A highland fling

our wee adventure on the Black Isle


Another year, another olive harvest

It’s over, the party’s over…it’s time to call it a day! Well, I guess I wouldn’t call the olive harvest at Casa Tyr a party, exactly, but we did have guests, food and beer, and there were some laughs!

Olives 2012

Olives 2012

So what’s up? Well, for the first time ever, Kenton and I decided to hire help to collect the harvest this year. There were several reasons for this, namely

  1. The dreaded repilo is making its way to our area. This is a fungus that hits olive trees, and causes the olives to shrivel and turn hard – already some of the groves in the valley below Yunquera have been hit by this fungus. So we were keen to harvest before our own olives were hit.
  2. The trees were chock full of olives, so we were keen to get them in before the January winds hit.
  3. It seemed reasonable to give employment to guys in our area if we could.

So we did it. For me, it was a hard call. The reasons were all good, no doubt about it. But for the past 9 years, Kenton and I have done all the work here ourselves, including the harvest – and it hit my pride a bit to change things.

I did try to help with the harvest, and managed to work in the field every day. But the two Miguels were  there every time I picked up a net, or shook loose some olives – it was their job to work, and they didn’t want me lifting a finger. (They worked like madmen, and we picked the entire harvest in 4 days!)  So I did what I could. I went behind them and cleaned the remaining olives from the trees. I did all the other chores of the house, getting firewood in, making the fire and so on. I  did all the errands, I made Lujos, I bought bidóns for the pressed oil.

And I cooked – boy did I cook! In the way our old friend Manuel taught us all those years ago, we provided a big lunch for our workers. Working outdoors all day, they worked up a hunger, too! I don’t think I’ve ever peeled so many potatoes! I cooked all the old favourites – cazuela, arroz, patata frita con chorizo, the lot – all one-pot dishes that are designed to fill you up and give you energy, so that you can push beyond the fatigue. They were superb dishes, and much appreciated, I think. Here’s one of the recipes.


This is actually “paella”, but Manuel says if it contains meat, it’s arroz, not paella. I tend to think he made that up! 


Arroz con pollo y chorizo

1 small jar piquillo peppers
1 onion
4 cloves garlic
1 large jar tomatoes
500 g paella rice
400 g chicken breast, cut into pieces
200 g chorizo, cut into pieces
1 litre chicken stock
1 glass full white wine
2 tsp Spanish paprika
olive oil
lemon and rosemary to garnish

A paella pan is best for cooking this dish. Cook the chicken pieces in the olive oil part through, and remove from the heat. Add the onion and garlic and fry until soft. Add the tomatoes, and cook slowly over low heat until the mixture turns a dark red and looks very rich.

Add the piquillo peppers and chorizo and turn a few times. Add the stock; when hot, add the wine and the rice. Stir occasionally until the rice is almost cooked; add the chicken pieces and cook a further 5-10 minutes.

Serve hot, garnished with lemon slices and the rosemary sprigs.


…and just when you thought you were clever…

…something (or someone) comes along to tell you different!

We were in the middle of a heavy olive picking session this week, in the bottom grove where it was so lovely and sunny that it was (almost) a pleasure to be out picking olives. It was shortly after lunch, so we were in the lovely stage of having a brief surge of energy.

Up turns one of our friends, driving down the track to find us (the tree shaking machine makes a very distinctive noise, so we were easy to find). An interruption was not really what we needed, but when friends turn up for a chat, work must stop! It’s only polite.

He gazes around at our land.

Not many olives in your nets,

says he. I’m shocked. It is a really good year for us, and we thought we had loads of olives! But he’s probably right – his land is at a lower altitude, in a warmer situation, so his yields will naturally be higher than ours.

Then he adds

You’ve left olives on the trees. Ana should go behind Kenton with a long stick and hit the last olives off the tree

Now really. He’s right, we do leave olives on the tree – maybe up to 20-30 per tree. But there are only the 2 of us picking, so we play the percentages. It would take an extra 20 minutes to knock the last olives from the tree, in which time, we can move the nets and shake a new tree. So for us, that doesn’t make sense.

You can see his point. He generally works in a team of at least 4 men, where you have the extra labour needed to do this. Plus, he learned from his father, and the thought of wasting anything, even a single olive, is just untenable.

So he left shortly after commenting on our poor harvesting techniques, smug in the knowledge that once again, he’s proved himself right!

Olive picking

Olive picking (photo by Kenton@imagenary.co.uk)


And so the harvest is gathered

Kenton shaking a tree

It’s been a tough year for us at Casa Tyr, as I’m sure my regular readers will know. Family members ill, surgery for us, friends suffering in the economic crisis.

So it was with some trepidation that we started the olive harvest. We do this every year at around the same time – in fact, we’ve started earlier this year, almost as soon as we returned from a visit to the UK.

Why do we start the harvest earlier, you may ask? Well, blame the wind. Every year since we moved to Spain, we have grown olives – watched them grow, fertilised them, talked to them, loved them, pruned them, and in general waited for our just rewards.

And the result? Variable. We could never tell from year to year if we would even get enough for a pressing. Each year, just as the olives would get really ripe, the January winds would rip them from the trees, leaving us gazing sadly at the plump, ripe black olives on the ground.

So the last couple of years, we’ve picked earlier, to try to beat the weather. It’s worked, at least for the past 2 years we’ve tried the new system – we ensure we get a press, and if there are still enough olives left, we’ll pick in January.

This year, we almost didn’t make it. The winds were cruel to us, enabling us to pick until about lunchtime, then picking the nets up to the extent it was impossible to work. At long last, we made it, and should be collecting our new oil from the press soon.

Casa Tyr olives

Olives at harvest

Next year? Maybe that theatrical group from NYC will show up and help us pick, how great would that be?! My cousin threatens to conduct competitions, with all her friends in costume, so that we pick the harvest in record time. Now that I can’t wait to see!


Olive tree pruning 101

(Before you start on me, readers from other countries, let me say this. I know that you may not prune trees the way we do here, but hey, that’s what makes the world go round! OK, so we don’t use a little saw. We use a hatchet. But that is the way we were taught by our good friend, so that’s the way we will prune our trees! ‘Nuff said.)

So it’s that time of year again. The olive harvest starts in a month, just in time to (hopefully) get the last olive picked and pressed into golden Yunquera Gold olive oil before Christmas. So before that task begins, the tree pruning must be done.

Why, you ask? Glad you asked! Well, because if you don’t, it will be next to impossible to get the nets in closely around the base of the tree, so some of the precious olives  might be lost. During the course of the growing year, the olive trees send out suckers around the base of the tree, which not only get in your way when harvesting, they also suck the vitality from the tree. So they must all be cut away.

Not to mention the fact that it makes the land look tidier if the trees are nicely pruned around the base! A tidy campo is much prized in this area.

The pruning task is made much hard this year because both Kenton and I are recovering from surgery. So we are taking it easy – working only a few hours a day, so rather than the usual 4 day task, it is a 2 week task. After all, cleaning around 850 olive trees is no small feat!

We’re getting to the end of it now, only about 3 days to go. Then 2 weeks to work on the Lujos Christmas orders, and bang! Olive harvest is here.

Enjoy this instructive video. It’s a couple of years old, but believe me, the work is the same now, as then.


There’s always an up side!

OK, so I’m an optimist. I admit it – the glass is always half full, not half empty. (I also think that no experience is ever totally bad, so you can see how optimistic I truly am!)

I have written many times about how sad it makes me that so much of the “campo” land is now abandoned in our area. As you know, we live in the mountains, so anything grown here has to be hand tended and harvested. (no flat land, geddit?) This makes for uneconomic crops, for the most part. As the evil empire of agribusiness spreads, the price that crops fetch drops and drops. The price of seed and sprays to grow the crops only goes up, never down.

Despite that, the farmers of Yunquera have stuck with it. Each year, they would take their olives to the mill to sell. Each year, they would take their oranges to the merchant to sell. Each year, they made less and less.

It finally reached breaking point last year. We saw many of our neighbours dig up entire groves of orange trees – no longer could they afford to spend all year tending the oranges, only to sell them for 6 cents/kilo. We saw olive groves abandoned, as the ‘agriculturos’ retired. We have no farmers under 60 anymore (except us, of course).

OK, so that all makes me very sad, no doubt about it. It is not always possible to feel optimistic, but you can still look for an up side, and yesterday I found it.

The increase in abandoned land means that there is more brush for small critters to hide in. People no longer want to spend money on the land, so there is less spraying – this means the bees and birds have come back.

An increase in the number of small critters – mice, snakes, rabbits – means that the birds of prey are back. From kestrels to eagles, we see them hunting and playing in the skies above our house each morning and evening.

Now that’s a serious up side. Enjoy the photo!

Kestrels at Casa Tyr

Young kestrels playing (photo by kenton@imagenary.co.uk)

Abono time

That’s fertilizer, to the uninitiated!

Our first big chore after picking the olives comes a month or so after harvest. We buy about 10 big sacks of organic fertilizer, formulated especially for olive trees. Then, we pour it in buckets and go from tree to tree, throwing 4-5 handfulls underneath each tree.

It’s not the hardest of tasks, but with 850 trees, it is tiring. Not to mention the fact that it’s our first big task for a month, so muscles are sore (as are backs!). Not to mention that (for me) the heavy bucket dragging down one side makes my shoulder ache at the end of the day. Not to mention the fact that … well, I could go on and on, and I’m sure you’d feel even more sorry for me! 🙂

Fertilizing the trees, of course, makes for a healthier tree, one more able to fight off the occasional diseases we get around here. We have fewer problems on our finca than most, because it is higher and colder than many other olive-growing areas (for example, we don’t suffer from olive fly here). But there are still problems to worry about, so it is better to have a healthy tree, which is more able to fight off problems on its own.

Or so the theory goes! In the meantime, we’re off out again today, playing Johnny Appleseed (if you’re not from the US, look him up!), but with fertilizer granules, not seeds!


It’s that time of year again…

…for the annual “cleaning of the feet” !

No, not our feet, sillies! It is the phrase used here for getting rid of the weeds and suckers at the base of the olive trees. This is an important part of the preparation for the olive harvest. If you ‘clean the feet’, it’s easier to lay the nets flat under the trees, thus not wasting one single precious olive!

The dogs had a great time. They’ve been stuck indoors for a few days, as we had visitors (see previous blog on daughter Peggy’s visit with the new BF!). So they had loads of energy, and ran around most of the day. The hardest thing for me is that one of Milo’s greatest tricks is to grab the olive suckers as I’m carefully piling them up – have you ever tried to hold onto a stick with a 90 pound dog on the other end of it? It’s not easy, and in fact, I usually lose the battle!

Of course, it’s hard work. Kenton goes along with the big strimmer, getting the biggest of the weeds and suckers, and I follow along behind him with my hatchet, removing anything he can’t get close in enough to strim. At the end of the day, ankles hurt, knees hurt, shoulders hurt. Even my hands hurt!

Today was day 1 in the process. Up and down the hills. Slide around on the loose dirt and rocks. Bend down to get under the trees. All in a day’s work ‘cleaning the feet’!

Pruning under the olive trees

Strimming under the olive trees