of a particular subject and the interpretive skills to channel that love into something coherent and meaningful. The four pictures shown here present my first ever paintings of Dido, before we were married, standing in a doorway in the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville: The object of my love, obsessively interpreted…

OUR “WHITE PRAETORIAN” – a portrait of Aura, our Italian guard and friend…

Although I promised the resumption of normal posting for this piece, I’d forgotten that I would be in Oxford, and thus geographically separated from my two hard-drives (one in Jönköping in Sweden, the other in southern Spain). So, for the third successive post I’m restricted to the material I carry around on my laptop and hence, this canine themed picture post.

This is in effect an homage to our late dog Aura, with whom we shared so many wonderful and wacky moments.

The images here will be a pleasant reminder to those among you who remember her, and for those more recent arrivals on these pages, you might wish to check out these links to some of my earlier posts: https://adamhalevi777.com/2015/06/26/dog-days-1-auras-big-sniff/; https://adamhalevi777.com/2015/06/29/dog-days-3-a-dog-in-the-room/and; https://adamhalevi777.com/2015/06/30/dog-days-3-michelin-maremma/

For a large dog, Aura loved small cosy spaces, and none more so than the back of Dido’s old MGB GT – pictured here outside our mews house in Paddington, about to set off for a trip to the Lake District…

…and here we are arrived in the Lakes. This car seating configuration worked just fine, so long as Aura hadn’t eaten anything garlicy the night before!
Aura liked nothing more than frolicking in a heap of freshly fallen snow, or failing that, a heap of freshly fallen autumn leaves…
By the time we’d moved to Spain, Dido had moved up to her late uncle’s Alfa GTV. Despite sharing the same Italian roots with the Alfa, Aura always preferred the MG…
Call me biased, but Aura was quite simply the most beautiful dog I have ever seen, not to mention, the most photogenic. Her she is in our-then new home in southern Spain…
…and she wasn’t averse to modelling the latest hat-wear…
Our time in Boulogne was mostly miserable, but Aura could always lighten the mood with a play on the beach with one of the locals…

This ancient Roman statue (in the Vatican Museum) known as The canis pastoralis  is thought to represent the direct ancestor of the Maremma, which were reported to have guarded the imperial flocks from around the time of Emperor Tiberius (early 1st century).


BLOOD, SWEAT AND LAUGHS – wine making at Finca Carmel

Regular readers of these posts will know all about our finca (small holding) in southern Spain and especially the adventures we had building our house. However, what I haven’t done thus far is said that much about the little farm itself.

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The north vineyard came with the property and is predominantly Moscatel (Muscat). The 500-or-so vines are all non-staked and pruned right back early Spring. This picture dates from May 1994 and Dido’s blonde mop can just be made out upper left…

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The Moscatel harvest is picked typically late September when many of the berries are turning to raisins. However, we prefer our “Malaga” drier than the locals go for, and pick at the start of the month. Though the wine is unfortified (no brandy or grape spirit added) it still attains a strength of over 17%  – apparently breaking all the laws of natural fermentation…

Our biggest crop is from our two small vineyards (about 1000 vines in all), one preexisting our move (in 1993) and the other planted by us in 2000. The older vineyard comprises mostly Moscatel (Muscat) used for making the traditional local Malaga style sweet wine and the one we planted ourselves which is a third Moscatel and two thirds red Cencibel (a varietal of Tempranillo) with which we make a strong red fortified wine similar to port.

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We planted out the south vineyard in 2000 and it comprises 300 Cencibel and 200 Moscatel vines. Digging 500 holes half a metre (20 inches) deep into rocky terrain, using a mattock and pickax was the toughest physical task of our lives. This picture dates from the Spring of 2002, just after we had pruned the plants and dressed the mounds. The weeding was yet to be done…

 

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One our first Cencibel harvests (I don’t think we have felt greater pride in anything we have ever produced). Cencibel is a sub-type of Tempranillo (the “Merlot of Spain”), and ripens a fortnight or so before the Moscatel…

In addition to our grapes we also grow olives (for oil), almonds, citrus, and a variety of other fruits including avocado.

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We de-stem the grapes by hand. Dido here ably assisted here by our friend Valentina and her sadly, late husband, Jean-Claude. Each and every stage of the wine-making process, from harvesting to barrelling  is highly international at Finca Carmel. Fellow-Brits, Russians, Belgians, Israelis, Americans, Australians and of course, Spanish volunteers have joined us over the years…

 

We harvest the almonds from about mid July through to mid September, the olives around the new year and the grapes, depending on the vintage, from late August when we also make our two wines.

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We still crush the grapes using the timeless method of treading. Here Dido is assisted by Jane and Pepa, our most dependable volunteer of all. A steady flow of ice cold beer and appropriately rhythmic music blasting out from the house above is essential to the efficiency of this process…

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Once crushed, the fruit is poured into baskets for pressing…

The pictures here are a montage of our annual vendimia (grape harvest and wine making). Although we appreciate help from our friends with all the annual farming tasks it’s only the wine-making that people actually return for. The work is hard, and depending upon the weather – which can vary from sunny and hot to chilly and damp (like this year), sweaty, monotonous at times, but always rewarding once the must (mosto in Spanish) is all safely in the barrels.

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When the press is full we use the ratchet and oak blocks to apply extra pressure. Typically we fill the press twice for the Moscatel and having applied the final turn of the ratchet leave it overnight to exude every last drop of must…

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The final precious stream of must is referred to as lagrima in Spain – alluding to the tears of Christ…

Over the years various rituals have developed around the process, the most enjoyable of which is Dido’s Mexican feast on the final night, when the work is over. We’re not quite certain how this particular tradition started, but somehow delicious treats like tamales, enchiladas and re-fried beans washed down with margaritas provide a uniquely festive climax to several days of hard labour.

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We make sure to feed and water our workers well, seen here for instance enjoying a light lunch of Dido’s delicious ajo blanco (cold almond and garlic soup) washed down with copitas of our own Malaga, with freshly picked figs for pudding…

On behalf of Dido and myself, I would like to take this opportunity to offer special thanks to all those friends, who have helped us over the past 25 years, with special mentions to Pepa for returning every year and Valentina for her technological innovations. We literally, couldn’t do it without you! Finally, all volunteers welcome for next year…

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Our barrels containing our Malaga solera (“super-blend”). Malaga, like its much younger cousin Sherry, is not released as a vintage but is re-racked and blended annually. Each new wine is evenly distributed into the previous years’ blends to ensure a consistent and hopefully, perfect wine.

SKATING (AND DANCING) ON THICK ICE

We’re now back on our finca here in southern Spain for the Easter / Passover break (and a happy whichever one you may or may not celebrate), and in our case, dozens of farming chores of varying degrees of arduour. In other words, time is precious and I can only devote the bare minimum of it to this post, which will be mostly about the pictures. Fortunately, during our recent spell in Jönköping (Sweden) something particularly picturesque and photogenic occurred, in that the local Lake Vättern froze over. While the main lake itself was covered in great chunks of ice and snow drift, its small tributary Lake Munksjön, around which the center of the town sits, became a perfectly level and smooth outdoor ice rink. This proved a great winter tonic for the locals who seem at their happiest when on skis and especially on skates. The resultant images of impromptu ice hockey games, ice fishing and townsfolk simply strolling across the lake reminded me of paintings by the elder Bruegel.

I hope that these “gouache” enhanced pictures (taken with all I had to hand – my iPhone) give some sense of the stark-yet-charming beauty and drama of the scenes, of both Vättern and Munksjön…

 

 

TWO (and a big white dog) AGAINST THE WORLD…

Last March I published a post describing how we became stranded in Boulogne sur Mer for eight months and in which I promised to follow that up with a record of some our  subsequent Boulognaise tragicomic adventures. However, one of the many modern problems associated with a life lived in three disparate European locations is that portable hard-drives often end up in the wrong place. As now for instance, while I am currently in Sweden, the hard-drive containing 99% of my pictorial material is in Spain. This unhappy situation will continue until I and the hard drive are once again reunited in March.

Dido and Aura 1

The significance of this lack of pictorial record is that my posts for the forthcoming five weeks or so will be more sparingly illuminated than usual. Thus, the main visual record of our eight hysterically grim months on the north-west coast of France will have to wait.

Fortunately, I do still have access to some interesting and evocative pictures from that time, like the two presented here which in a way sum up that bleakest episode of Dido’s and my 29 years together more graphically than a thousand well-written words ever could. Someone once said I think, or at least should have said, that there is a profound pleasure in melancholy, and perhaps that is why so many of us are often just a subtle mood-swing away from that condition.

Both Dido and I, if not our canine companion Aura, were feeling particularly melancholic the Sunday afternoon I took these shots early in our Boulogne sojourn as we stared out longingly to the English horizon. It was Sunday blues in every sense and the only thing missing from these shots is the dull stench wafting across the sands from the nearby fish canning plant. Nevertheless, when I look at these images now, whether because of our sweet Maremma sheep dog staring down curiously at a lug-worm, or the fact I’ve been so fortunate with my life partner(s), I can’t help but smile.

Aura 1

Funny old thing, life.

FRENCH SCENERY – a fringe benefit of my fear of flying…

Given the amount of travel related material I present here, it might come as a surprise to regular followers of this site, that for about ten years, from the late 80’s to the late 90’s I suffered from a suddenly acquired, debilitating fear of flying.

Debilitating for about the first seven or eight years, to be accurate, as I gradually cured myself of the affliction over the final two or three years with a combination of judiciously applied strong alcohol and the advent of budget airlines – specifically easyJet. But thanks to that magical cocktail of Jack Daniels blended with Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s heroically mundane approach to commercial air-travel (a story for another post perhaps) I thankfully managed to rediscover my inner Frank Sinatra. However, unluckily for us, the height of my phobia coincided with our move to southern Spain.

If the move had been the total success we had originally anticipated then my fear of flying wouldn’t have been thrown into such sharp relief, but because of constant need to migrate, firstly to northern France, and then later, back to the UK, things became tricky.

For a period of about three years we had to make the journey, firstly from Malaga to Boulogne and then from Malaga to London, between six and twelve times annually.  And, while some of these journeys anyway necessitated the need for a car journey, most of them would have been quicker, cheaper and easier by plane. But, as there was no way I could fly, and short of Dido giving me the Mr “T” Novocaine treatment , this meant that for all of those dozens of trips, we had to drive.

More often than not, and especially towards the end of the period, when “getting there” had become the sole objective, we would stick to the main roads and cover the route in as little as two and a half days (our record was 18 hours – Malaga to London – 1400 miles – door-to-door), but on occasion we would make a small vacation out of a drive, and take some significant detours, in France and/or Spain.

The images presented here are from some of those early excursions compiled into one virtual tour. Their yellowed, grainy texture reflect golden memories of the beauty and the unsurpassed variety (in Europe at least) of the French landscape; in this case from the Pyrenees in the south, to the beaches on Normandy in the north, via Provence and the Auvergne. It’s amusing to consider now, that if it had not been for my fear of flying I might not have got to visit some of these extraordinary places…

THE “WILD MAN”, “THE HEALER” AND THE STOLEN PAINTINGS

Twenty-four years ago I experienced the dubious complement of being burgled of three of my favourite paintings.

We’d more or less completed the construction of our house in Andalusia when all our household belongings arrived from England. I say more or less completed, because we had yet to make the house secure with things like window bars and securely locking doors. However, situated as we were, in the proverbial middle of nowhere and with only a handful of people knowing our house existed, we felt reasonably secure receiving our possessions. And looking back on it now, I don’t suppose that eight months of living on a building site devoid of all creature comforts and luxuries had done much for our sense of judgement when it came to matters of domestic security?

A perfect illustration of just how crazy we were is represented by what happened the very first night we got our stuff back.

After an entire day of frenzied unpacking I decided to reward us by rigging up our much-missed stereo. Our ghetto-blaster had broken halfway through the build and for the past four months the only music we had to listen to was whatever happened to be playing on our matchbox-sized radio. Now, at last we could hear our music, on our wonderful sound system and most importantly of all, at our volume.

And as it was the volume I craved as much as the music itself, seeing as my choice of tune for this auspicious occasion was Led Zeppelin’s superlative “Trampled Underfoot” . My first hearing of the number was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old in the fifth row at Earls Court in 1975, when it had changed my life, and so it seemed like an apt song with which to celebrate this new chapter.

I put it on at full volume and immediately went out onto our north terrace to enjoy it against the appropriately spectacular view of the crimson Sierra Tajeda bathed in flaming sunset. Soon I was gyrating away in a state of manic bliss; then joined by our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, who, teddy in mouth joined in the head-banging. Shortly Dido appeared on our little bedroom balcony, next to the terrace, fresh from the shower, stark-naked, executing a superb go-go-dance.

All-in-all, quite a party…except that during one of the brief inter-riff silences in the music I thought I heard goats! And again, in the next silence, I could hear an instant of goat bell mingled with goat bleat. Then to my horror, I peered down the slope beneath the terrace, to the dirt track beyond our little vineyard to find myself staring into the face of one of the local village goatherds! I don’t know how long he’d been watching us, but his amazed expression was clearly visible, even from fifty yards away…

To cut a long story short, for years afterwards we were known in the village by the sobriquets that title this post. To this day, we still get odd looks from some of the older villagers.

Sadly, it wasn’t just the goatherd who brought us down to earth with a bump. The next evening, when we returned from a visit to the coast we found that three of my paintings had been stolen, including one of my favourites of the ships in Arica Harbour in Chile. What made the pain of the robbery worse was that we knew exactly who the guilty party was (not the poor goatherd by the way!) but for reasons too sensitive to divulge here, we also understood that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. Fortunately I did at least photograph the three pictures and have presented them here…