A SHAKEY START
Things might have turned out differently had Ana been present on November 26, 11 years before, when Chris paid 5 million pesetas (around 25,000 pounds) for the title deeds to an extremely basic farmhouse with no electricity or hot and cold running water and which, they learned later, had been offered to a neighbour for one fifth of the price.
“Ana was pretty shocked when she first saw the place,” admits Chris, who had to knock the main house down and re-build it to make it habitable. “We’d recently got married after many years together but instead of feeling elated, we felt in need of a fresh challenge and Spain has certainly provided it!”
At the time, they were both living beneath the airport landing path near Gatwick in Sussex where Ana ran a horticultural business while Chris had a somewhat unusual and bohemian career for an ex-Charterhouse pupil: farming his own sheep and shearing other people’s. In between, he worked as a travel researcher for Rough Guides, whose editors later encouraged him to write Lemons and set up the publishing company, Sort of Books, to launch it.
The title was unwittingly provided by the bossy British estate agent who gave Chris the grand tour, admonishing him for circumventing every lemon in the road, conscious as he was of their price at Asda. “We drive over lemons here”, she retorted.
Lemons were the first of many obstacles that lay ahead for Chris, 48 and Ana, 43, as they embarked on their adventure. Romantic it was not. The book tells how they weathered a turbulent decade punctuated by flood, drought, birth and death – but with sufficient sunny intervals to keep them from jumping off the nearest mountain. Their first set-back when they arrived at El Valero was the previous owner, the dour and complaining Pedro Romano who appeared to have come with the property. He squatted on the premises for months, concocting his daily pungent-smelling patatas pobre – consisting mainly of garlic – until Ana gave Chris a “him or me” ultimatum. Pedro cannot understand English, so is mercifully oblivious of his unflattering portrayal in the book.
But other neighbours are pleased as punch at Chris’s success. One of those is fellow farmer Domingo whose real name, like most of the characters in the book, has been changed. Domingo guided Chris through the learning curve of cats dying, dogs dying, poultry dying, pigs being slaughtered and their intestines fried and served up as delicacies.
Nature was constantly conspiring against the Stewarts although, with a remarkable sense of humour, Chris invariably saw the funny side. The joy of sampling his very first free-range egg, for example, is tinged with tragi-comedy. “Unfortunately, as I was eating the egg a stoat or weasel was eating the chickens,” he writes.
Further on in the book, and in tribute to one of five mangy cats the Stewarts adopted, he writes: “Elfine became a great ratter. The presence of rats and mice had been evidenced by their turds, little black pellets dotted about all over the house and terrace. Soon they disappeared, which led us to one of two conclusions; either Elfine was killing rats and mice very effectively or she was eating their turds.”
SECRETS NOT IN THE BOOK
Their worst disaster, which doesn’t appear in the book, ironically occurred as the family was celebrating Chloe’s third birthday. “A stray Alsation had been hanging around, courting our bitch Bonka, named after a brand of Spanish coffee, by the way. Chloe called him Outside Dog because we wouldn’t let him in the house. While we were preparing her birthday lunch we heard her scream. The Alsation had her head in his jaws and was playing with her like a rag doll. She was covered in blood and it was over an hour to the nearest hospital. Ana was cool as a cucumber, as most mothers are in a crisis, while I was imagining the full nightmare scenario, from rabies to brain damage. She still has the scar from the seven stitches she needed. All she kept saying was ‘Please don’t kill Outside Dog, he didn’t mean it’. A local man offered to take the dog but three days later he had to be put down anyway – he had torn out the man’s shoulder muscles.”
Chris’s mother Jill, who witnessed this incident, was once again over from the comparatively throbbing metropolis of Billingshurt in Sussex for a week’s holiday. “I couldn’t cope with longer”, she say, unable to hide her utter bewilderment at her son’s life-choices. “And for this we sent him to Charterhouse,” she says, arms outstretched in a gesture of despair. “Actually, things have improved – his first job when he left school was assistant pig man!”
Read Part 1 – Chris Stewart hits the big time
Next: GENESIS OF AN AUTHOR
© Belinda Beckett
Belinda Beckett is an ex-Fleet Street journalist, TV and theatre critic who has also travelled halfway round the world as Features Editor for one of Britain’s top travel trade newspapers. She has written for most of the Costa del Sol’s leading publications since packing up her PC for Spain in 1992. Adding ‘sizzle’ to any topic is her passion – travel and lifestyle articles, business features, humour columns – as you’ll see if you check out her website and blog at www.belindabeckett.com
Following the success of Driving Over Lemons, Chris Stewart has written several books including:
Driving over Lemons is also available as en eBook.