Another year on in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria, and I’m still learning something new everyday, becoming more and more adaptable and expanding my DIY skills. Here’s a roundup of a few of the things that have occurred this year…
2014 has been another year where water has been a huge issue but this time because we’ve had too much. Long periods of rain when we’ve normally had dry spells and seemingly every other day has been wet from either fast downpours or being ‘in a cloud’. Villagers joked last winter it was too dry and we should get some rain sent from England. Luckily we still had hot bright sun and blue skies over half the year so my tan was topped up and hasn’t faded.
Early this year an English woman, who had bought a house in this village and started to renovate it in 2013, brought her new man out to gauge his interest and he liked it so much he proposed to her. She accepted and 2 months later they married and moved out here to Lyubino, the village of love. They are a great couple who are a welcome addition to our mountain life, like-minded in getting out of the rat race, being self-sufficient and immersing themselves in ‘The Good Life’. These mountains always give plenty of wild mushrooms such as chanterelle, puff-ball and parasol, and a lot grow in our garden as I cheated and spread the spores around last year! But because this year has been so wet, more varieties have been found and our new neighbours have helped us learn more with their enthusiasm for wild mushroom picking.
Another friend, who visited last year and loved it so much, came out again, found a house she liked in the next village and bought it. Renovations are underway and the locals are extremely happy to hear the population is growing. Coincidentally, the main road that needed constant maintenance by villagers with spades and pickaxes, has been flattened out by machines and covered in tarmac. We loved the way the dirt road made us feel far removed from civilisation but realistically there aren’t enough people living here to cope with the frequent improvements needed. Every time it rains, the rivers of water cascading down the mountain, create ruts in the sandy track and channels dug to divert the water away are never long-lasting. Now the journey to our mountain retreat is much smoother, less damaging to cars, better for cycling, and thankfully the last mile to our house is still a dirt track. Very soon the evidence of machinery will be covered by greenery and it will still be a spectacular journey.
My fluctuating number of chickens sent me to the market to add new stock for more eggs. At the time my young cockerel, born last year, was creating havoc and constantly at loggerheads with Captain because he was trying to muscle-in on his women. He got his own back though and interrupted every attempt his father made! So as the new girls needed to be introduced gradually or the older girls would pick on them, I divided the hen-house and it meant an ideal time to give Cocka2 his own harem. He was so happy though the men still wanted to fight so I ended up with 2 families and double the work while keeping them apart! Soon after the mother hen got broody again so I gave her eggs from the older hens to sit on and included 2 from the newbies, which I thought wouldn’t be fertile as they were only half sized eggs, but it was lucky I did as it turned out my original cockerel was ill and all his eggs were duds. He was getting slower and slower and eventually wouldn’t come out of his house. He wasn’t cleaning himself and old age had set in. So once again only 1 chick was born but this time it was female and deemed the young cockerel was a good replacement. I had a feeling I should keep Cocka2 as a reserve and he was even happier when his harem grew!
When I bought the new hens I checked them over for parasites and was so determined not to have another bout of scaly leg mite, I didn’t notice 1 hen had no tail feathers. Because of her colours she looked more like a quail but was the most regular egg layer and in October, when the weather suddenly turned cold and egg production stopped, her tail feathers started to grow. Unfortunately the feather shafts were so thick they made her bleed profusely but soon she had a splendid tail and nice warm rear end. Another surprise being she was the only hen who resumed organic egg laying and continued daily, even after the snow fell at the end of December.
As for rabbit husbandry, after the daddy died last year, I kept a male from the 3rd litter but the story that rabbits breed uncontrollably didn’t pan out as, after 2 false pregnancies, I inspected closer and found he had an endowment problem! So I’ve decided to start again and buy fresh blood next Spring and give myself the winter off. The original female has become our resident pet rabbit, coming to and from her pen all day long and knows it is safe. When Cocka2 sounds the eagle alarm, she races back to it. She has dug a few burrows but the stony ground stops her going very deep and our exterior garden fence is chicken wired deep into the ground. She needs to be shut in at night as we have regular fox visits, and even though she often hides and makes me tour the garden looking for her, she always goes home in the end. Having a free range rabbit is much easier for me as I don’t have to collect much food for her. She is very friendly, likes being fussed and is also wise and knows not to eat bindweed so I’ll keep her to show the new breeding pair the ropes, so to speak, after winter!
Our dog Jakal has had another dramatic year but this time it was our new English neighbours whose hearts jumped a beat – he’d tagged along on a walk with their visiting kids. When they crossed a suspension footbridge over the river Arda, he decided the bridge was too scary so jumped in the water, not realising how fast the torrent was, and was nearly swept into the rocky rapids. Everyone held their breaths until he made it to the other side and they dragged him back across the bridge to make sure he didn’t try to swim the raging river again!
Their own dog had his experience of excellent Bulgarian vets. He developed a large swelling on one side of his body and as it didn’t go down and he was off his food, I went with them to help with translating. The vet knew instantly it was an abscess and set about lancing the lump and flushing the gunk out. In true Bulgarian style, and because the vet knew where we lived, he gave them syringes filled with 3 more antibiotic doses and a bottle of fluid to continue flushing out the wound. He wasn’t ‘stitched up’ as we westerners expect, but wound left open to aid healing. Luckily for them, the dog was a very good patient and even wagged his tail when it was time for another ‘flush-out’!
Muppet the cat is still adorable and earning her keep by regularly catching mice and sparrows – both of whom steal my chicken grain and there’s no danger of extinction for them!! Unfortunately she also caught a Syrian spotted woodpecker and ate everything bar the head and wings. We see plenty of those though so she’s not in too much trouble! She also caught and killed a weasel that had made a home in my food store and was working its way through my walnuts. During a tidy up, I disturbed it from its hiding place so it made a run for it but wasn’t fast enough. Our cat looked more like a lion trying to drag its latest kill!
My neighbour’s bees had so many babies he offered to restock but this time I took my hives to share the area with his to ensure they get well looked after while I learn some more about beekeeping. The wet year and reduced sunshine wasn’t good for honey though as bees don’t fly in rain and it has been a bad year for fruit trees. Cherry harvest was small though mulberries were alright so we made our first batch of rakia from a mix of the 2. I had to travel out from my garden to pick enough red plums but made a lovely tasting rakia from them and several jars of jam. A type of greengage did very well so with the help of our neighbours we filled 2 barrels and made another 40 litres of rakia! Sadly, no-one’s grapes were useable this year, even as eaters, and pears and apples all suffered. Walnuts suffered too but I still have reams left over from last year. Of the last fruit to harvest, quince did the best so I could still make lots of delicious jam from them.
I’m pleased to say I have learnt to make bread, a skill I didn’t master in England as it’s cheaper to buy ready-made, but as we live such a long way from the shops and we get 25K sacks of flour delivered for 18 lev (£7.20), it made a lot more sense to make our own. So we bought a bread-maker and using our cheap overnight electricity we got up in the morning to the delicious smell of fresh bread. Bread machines are great but they always leave a hole where the paddle sits and restrict shapes to loaves when I like to have rolls and French sticks. So I started using the ‘dough only’ setting and shaping it myself until one day I hadn’t connected the paddle and didn’t realise until the morning! I didn’t want to waste the ingredients I had measured out the night before, so mixed and kneaded it by hand. To my delight it wasn’t difficult and so I have added another string to my bow. Though it does require day flexibility as the yeast reaction is random – the 1st rise in summer can be as quick as 1 hour whereas in winter it can take a whole day – but is well worth it 🙂
Upkeep of this house and garden is quite demanding but I’m loving it. The hot sun and freezing winters have taken their toll on exterior wood so this year, I took advantage of dry spells and sanded down and varnished everything! Window frames, picnic benches, BBQ area, garden seating, animal houses… plus there’s the DIY entailed making extra nest boxes and shelves to give the hens a better house, building separation walls, repairing doors and gates, fencing new veg beds to keep the chickens out, making new garden benches… In fact I’m enjoying wood work so much I’m building a huge rabbit house extension to improve my working environment and with extra storage.
Another thing I’m learning is milking. Our 75 year old neighbour, who we barter with for milk, yogurt, butter and cheese, has become ill so I help her husband feed, muck out and milk the 2 cows they have. He’s still much faster at milking than me but then he has a few years head start! Ideally he should sell one of the cows and reduce the workload. He keeps joking one is for me but he knows I’m not ready for a cow. Maybe one day but it’s a lot of work, milking twice a day and then processing the gallons of milk… I simply don’t have enough time!
One piece of information learned you might like to know, Bulgarians do not need to add a culture to their milk to turn it into yogurt as it exists naturally in the air.
Lastly, we have been tackling our damp problem as against all odds, even though our house is on the crest of a mountain, because it’s mainly rock substrate, when it rains heavily the water can’t dissipate quickly enough and our house is flooded. We knew our main problem was the back garden being higher than floor level but also that the house is built of stone and stone needs to breath. So after research on the internet we decided to install a French drain. We hired some local men to dig out lots of earth, sand and rock, line the base with gravel and tubes with holes all along, and fill back in with 20 ton of pebbles. I always wanted to live in a castle and now I do as we have a moat around our house! Though I’m not acting like a princess, far from it – our workers hired a big drill to break up the rock to remove and I’ve been working hard, putting it to good use. Firstly I filled up the chicken run with about 15 barrows as it was getting very low from the ground compacting and me taking some away each time I scoop up chicken manure. I even made a retaining wall as their run is on a slope and when they dig and bathe they send it all into my veg garden! Secondly I’ve improved my vegetable bed paths by lining them with plastic sheeting and covering with sand in an attempt to stop those pesky weeds. Thirdly I used the best stone excavated to build a retaining wall for a new flower bed around our BBQ area and filled it with the good topsoil and saved flower bulbs. I also copied the French drain idea and installed a pipe at the end of the roof drain pipe to assist me with natural watering. So I am looking forward to Spring and crossing my fingers all my planning and planting works!
And we are very happy to announce the damp problem has been solved and our lean-to food store, which was normally under 4cm of water after heavy rain, is bone dry!
I think I’d better stop now and wish you all a happy new year and don’t worry – when you come to visit I have plenty more stories to tell 🙂