Checking the Grapes

Tempranillo grapes

Tempranillo grapes

We have been checking the tempranillo grapes closely this last week of August as they are looking ripe and ready and measuring the  sugar levels of the grapes using a Refractometer.

Squeezing juice onto Refractometer

Using Refractometer to measure Brix level

It has been a hot and dry summer so the vines are looking dry with many dead leaves.

We cut a lot of bunches off a month ago as the plants seemed to be struggling with an overburden of grapes.

The grapes we left have flourished as the plants were able to direct more energy to fewer bunches.

We also irrigated a bit more to avoid the dehydration of the grapes which had been occurring.

The lower vineyard showed an average of 19 Brix and the upper vineyard was higher at 21 Brix.

How high is the average Brix?

These readings indicated, along with tasting the grapes and looking at the pips to see how brown they were, that we should harvest this week.

A good count showed there to be 1854 bunches of grapes with maybe an average weight of  a third of a kilo so maybe 600 kilos in total which could give 600 bottles.

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We have set the date for our harvest or vendimia for the 4th September on the full moon, as the water table will be high and enable the grapes to be harvested with good moisture content.

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We have asked friends to help and will be starting at 6am with a crew of 20
and aim to finish in 3 hours to avoid the heat of the sun.

With 3 cutters and 3 carriers, 6 de-stemmers, 4 crushers and provisioners we should get the job done and have time for a harvest breakfast to celebrate with Cava and orange juice, BBQ’d bacon & sausages, and fresh tomato & garlic tostades!

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Pet costume competition

molly in flamenco

Flamenco Molly
The Romeria at Salitre took place over the weekend of 29/31 May. On Saturday we took our dogs along for the afternoon and enjoyed a picnic with our friends.

This year the organisers decided to have a different competition. A few people entered their pets and as you can see from the photos, it was not just for dogs!

We dressed Molly as a flamenco dancer. Her patience knew no bounds, she didn’t mind a bit. The judging took place late in the afternoon but it only took moments to get our dogs ready.

molly and friends

A few friends
Molly with her friends, Henry & Friday.

Henry, a Golden Retriever in the foreground, was dressed as a boy scout. He is a five month old puppy and just loves romping around and playing with Molly

Friday, in front of Henry, was dressed for school.

Ducks as Fred Astair Ginger Rogers

Ducks having a run around
The competition was open to all types of pets – dogs, ducks and goats were entered.

The ducks won the competition entered as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!

They had great fun when they were let loose amongst the children at the Romeria.

Molly in her basket

Time for a rest
After all that excitement, Molly just loves her basket.

She is such a happy dog and loves greeting everyone with her tail wagging and rolling over to have her tummy tickled.

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Jam from the vineyard apricot trees

apricot tree in vineyard

This year the apricot trees have produced loads of fruit. This could have been down to the unusual rainfall we had during the past winter.

I decided it was time to try to make my own jam. Previous attempts last year were not too successful. My next job was to find an easy to do “mugs” recipe. The one I found to be the easiest was a Delia recipe which was handed down to her by her mum.

Simple – wash the fruit and de-stone. Grease the saucepan with a little bit of butter, just enough to stop everything sticking, not loads. Then layer the cut fruit with jam making sugar and finish off with a few squeezes from a lemon. Leave this in the saucepan overnight or even for the next day. When you come to make the jam, the sugar has already started to dissolve. Heat gently until all the crystals have gone and then go for the boil. Put a small plate in the freezer ready to test the setting of the jam. I boiled the liquid for 10 minutes and then did my test. The jam settled on the plate and didn’t run so that was it. Ready for the jam jars.

The jars had been previously washed in the dishwasher and were now sterilising in a low oven, 100C and the lids were in a saucepan of simmering water.

apricot jam jars on terrace table

The end result is absolutely delicious.

The jars are all ready for labelling but I haven’t designed the labels yet and the colour printer is on its way.

Each time I made a batch using 1.1kg apricots and 1kg of jam making sugar which filled approx 5 jars, depending on size.

I have been given about a kilo of cherries so I’ve followed the same method which is soaking now. Let’s hope the recipe works with cherries.

The plum trees are almost ready to pick, I just need lots more jam jars!

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Walk from La Canada del Real Tesoro (Estacion de Cortes) to Estacion de Jimera de Libar

The walk starts either at the railway station or Hotel El Gecko at La Canada del Real Tesoro. Follow the road towards Salitre/Gaucin walking past the Parra bar, a last chance for a coffee or something stronger, and after crossing the bridge over the Guadiaro river, the road starts to gently climb uphill.

After five minutes you will see a large rock in the left side with a yellow and a white stripe painted on it. Shortly after this there is an unmade track on the left which you take. It passes some fincas and gradually ascends giving views over the village of Estacion and up towards Cortes de la Frontera. After approx fifteen minutes you will come to a Y junction where you must take the left fork.

The track descends and you will see a another track to the right and then an official sign for Jimera and Cortes. Keep straight on following the path. You will climb and then the road starts curving to the left and you start dropping down until you reach a red gatehouse with many security cameras. Follow the track and then walk under the bridge going crossing the river (dry or wet). There is a dirt road on the right which you follow and then is straight for quite a while as it heads towards Jimera.

Eventually the road arrives at a river crossing but don’t cross unless you want to go back to Estacion de Cortes. Cross the railway at KM 104.8 and you are now on a road between the railway and a fenced field.

After approx 20 minutes of walking on the farm road you reach a fence followed by two streams which may be dry or wet depending on the weather. Be careful as the path from here was marked coming from the other direction, so all the markings are facing the other way. You must look back to see them. There are marks are on trees, rocks and fences. Between the last two railway crossings are twenty or so such marks.

After the streams, you walk through small woods which have oak and cork trees and through small pastures.

When you reach a six-foot high tree stump take note that it is marked on the other side. From here on keep walking at the same level and same distance from the railway.

The track will bring you to a level crossing and then from here it is dirt track past an old mill and natural swimming pool then on past some walnut trees to Estacion de Jimera de Libar and some refreshments at Bar Allioli or Quercus restaurant.

Train times

Trains to Cortes from Jimera: 10.32 / 17.19 / 20.05

Trains to Jimera from Cortes: 8.14 / 13.28 / 16.54

Check train times at the railway station or online at www.renfe.es

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La Casa de Piedra – the House of Stone

One winter’s night in the Parra Bar in La Canada del Real Tesoro a question was asked about the strange hollowed out boulder which lies alongside the old drovers’ track which ascends next to our vineyard from La Canada to Cortes de la Frontera.

Most of the men shrugged except for one unkempt old man who turned his attention from the TV, which was blaring noisily, up high on the far bar wall. The old man who had glaring eyes and long matted grey hair trailing into his beard, shouted loudly and angrily ‘BAM . . . BAM . . . BAM’!

This brought nervous laughter and some derision from the drinkers at the bar, and also questions to the old man, which he answered with a garbled stream of words which made no sense. Interest subsided as the old man was considered to be a live-alone eccentric and not much attention was paid to him as he often talked and shouted to the TV in the bar.

Carvings on side of Casa de Piedra
Door & left side
Door & opening above on left side

It emphasised the mystery of the Casa de Piedra.

Was the old man referring to some incident from the war or a hunting incident. Certainly he was imitating the noise of shooting and even brought his hands up as if firing a rifle.

When local people are asked about the place they respond by answering that it is very old and that it was a church, some older men can remember the place being used as a bar as it was half-way up the track to Cortes, with local mosto being made and served. Mosto is made from the local grape-wines from vines called ‘Rey’, which means literally the ‘king’, quite what the variety it is I don’t know, maybe its a leftover from the old wine-producing days, as there are some rusty old presses in many an old shed in the valley producing the stuff for home use.

Described historically as paleo-christiano, meaning early christian, which should indicate a date of up to 325 AD when the Council of Nicaea met and brought an end to the early christian period. The term is often used in a narrower sense of the very first followers of Jesus and the faith as preached and practised by the Twelve Apostles, their contemporaries, or their immediate successors, also called the Apostolic Age. Could it be that an early Christian or Anchorite hermit made his home here in an unusual place, or maybe in what was an existing holy place from a much earlier time?

The 6th and 7th centuries, so between 500 to 700 AD, are usually mentioned as to when the excavation was made, but no evidence is given. This would mean the work was done in the time of the Visigoths as the Romans left this area in the early 400’s. The Moors were only here in the early 700’s. But who would have made this excavation and why?

The monastic movement when priests left their original place of instruction and went to new lands to preach the new gospel and lived in caves was during this time. Perhaps a roman christian made a base here and persuaded locals to make the excavation. Or there could have been a natural mold in the rock left over from a trapped animal or vegetable matter which was opened more.

The time to hollow-out the rock by one or two men would be many weeks depending on the tools available and how they worked the rock. The internal area is roughly 2 metres high by 3 metres wide by 5 metres long so 30 cubic metres of rock to remove.

Maybe they used a fire and water technique, called fire-setting, which was employed by the Phoenicians who established gold mines on the nearby Sierra Bermeja mountains. Romans also used fire-setting as part of their building and mining techniques so it could have become a standard practice for a populace who worked with rock.

Carved detail
Carved detail
Carved detail
Carved detail

In the local catastral or property register of year 1752, the Casa de Piedra is notated as ‘la bodega del cura’ or ‘the winery of the priest’.The word ‘lagar’ or grape treading floor, is also used at a later date. The references to wine making has echoes with our vineyard which is just down the track and has the name of ‘La Vinha de la Iglesia’ on its title deeds.

This whole area encompassing the Guadiaro river valley up to Salitre and over into the Genal river valley was covered in vineyards.

The Phyloxara infestation wiped out all of the vineyards in a very short time in the 1870’s and many local villages were emptied as people immigrated to South America.

Track on way to boulder

Track on way to boulder

As you approach the Casa de Piedra the track shows sections of Roman or Visigothic road interspersed with what looks like natural or normal track. This track is used by cattle and sheep when they change pasture and the hooves erode the laid stones, so to have complete sections is fortunate.

Dressed and shaped curved stones are laid end to end in such a way as to allow water to run-off and there is some cambering. A spine of rock runs along the centre and stones run off at angles to the edges. This indicates an ancient all-weather track and an important route from the river valley up to Cortes de la Frontera. Along the way are some curious stones with round holes in them as if to hold poles.

A wire fence runs in front of the Casa de Piedra as the land is used for grazing sheep, cows and the odd bull and is private land.

There is a crude wire gate which should be unhooked carefully and closed behind you which gives entrance to the site.

Window on right of door & bowl font

Window right of door & bowl font or stoup

Door & window
Entrance Door & window from inside. The door has a date inscribed at top of arch but is hard to see

The entrance to the stone house is an arched doorway in the centre of the hollowed-out rock.

There is a date carved in the middle of the arch, but is hard to make out.

A simple bowl carved out of the rock on the right of the doorway probably contained holy or blessed water and was called a font or stoup.

A window opening is on the right side of the door above the font and another opening is high above the door and hard to access.

Higher up is a carved water run-off, a gutter-like groove, which makes you think that rain-water was enough of a problem for someone to spend time carving it out of the rock. Below the carved gutter are square holes where beams for an outer temporary construction must have been located.

The remains of an old building is joined to the stone house and consist of a combination of stone and bricks and is covered in bramble and vegetation. At the rear of the stone house is a jumble of stone which must have been the site of another construction, the outline of the walls can still be made out.

Window at far end
Window at end looking across onto road to Cortes de la Frontera
Round holes in floor filled with rubble which were used for Olive oil or wine storage jars

Inside on the extreme left, as you go in, is a window which looks across a small valley of pasture land to the road up to Cortes and hills above the road.

On the right hand side is a recessed area with two rubble filled round holes which is where large earthen pots could have stood and would have probably contained wine or oil.

In the middle of the far wall is a recessed area with a grooved circular runnel in the floor which has a single groove which leads to the floor.

This indicates that liquid was processed here and emphasises the probable use of wine or olives.

There are square post holes in the floor and ceiling which may have housed a press for crushing the grapes or olives.

Carved run-offs in floor
Carved run-offs in floor

On the opposite side, next to the door, facing east, is a small shelf at shoulder height which may have been a place for an altar.

Alcove in centre with olive or wine run-offs

Alcove in centre with olive or wine run-off

Carved details showing 1856
Carved details showing 1856 date & other details

On the extreme right of the boulder is a beautifully carved decorative font with images of pillars and symmetrical decorative images. It has ‘ANO DE 1856’carved at the top. The name ‘DIEGO DEL RIO’ appears just below, carved in between recessed decorative buttresses.

He could be the stone-carver of the decorative details made on the outside of the stone house. Underneath, carved in between triangular elements the words ‘SEGU?AD A+D ??73’ appear. The cross between the A and D has a crossbar at the end of each of its arms and is called a cross potent.

‘Potent’ is an old word for a crutch.

The outwardly curving carved base on the right holds water and was probably used in ceremonies for anointing converts or children.

Carved capitals
Carved capitals, imitating church columns, showing detail of fruit or floral symmetrical carving
Carved font
Carved font, which dates from mid 1800’s including outside area on right-hand side of Casa de Piedra

Mention is made of the Casa de Piedra being a Mozarabic church, this may be true but does not convincingly explain its origin. It is a small area inside and is alongside what would have been be a main trade route from the Guadiaro river valley up to Cortes. Mozarab is the term for christians living under Muslim rulers in Al-Andalus, which is present day Andalucia. This would give a date from early 700’s when the Moors invaded. The celebration of the rites, derived from Visigoth christianity would be held in secret and so a hidden church inside a boulder would be a perfect place of worship.

Carved details
Carved detail. Is this style of carving a clue to origin of Casa de Piedra?

The only documented Mozarabic church known in Andalucia is in the ancient village of Bobastra, the other side of Ronda, some 90 kilometres away to the east, which is not that far and this church is also cut directly out of rock. Its structure is made of three sections separated by horseshoe arches. The church is perfectly orientated towards the East, which is similar to the Casa de Piedra.

Cows regularly shelter inside the boulder so care should be taken when approaching and entering as they have large horns and if the weather is hot, it is cool for them, and if raining, they are dry so either way are not happy to share!

View down to Guadiaro valley from boulder top
View down and along the Guadiaro valley from the top of Casa de Piedra

As a footnote it is interesting that a local resident, who has Masonic connections, was very interested by the Casa de Piedra because of its shape and that its internal alignment was east to west. He seemed to think its hollowed out shape resembled an upside-down chalice. He has spoken quietly about the masonic traditions of ‘that which was lost’ and ‘travelling from the east to the west’.

He was intrigued to know that a man who lived at the foot of the track leading to the Casa de Piedra was called Templar.

It all adds to the mystery.

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