It has been a long, hard winter. Unexpected events stopped me dead in my tracks; birth, death, unfinished business, loose ends. In early August I returned to the US for what I believed to be a month, with every intention of returning to the Priorat by the grape harvest. Unexpected events kept me there until December, four long months of being away from home. Needless to say, it took some doing to stabilize. And in attempts to pick up the thread of this project, I stumbled on an idea that took re-energized me.
The olive harvest had begun as early as the end of October, so I felt sure we had missed any opportunity not only for oil but for color experiments as well. Quite the contrary. Our first weekend back we scrambled to pick the necessary 300 kilos the mill requires in order to press your own oil. We came in at 280 kilos, and were able to get 47 liters of our own C'an Do organic unfiltered oil, a real treat. And we left olives on the trees. These became the test ground for jumping back in to the Colores del Priorat project.
I gathered olives not only from the trees but those that had fallen to the ground. Their plumb black flesh promised a color of some sort. We have a variety of olives, mostly aberquina, DOP Siurana. But scattered in amongst those trees are a few that produce a large olive. And it was these that intrigued me.
I was sure the oily deep purple flesh would yield a beautiful color.Using a variety of silks, bathed in an alum bath overnight, I filled a glass jar with boiling water and crushed olives, and placed the silks to soak for 24 hours. Depending on the olive variety, I extracted a variety of colors, from a deep coral to a rich rose.
Now, to add a bit of spice in to the mix, I had read about a Vietnamese natural dye technique that piqued my interest, an ash after bath. Every morning I clean out our fireplace, dumping the nights ashes in the compost bin. However, I decided to put the ashes in a bucket of water, and experiment with this idea, using my olive soaked silks.
The roses and purples of the olive bath turned instantly green in the ash bath! It was not what I expected, but the alchemical magic was breathtaking. Within fifteen minutes I had an array of subtle colors, all derived from the olive.
With the ash after bath I have found a host of greys that are rich in their subtlety. Like glorious complimentary greys, when partnered with their original hue, I am building a library of tones and shades only nature can create.
Stay tuned as I begin the new year delving further in to the rich subtleties of natures color. It is January, but there is a trove to be had. I am gathering colors to present at the 2014 Tast Amb Llops, a celebration of Priorat wines. The rosemary is in bloom in January, the birds are arriving for mating season, and nature never fails us with her treasures.
The weather this spring has been a roller coaster ride. We have had everything from snow in April to incessant record breaking rain storms. The sky can go as dark as night in seconds, and hail the size of marbles pound the fields, wreaking havoc in the blink of an eye. Mother nature rules, and the cherry crop this year was a devastation for some, depending on how the micro climates of the region were tending. Wine makers suffer greatly, sometimes losing up to 50% of their crop at the momentary whim of Gaia. For Colores del Priorat, I have been amazed at the duration of the red poppies this spring. We are at the start of July and there remain a few fragile hold outs. I attribute this to a very wet spring. However, and I simply can't say why, I have been unable to extract the rich red I found in last years crop. No matter how many batches, nor from what field, I always seem to pull out colors tending towards the violet. I began harvesting in Vinebre, where the fields were alive with red. The pale color of the dye was surprising, no matter how long I let the bath sit. I attributed it to the fact that the area, being abundant with fruit trees, suffers from many farmers using pesticides. Next batch came from the area between Gratallops and Vilella Baixa. Same problem. Finally, knowing that our farm hasn't had any spraying done in years, I harvested our own poppies. Same dilemma, a rich violet, but not last year's red. My conclusion is that perhaps with the inundation of so much water, the pigment in the petals was less concentrated than last year, which was dry and hot by May. As a whim, I experimented with some commercial dried poppy petals I ordered. Even bigger surprise, green! Last year I managed a green from the poppies by using an iron mordant. I am waiting for my friend Carol, from http://www.prioratbeer.com/ to get back to town, so we can try her dried petals.
In the meantime, I am experimenting with commercial saffron, in preparation for my hunt for Crocus Sativus, which my bible, Flora de La Serra de Montsant, by Roger Pascual i Garsaball, assures me can be found in the valley between Vilella Baixa and La Figuera.
My old reliables from last year, euphorbia and helichrysum, continue to give glorious color. The curry like smell of my "Priorat Gold", helichrysum stoechas, continues to intoxicate. The euphorbia this year is a bit weak, the flower smaller than usual, the plant more spindly. Again, perhaps attributable to excessive rain. This is a dry climate, and the native species have adapted accordingly. Too much water and they lose their potency, their flavor, their color. The vagaries of nature.
But, like a snake shedding its skin, each year brings new life. I see the allium ampeloprasum making an appearance, beautiful violet globes that seduce with their color and architectural wonder. But I know, from last years trials, that purple hue will yield a buttery yellow. Or do I? Hm. Stay tuned.
The winter has been arduous. Eventful and inspiring, but a challenge. The month of December welcomed in the olive harvest, but our trees bore little fruit. Concentrating on finishing our house, I have neglected the trees. Hopefully they will forgive. A trip to visit our son and daughter-in-law in Singapore was a unique experience, with side trips to Bangkok and Bali. The extraordinary experience of a tropical December alerted my senses to the passages in nature. Color in the tropics presents itself in bold bursts.
It is seductive and mesmerizing. The heat, the humidity, the light all dazzle you with intensity.
Returning to the Priorat mid January, we were greeted with a blast of cold. The countryside lay dormant, waiting, patiently waiting. And then the almonds burst forth in February, their delicate tissue like flowers a spray of radiant lightness. Pinks in every tone, pale near white to the deep pink of the marcona. And I could feel the yearning to capture color. The almond blossom, however, seduces with it's burst of color and scent, but I have yet to harness it.
Yet the Priorat NEVER lets you down. The winter may seem like it won't end, and then, one day, on my way to the chicken coop, I saw my first poppy. And those of you who have followed Colores del Priorat know that the poppy is what started this whole adventure. So, where there is a poppy, there is more.
The wild grape hyacinth, muscari neglectum, pokes it head out boldly in the field, a dwarf reflection of the grapes to come. When I first glimpsed this delicate bloom, I disregarded it. The magnificent deep violet color seemed out of my reach. I have tried to solicit color from equally saturated flowers, only to be disappointed. But the hyacinth proved me wrong. Picking just the flowers, I immersed them in water, which I brought to a boil. Not a good idea. Too much heat. I immediately ran back outside to gather more, and augmented the bath with fresh buds. The resulting blue, what you might define as a robins egg blue, is utter magic.
And then there is the wild asparagus. What a delicious treat to wander among the terraces, after a night of rain, and find these lovely green shoots. After taking the tender tops for a tortilla made with farm fresh eggs, I boiled the remaining stems to reveal a tart, vibrant green. Spring has sprung. Colores del Priorat has awakened from hibernation, stay tuned for the colors of Spring 2013. I love the Priorat!
The vendimia is on. And though the grape harvest this year is down, in some cases fifty percent, wine makers are a tough lot, and will not be stopped. There is a phrase in castellano that I love, "es lo que hay", and to be sure, the amazing individuals I have met who make unique, artisan wines, embody this phrase, it's what there is. They don't take nature for granted, and work with what she offers.
And I work with what they offer, in this case the skins from their pressings.
Here's the process: the wine maker, in this case Bodega Sao del Coster and Ficaria Vins, presses the grapes and either discards the skins or calls me and says "hey, want some skins?". I then receive a lovely, fragrant batch of grape skins that have already been in the fermentation process. Next, add water.
It is nearly impossible to describe the refreshing, soothing sensation of plunging your arms, elbow deep, in to a vat of bubbling grapes. The sensory pleasures are magnified by a realization that this complex fruit, which provides us with that most pleasurable of liquids, wine, keeps working until you say stop. The winemaker makes it their task to say when to pull the plug. For my purposes, I just want to keep the skins around as long as they keep surprising me with color.
The vat of syrah grapes my friend Jaume Roca brought me from his syrah harvest is still percolating, weeks later. These are the grapes used for their Elia. My house smells like a wine cellar, and I LOVE IT! And on my terrace are grapes from Fredi Torres, which I culled from the rejects when I spent a day harvesting his cariñena for Planassos. Like a mad scientist, I dip my silks in to these aromatic baths, wait anywhere from hours to days to extract them. Rinse thoroughly, hang to dry.
I am so grateful to have found not only the Priorat but my fabulous friends in the Montsant DO. I am not a political person, per se. I don't distinguish between DO Priorat and DO Montsant. I have friends, they make wine, they give me skins, I extract color. I call this symbiotic relationship art, pure and simple, the confluence of craft and art. As the catalans would say, "que mes vols?", what more do you want?
The almond harvest, unlike the grapes, has been abundant this year. Lack of rain doesn't seem to have deterred our lovely trees. When we first bought our farm, the almond trees were sad from neglect. When we first saw the property, it was recommended that we simply pull the trees out and start fresh. Luckily that was advise we thought best not to follow. The following year we began to aggressively prune, giving the trees a new star. And this year we have been rewarded with a bounty. And there is nothing more rewarding than an abundant harvest,
The grapes this year are another matter. The unrelenting dry spell has seriously lessened the grape crop this year, and the harvest has seen some sad moments. But winemakers are a hearty bunch, and understand the vagaries of nature. And so my friends at Ficaria Vins keep working hard. They have a new white wine that is divine, and when I dropped by the bodega at harvest time, Jaume gave me the skins. Soaking in a large black tub, the skins began to ferment, and in to this fragrant bath went my silks. And, adapting the old saying, out came a silk purse from a grapes skin. Between the delicate citrus color of the grape and the terracota color of the almonds, two new colors to add to the Colores del Priorat palette.
Coming up, the bold and beautiful reds of the Priorat. There is simply nothing more beautiful. Even the sad and unusable grapes from one hundred year old vines gave me color. This miraculous plant works all year to bear its fruit, and I'll be dammed if it's going to waste. My daughter Violet and I picked the sad little clusters and indeed, they yielded a most delightful color.
As I pull the silk out of the last fennel bath of the season, I am reminded of how fleeting it all is. Fading flowers of spring promise to be back next year, but each cycle yields new and surprising results. Constancy in nature is tempered by the fragile aspect of humanity.
The final colors yielded by fennel and euphorbia are soft and muted, such a contrast to their spring vibrancy, when the plant was young and fresh.
Yet the faded colors of a spent bloom remain beautiful, even in their faded glory. Soft and quiet,
the colors have a strength not defined by saturated pigment but rather by constancy. This is a record of the burst of spring given to us each year, and the shifting beauty that is part of every cycle. I realized, taking the silks off the line, that these were my winter whites, a breath of possibility added to the months ahead.
Following up on my experiments with wild leeks, I have discovered a few key and interesting facts. Not all cotton is equal. I had experimented in May with some very fine cotton I purchased at the fabulous Ribes i Casals fabric store in Barcelona. Though the results were not as stunning as the silk, the color still had a rich, buttery quality to it, that proved a nice contrast to the silk. So I felt sure the cotton sheeting my friend Cristina from Hotel Cal Llop had given me was going to be great. Our idea was to recycle the fine cotton sheets used at the hotel that were too worn for use. The cotton had a nice, tight weave, and a good brightness to it. However, when I went to dye, as I stated in my previous post, the results were disappointing. And the boiling recommended by my neighbor in La Figuera, though helpful, still was not yielding the results I was looking for. Anxious that my extraction process was flawed, I decided to dip some mordanted silk in to the bath. And sure enough, gorgeous, magical color.
Conclusion: my original concept of making teas in the sun, for maximum energy efficiency, is still viable. The problem was not with the bath, but the fiber. The recycled cotton , though of a great quality, may have been too tight a weave, washed too often with soap that created a barrier (even though I wash all fabrics prior to dyeing), countless possibilities why the color wouldn't penetrate.
Next experiment with the wild leek: tap water versus salt water from the Mediterranean Sea.
After lunching at one of my favorite beach side restaurants, El Vaixell, and a swim in the sea to digest (contrary to the popular childhood adage, wait 30 minutes), I hauled out two 5 litres bottles of salt water to experiment with. Needless to say, the sight of a tall, rather pale woman hauling water out of the sea raised some eyebrows. Oh well, all for the cause of discovery. After gathering a new batch of leeks this morning, down behind La Perla del Priorat, I boiled one batch in tap water, one in salt water. The results were interesting.The silk manifested a rich, herbed butter color in the tap water, and yielded a color more akin to the color I managed on the cotton in the salt water bath. So, as I have been suspecting, the alkalinity of the water is going to prove to be an interesting aspect to this process. And perhaps the cotton I got from Cristina had been washed so often in water high in alkaline that the fibers have been compromised. Yikes, I didn't mean to turn my art in to a science! But it seems that the marriage of the two is inevitable.
I was traveling down the back road from Falset to El Molar, past Bellmunt del Priorat, the other day, thunder and rain drenching the earth, glazing it with a radiant red wash. It may have been the light, so very different on a cloudy day, that made me pause and notice flora springing up everywhere. Most noticeable were the patches of wild leeks, Allium ampeloprasum, whose fantastic globes were bobbing in the rain. I thought to myself, wild onion, onion skins, classic natural dyestuff. Pulling my Smart over to the side of the road, I got out, and with a bread knife I happened to have for my impromptu picnic, I began cutting the heads off. But as I did, I managed to pull up the entire plant, bulb and all. Not wanting to destroy flora uselessly, I grabbed enough to do my test.
I have been dyeing cotton for the bags I make for the silk scarves, as I wait for my bounty of silk to clear customs in Madrid. The results were proving disappointing, my sun tea baths just not yielding the same exuberant color as on the silk. I kept trying all manner of ideas, from salt water gathered from the sea, to longer baths, to my black tub method. Other than the unbelievably reliable "Priorat Gold" (read Straw Into Gold), I was disheartened by the not only lackluster color, but in fact very unattractive colors I was getting.
Adjusting jars and putting out new baths on my terrace, I was greeted by my neighbor below, who, I could tell by the look on her face, was curious about my odd assortment of jars stewing in the sun. I told her I was extracting colors from the flora of the Priorat, using my very useful guide, Flora de la Serra de Montsant, by Roger Pascual i Garsaball. We chatted for a moment, I told her the colors were amazing on silk, but that I was having a bit of difficulty with cotton. Oh, she said, cotton is tricky. I used to worked in a textile factory, she continued, and we had to get the temperature of the cotton bath really high. Wow, I responded, I perhaps should try boiling my bath.
And so I find myself boiling wild leeks in my kitchen, the delightfully pungent scent an added bonus. I have to say my neighbor was one hundred percent correct. The boiling bath is yielding considerably better results. So, lesson of the day: keep your eyes open for the new flora, keep your ears open for the new insight, and turn your disappointment in to a new discovery. Guess what I'm doing tomorrow? You got it. Back to my favorite back road to collect wild leeks. Fortunately I don't have overnight guests until next week, because not everyone likes their house to smell like onions!
I am besotted with Helichrysum stoechas, commonly called straw flower. My first attempts at extracting color from this humble, ubiquitous flower was in May, when the plant was just beginning
to burst forth. The near neon vibrancy of the flower's color gave me the impression I would realize a color more akin to a lemon yellow. What I pulled from the bath was a hue so complex and deeply saturated, that I immediately dubbed it Priorat Gold.
Since the early showings, I have been creating a tea with this flower throughout it's many phases. When I left for two weeks in early June, to attend to my sarasutton event at Lincoln Center, I was sure that was the end of the Helichrysum harvest. By the third week of June, the bright yellow crop had been replaced by the grayed caps of a fading flower. Out of respect, I decided to see this humble plant through to the end of its phases. The now straw like flower was easy to pick, and with a few swipes of my hand, the bucket was full.
I have been experimenting with making my "teas" in a big black bucket, as the 5L glass jars, though aesthetically pleasing, don't have the yield I need. The black of the bucket has proved to be an equally good conductor for the heat I want from the sun. It's hard to believe that from such a soup can come glorious color!
Next step, the straining. When I first began experimenting, I was leaving the plant in the tea. Though I really love the mottled effect you can get from the fabric coming in to contact with the solids, it is very difficult to control, and there are often areas that may be too dark or blotchy. So I've begun straining. The refuse then heads back from whence it came, the earth. From bloom to compost, full cycle.
And where better to decant in to but an empty jug of wine from the La Figuera cooperative, another way of recycling!
So , I sing the praises of the humble straw flower, whose tenacity throughout the one month of the year it graces us with it's bloom, relentlessly continues to turn straw in Priorat Gold!
On the summer solstice 2012, I embark on a new adventure. I have spent the last four years preparing for the moment I could make a permanent move to my beloved La Figuera, in the Montsant region of Spain's Tarragona province. The abandoned olive farm we purchased, named C'an Do, is well in to renovations, the olive trees producing once again, the little stone cottage close to habitation. The dream is being realized.
Part of any dream is the day to day sustaining of it. Dreams are free. Making dreams a reality comes at a price. As an artist, I am always seeking new ways to manage my life, employing the tools of my trade. For the past five years I have been developing a line of one-of-a-kind wearables, under the label sarasutton. The explorations and adventures I've had in creating this label have been extraordinary: meeting fantastic people who have championed my work, searching for new ideas and materials in my travels, keeping the creative brainwaves flowing. And I believe that due to this engagement, this constant search for new possibility, I was receptive to the bounty the Priorat countryside has to offer. From first meeting remarkable friends, like Cristina and Waldo, who own the fabulous Cal Llop hotel in Gratallops , and having the unique pleasure of of learning about the art of wine making from adventurous souls like Fredi Torres, of Saó del Coster, it has been an adventure. Finding a landing spot while renovating our stone house, living in the amazing, tiny village of La Figuera, we happened upon L'Ermita, and have been nesting in the first floor apartment. A genius move really, because it has allowed us to become part of our village, meet great friends, like our neighbors Montse and Jaume of Ficaria Vins. Truly a remarkable experience. Becoming part of any community is the first step to making change fruitful. Because I am so very comfortable here, thanks in great part to the fore mentioned friends, my eyes and, more importantly, my heart is open. The wheels are turning.
And so, walking through the countryside upon my permanent arrival May 2012, I saw clearly the bounty. Spring was in profusion, the countryside side awash with wild red poppies, the green of the grapevine shimmering in the sun, the bright yellow caps of the Helichrysum stoechas. In a flash I felt the need to harvest what I saw, and began making infusions, teas if you will, by placing the flora in 5L glass jars purchased at the Spanish equivalent of The Dollar Store, the Asia Bazaar. (Love those stores!). And what came out of the baths in those first experiments left me speechless. In a frenzy I started experimenting with everything I could find on walks through the countryside. That led to keeping a journal of my discoveries. From there I began forming garments, which led me to this moment, establishing a brand that could tell the story, Colores del Priorat. So stay tuned for daily updates as I continue to explore what each month offers. Already in sight: the almonds and figs in August. Preliminary results are proving exciting!