Posted on March 11, 2014
We came to Mother’s Garden via a Belgian wedding.
Our Belgian friends from Brisbane invited us to their gorgeous wedding (with a real castle! and horses! and a woodland princess gown! and the best beer in the world!). While we were frolicking in the happy bubble that is a white wedding we got talking to a Belgian girl and her Chilean husband who live in Spain near Barcelona. We had one of those instant ‘ping! I like you’ moments and were very pleased when we were invited to come and say hello when we got down to Spain. Several months later we finally crossed the southern French border and a few more weeks later we (mostly I) had had quite enough of freezing to death in a van in the ‘optimal climbing conditions’ in Siurana. The morning we woke up to falling snow was magical, and a strong indication that it was time to get to lower altitude.
Our new friends hosted us for over a week and while we were thawing out they treated us to delicious meals, pool and gym visits, family adventures and delightful company. We were wondering what to do next when our Belgian suggested that we visit a guy she knows from shipping his olive oil. And so we drove to Mother’s Garden.
L’hort de la Mare (as it is in Catalan) is the farm and home of Maggie, Martin, Joe and (nominally, because she is at university in London), Ella. Maggie and Martin came from the UK about 13 years ago with little daughter Ella and babe-in-arms Joe. They bought up the rustic farmhouse, complete with grape vines, olives, almond trees, fruit trees and a little bit of wilderness and began planting vegetables and memories. They are the kind of family who, at first blush, seem quite happy and in tune and love with each other. After a while though, you realise that this is all a front and that, in fact, they are far more revoltingly happy and in tune and in love with each other than you could have imagined. I think my favourite family moment was when Ella rang on Skype to tell the family some positive news about results from her uni course. All three of them were bursting with genuine excitement, pride and glowing-pink-cheeked happiness for her. When your teenage brother skips around the table with joy because you’re doing well at uni, your parents have obviously done something very right.
Apart from being a lovely Dad and farmer’s husband, Martin is also a writer. I sent Mumsies a copy of his first book about living here – called ‘No Going Back’ – for Christmas. This managed to get lost in the post but the friendly lady at the Book Depository (usually good value and safe for deliveries) assures me that a replacement is on it’s way. I’m pretty sure she’ll love it as it is beautifully and evocatively written – you can almost taste the fruit of the first harvest – and it has the dry, self depreciating humour you’d expect of an Englishman abroad.
In more recent times they have built on an old ruin to create a guest cottage using traditional Catalan building methods and architecture (the magical floating staircase blows my mind). When we came here to do a bit of work in exchange for a place to stay in November, Maggie and Martin were kind enough to let us stay in the cottage rather than in our van. It’s now March and we still haven’t moved! While it’s been awesome for us that the cottage hasn’t been rented to holiday makers in that period (their main season is summer) it’s actually a bit of a shame in terms of missed opportunity for other climbers. Mother’s Garden is in an ideal location for a climbing holiday and winter and spring are perfect if you don’t want to sweat yourself off the rock, while still enjoying blue skies and sunshine (I imagine Autumn would be as well). The farm is an hour or so from Siurana (only for the tough in winter as it’s quite high up!) and Montsant and Margalef. It’s closer to some lower altitude and easy beginner crags as well as an amazing and huge (but secret) crag that is a paradise for the 7a-8b climber.
In any event, we’re glad we’ve had it to ourselves. It has felt quite incredibly luxurious to stand up inside on a regular basis and I’ve developed a reasonably frequent yoga practice that doesn’t involve contorting oneself inside of a van. We’ve done a bit of work around the place – digging over the vegetable patches, clearing up around some ‘lost’ olive trees, mulching, helping with packing the olive oil shipments, sanding and oiling the doors and window frames of the cottage etc. I also upgraded their website which was quite exciting and extremely nerve wracking (especially the ‘oh my god where did the shop go’ moment). We’ve gotten to know the chooks, Tilly and Ted the terriers (completely bonkers), Biba (an absolutely lovely old Springer Spaniel cross), Petita (the ‘big boned/fluffy’ pony), Jess (the old man cat) and most recently Gen Cat (a cross eyed and incredibly affectionate little cat who arrived a couple of weeks ago and seems to have no intention of ever leaving). Smart cat.
Christmas was delightful (even if it manifestly failed to snow) and we were joined by a good friend from home (she of Tour de Mont Blanc fame) as well as Ella and Maggie’s mum Beryl. We took a family outing to hear the carols in the village church. Our village’s choir was rustic but quite pretty. The choir from the Goat village was very interesting. We also had an outing to see an incredible living nativity. The streets of the village are transformed into Bethlehem, circa the birth of Christ. You enter through a grand palm decorated archway, guarded by two rather chilly looking centurions then walk along the streets, admiring the costumes and decorations of the ground floor of the houses. Everyone is dressed up (the three kings were particularly magnificent). There are sheep and chickens, small stalls selling snacks and, quite curiously, a den full of devils. The last house features (of course) Joseph, the Virgin and a (real) baby as Jesus. It’s pretty cool.
New Year’s Eve was gently and deliciously enjoyable. We had a fire and ate calçots under the stars. As the village church bell tolled the midnight hour we followed the Spanish tradition and laughingly tried to squash twelve grapes into our mouths to ensure twelve happy months ahead. It’s working so far.
In the new year we went down to Reus to see the Three Kings arrive by boat. They are the traditional gift givers here – children have to wait until they arrive on January 6 to get their presents. They arrived in splendour and then mounted their decorated floats and pelted us all with sweets on their way to deliver gifts to all the good little boys and girls. I got thwacked on the head a number of times, but as I needed lollies for the piñata I (rather randomly) decided to make, it was worth it.
The new year also saw the arrival of our helpful Belgian, complete with husband, two children and road-tripping parents for a weekend visit. There were chess games by the fire, some play time with the pony and we took a long walk in the valley while Maggie cooked up a phenomenal Catalan feast, which our fresh air appetites did justice to.
We also all went to Falset for L’Encamisada. This is a fiesta in honour of Saint Anthony, who is paraded through the town before blessing the animals. Evidently, this requires the presence of animals. So a grand parade takes place. Donkeys, horses and mules pull carts loaded with giggling children in traditional dress, one cart proudly bears the icon of the saint and the parade is completed by a handful of prancing horses mounted by dashing youths or blushing maidens. They enter the village in the evening, accompanied by men dressed up as devils who throw fireworks. Yes, that’s right, children, large animals and explosions. What could possibly go wrong? Fortunately, nothing this year. The parade wound its way to the church where the blessing was given and apparently the local dance was performed. We couldn’t see as we were kind of squished about 50 meters away from the church. Then, as a finale, all the carts and horses do a lap of the village square as fast as they possibly can, urged on by fireworks and the crowd. It’s sheer madness and extremely enjoyable.
We’ve also had quite a few excursions further away, although not as many as we probably should have had. It’s hard to drag ourselves away from the physical and emotional comfort of the farm. We’ve been up to Barcelona a few times for some sightseeing and music (you can get the train directly from the village!!), to Tarragona (for an intimate classical chamber concert in a downstairs bar), a few climbing and hiking trips and some lovely walks right from the farm.
Our big weekly excursion is to the little town of Falset for the weekly market. We come home laden with fruit and vegetables and a slightly alarming quantity of dairy products. My only gripe with Catalonian food availability is the baked goods. How it is that you can have (perhaps) the best bread in the world and (definitely) the best pastry in the world just over the border and yet have only manage average stuff 250 km south is completely beyond me. On the upside, you can drown your boring white breadstick in the most delicious olive oil I have ever tasted.
Oh the oil. I’ll write a post about the ins and outs of it all in a bit, but for now, suffice to say that under the Mother’s Garden label is sold the most delicious, fresh, fruity, peppery yummy yummy olive oil you can imagine. It’s delicious for cooking with and wonderful drizzled on salads or swirled over just about anything you’re planning on eating. It is surprisingly easy to get to the stage where you’ll wander through the kitchen sniffing around for a snack and pour yourself a teaspoon of oil and lick it down, loving the pepper at the back of the throat…then wonder why on earth you didn’t use a tablespoon.
Mother’s Garden is a bit like that. A teaspoon of time here is heaven but a tablespoon is paradise. I know, they’ve turned me into one of those sickeningly happy people. They specialise in it.