From fires to frosts

From fires to frosts

This year, perhaps even more than most, has been all about the weather. The long, hot, dry spring and summer that caused the horrendous wildfires, the briefest of warm dry autumns and now, in early December, Jack Frost is already nipping at our toes. We’ve had a week of sub zero temperatures and as is usual here, if it’s cold, it means bright blue skies during the day and clear dark skies at night. And no rain. And it makes my daily morning walk with the dogs all the more pleasant.

 

And especially because the autumn colours are fantastic.

I’ve also been busy with my saw and nails. As soon as I finished the new wood store, I knocked this coffee table together. I’ve also been to a friend’s house and used his wood turning lathe. Maybe something to think about in the future?

They say the hardest part is the waiting, well it was with the cider (4 months in fact) but it’s now ready and it tastes pretty good.

cider

Meanwhile the harvests keep on coming. We’ve still got plenty of quinces on the tree but I have to say both me and Jackie aren’t that keen to make any more quince jellies or crumbles. Especially as the oranges are also now ready for marmalade making. Because we have had so little rain, although there are plenty of them, they are very small and so not really worth juicing.

Latest update: As I type, it seems the drought has been broken – to a certain extent. Storm Ana has passed by and dropped 57mm of rain over the last 24 hours. It’s also taken the leaves off the plane tree in the courtyard. Below is a photo taken a couple of weeks ago and then another taken this morning (with hailstones). We still need plenty more rain though.

So all in all another busy but thoroughly enjoyable year at Casa Azul and plenty of projects planned for next year too. We hope you like the ‘new look’ blog and all there is to do is to wish all our readers a very happy festive season and may your gardens and lives be bountiful in 2018!

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Week of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Week of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The poor old veg patch, suffering in the heat and drought. Then, even though we only got a bit, last month’s rain perked a few things up, mainly the brassicas which I have just been keeping alive in the hope that, when the rain did come, they would recuperate. That indeed seems to have happened: the sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, calabrese and cavolo nero all took a turn for the better and revived my enthusiasm too.

In fact, the never ending sunny days have meant there’s been little pressure getting things done before the weather takes a turn for the worse so, slowly but surely, I have been turning the overgrown mess into something that resembles beds once more.  60 garlic in here now:

Along with the dreaded weeding I have now planted a bed of leeks and sown a bed each of broad beans and peas, just some onions to go in and then the winter crops will have been sorted. There are still some crops left, the aubergines and courgettes need to be pulled up, and the asparagus chopped down, but there are some tomatoes, peppers and chillies growing so they’ll be left for a bit. The fact that the grass is growing again has also lifted my spirits.

I have also, a major achievement this, sorted out the potting shed – hurrah! Loads of stuff has got thrown away, tools cleaned and hung up, shelves tidied and cobwebs swept. The little rosemary hedge around the front has grown amazingly and has been pruned. It looks great inside again now. I couldn’t find a photo of when I first planted the rosemary cuttings but you can just see a tiny one here, and the weigela, the last time I sorted out the shed in June 2014:

Look how everything has grown in the last 3 or so years:

You can see that the polytunnel has at last got a new covering, but only the top half. It’s now called the demi-poly. And, since starting this post, you’ll notice the weather has turned. At long last it feels like autumn, it’s mild but misty, and the smell of wood smoke means that bonfires are being lit rather than the forest is on fire. Perfect gardening weather at last. (Is it really December, and winter, next week?!)

Meanwhile, on the feathered front, all the roasties, ducks and the guinea fowl are now in the freezer.  We also only have three hens now as Barbara, and her pendulous crop, couldn’t cope any more.  So we have Rocky, Barbara’s sister Hatty (centre), and the gentle giant Bright Eyes (background), the only one of the Orpingtons to have made it. She gets bullied terribly by the other two, despite being twice their size, and has yet to lay an egg.

I’ll finish with a pic only gardeners will appreciate: the very first broad bean poking through. Despite the digging, weeding and compost turning the sight of a little seedling makes it all worthwhile :-).

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A dribble

A dribble

October arrived and with it more deadly fires. By mid month we were promised rain and it came but only an inch fell on our garden. However, this may have been enough to save the trees which were hanging on grimly. It was also enough for the grass to come alive once again but for how long? After that paltry inch we’ve had no more and the sun continues to beat down. We’ve even been eating outside in the evenings as it’s been so unseasonably warm.

Cloud from more fires

The last few weeks has seen everyone out and about collecting their olives. In contrast to the very poor grape harvest, I don’t think the olives have done that badly. Mind you we only picked 86 kg this year, we could have picked more but we were very busy doing other things. Also we chopped a number of our old straggly trees down last year and they are just starting to come back. Our new year’s resolution for 2018 is to ensure we get a pro in to prune them properly to maximise the harvests in future.

Something I’ve been planning to do for a while was to build a wood shed in the courtyard. We’d been keeping the wood in the barn but now this has freed up more space to no doubt fill with more clutter. We shall see.

The lack of rain didn’t stop some bounteous harvests. We got one whole pomegranate and half a dozen almonds! We’ve already had a few quinces but we’re waiting for some more to ripen before Jackie starts making her delicious quince jelly. There are plenty of oranges (as usual) but they are already turning orange. Next up the marmelade!

pomegranate
almonds

In livestock news we got some more roasties – chickens and ducks and a guinea fowl. The bloke at the market had this little chap mixed in with the ducks so we thought we’d take him (or her). Apparently they get very noisy and can fly, not advisable with Betty on the prowl, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that. We did have a bit of sad news. The last of our second group of laying hens died. She hadn’t laid for quite some time so was well into retirement age. The new group are very slow to lay but Rocky who had been the first, stopped and became very broody. Now she’s back on track laying again along with one of the greys so we have one brown egg and one white one most days. The other two, Bright Eyes and Barbara are still to start. Get a move on girls!

guinea fowl and ducks

I’ve saved the biggest news this month till (almost) last. Ever since we’ve lived here there have been problems with the mains water. Every month the water main bursts, the blokes come round, dig a hole in the lane and fix it. This has been going on and on. Well finally they have decided to put in a new main and resurface the lane. So far so good. However, in their infinite wisdom, the council has decided to also widen the lane which means knocking down a whole load of dry stone walls and pulling up ancient olive trees. Of course we were against this as the lane only sees about half a dozen cars on it per day. But it gets worse. They have knocked the walls down and uprooted the trees along parts of the lane but now the work has stopped. There are a few ruins and pieces of land lining the lane and no one seems to know who owns them so they can’t knock their walls down without their permission. So no new water main, no new road, just a mess.

knocking down walls

In better news the cider is still slowly maturing in the barn but in the interim I’ve been doing more home beer brewing, or craft brewing as it’s now known. Need I say? Delicious!

Cain’s craft beer

Oh, and one more thing. Did I say I’ve now freed up some space in the barn? Well it’s already being used for two of my new toys. In the background you can just see the old olive cleaning machine we bought from our neighbour Luis, but in the foreground is my new bike. It may not look that flash but it brings back many happy memories of exploring the mountains of northern Vietnam as it’s a Minsk, a tough as old boots Russian built, go anywhere dirt devil!

Minsk
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Some September stuff

Some September stuff

Where to start? Well, we took the first 2 weeks of September off, another camping trip to the French Pyrenees plus some super stopovers in Spain. Faithful hounds, house and hens were all looked after by a fabulous couple which gave us a real break.

Now of course it doesn’t feel as if we have been away at all.  Our first task on return was Operation Pergola. We put up this wooden structure in 2010, before we’d even moved in.

The idea was to grow vines over it for a lovely shady spot to eat under in the summer. The first year went to plan, three vines grew quickly up and over. The second year was okay but come the third the vines just didn’t seem to be doing very well, and then alas they seem to have died. Such a disappointment. I blamed it on the location: too high up, windy and exposed. But then Richard built another structure, even more exposed, on the threshing square. The vines grew and flourished and soon became exactly what we wanted:

The vines, or rather the dead woody branches, were cut down and onto plan B: kiwis. They grow so well around here and the fruit would be an added bonus. Again, they started well but it soon became apparent that these were a failure too. Digging them out, with a heavy heart, we found the problem, or rather the culprits: voles. There were enormous holes under each plant and the roots had all been eaten away.

So plan C was activated on our return. This was to lower the top, it was always proportionately too high, and cover it with bamboo sheets. Somehow we ended up buying the reed version but it has been covered. Then we’re going to plant climbers in large pots around the structure, it will look nice one day… but look how the plants around it have grown!

Meanwhile the veg patch has sort of been abandoned. The heat has just been too much for most things, although we have had tomatoes, cucumbers, some celeriac and courgettes on our return.

The real survivors though are the peppers, both sweet and hot. The forecast is for temperatures to remain high so perhaps the aubergine flowers will bear fruit.

Another victim of the heat has been the polytunnel. Such a great idea but in reality, with these Portuguese long and oh so hot summers, not very practical. There were days when it rained (I vaguely remember what that means…) or overcast when the polytunnel was great. However, seedlings, if left in there even on a sunny March day, would soon shrivel up. I tried to grow tomatoes in a small bed but these too suffered in the heat.  Rocket bolted and lettuce shrivelled. I was forever taking trays in and out, and then I lost a couple of sweet potatoes over the winter as it didn’t even keep the frost away. So, all the plastic has been pulled off and I’m considering just covering the top half so that it can still be some sort of shelter and storage area.

One success story has been the prickly pears, loads this year, and we seem to have a bumper harvest of walnuts too.

Finally, Richard has asked me to put up this photo of his cider factory. (Faithful followers will remember the last post when we picked barrel loads of apples). We’re hoping it’s going to be ready for Christmas:

That’s it! The chicken story will have to wait, as will the saga of the dual carriageway being built though the village…

 

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Maçãs e peras galore

Maçãs e peras galore

There are a couple of reasons why we have been rather slow at updating the blog recently. The first has to do with my iMac; it seemed to have died. We stared at the blank black screen that refused to show any sign of life and then, as there seemed to be a strange noise coming from behind, we both peered over the top… poof! It blew itself up. We have only just got round to choosing a (non iMac) replacement today.

The other reason (I’m struggling with the different apps on Richard’s computer now) is that we have both been busy turning Casa Azul into Fábrica Azul – a factory for a whole range of fruity goodness. For some reason the apple and pear harvest has been amazing this year, not just in our garden, but everywhere we go. Branches are breaking and bending under the weight of large, ripe fruit, many falling to the ground to create a colourful, fermenting carpet.

Our apples have been grated and given to grateful hens, chopped into cubes for crumbles and of course enjoyed with the local cheese for dessert. They have also been peeled, cored and sliced and then frozen. We have this great gadget that does the peeling, coring and slicing in one go so we go though the kilos very quickly.

Next up was the drying. To say that the weather is perfect for drying would be an understatement, it’s been hot and windy for weeks. So experimenting with an old clothes horse, apples have been dried in spirals, reminding me of the hanging incense in Hong Kong.

Not content with all of this Richard loaded up the truck with empty barrels and we drove around the country lanes collecting loads of apples from a range of different trees for Operation Cider. Out came the juicer and all the paraphernalia for making one of his top tipples. As he has been making beer as well it would not be an exaggeration to say the house smells of a brewery. (In fact the fermenting bucket behind me looks like something is trying to escape from it).

The pears have had a different treatment. Most have been bottled, my all favourite way for preserving fruit. There’s nothing nicer in the winter than to open a jar of summer sunniness which has been flavoured with vanilla, or perhaps star anise and cinnamon, cloves or cardomoms. Mmm indeed.

The bottling process has been quite a learning curve, there’s a huge difference in approach between the US and UK but I think I’ve perfected the technique this year. We have also had pears cooked in a red wine syrup, a dessert so tasty it should be more difficult to make.

Apart from the tree fruit the tomatoes have, until recently, been defiantly putting on some sort of show. Luckily I have grown a fair number of plants because the high temperatures have put an end to any decent crop from each one, and the range of varieties grown has also meant we have had enough for salads as well as roasting a whole load too. You can never have too many roast tomatoes. The special roma ones have then been through the mouli to make passata. Aah indeed. Luckily we have two freezers.

And just as I was feeling we were getting on top of everything, tidying all the gadgets and whatnots away, Richard has just announced that the figs are ready. Looks like the factory isn’t closing down just yet…

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The heat is on (still)

The heat is on (still)

We’re now into July and the heat is still relentless. In the aftermath of the fires, the controversy regarding the growing of eucalyptus has intensified. In fact a number of villages have decided to not wait for government (in)action and are taking matters into their own hands and have decided to chop all the eucalypts down within a certain radius of the village.  Lets hope it makes a difference. After the fires we actually had some rain. Well not much more than a shower but it was enough to coat the truck in ash. Although we’ve had it for a few years I had to give it a wash for the first time!

In garden news, I forgot to mention previously that for the first time we had a decent harvest of loquats. We did what we do with all the fruits – made jam and crumble.

We’ve also had the yellow and red plums and are currently waiting for the huge amounts of greengages to ripen. Despite the heat and little rain, the apples have done really well as have the pears which should be next up. Jackie will be reporting on the veg patch later this month (hopefully it hasn’t completely frazzled by then), but I wanted to say that the corn on the cobs were as delicious as ever. They are probably my favourite product of the veg patch.

 

In June we also had Jackie’s dad over so we’ve been doing that most Portuguese of traditions – throwing sardines on the barbie!

another barbie
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The heat and the dust

The heat and the dust

So let’s start with the bad news: 61 dead, so far, in the worst forest fires in Portugal for many years. Fires continue to blaze since Saturday in some places and new ones pop up all the time. The firefighters are exhausted, their heroism is extraordinary. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures and videos yourselves. Despite this we count ourselves as exceedingly lucky. We have the smoke, the ash, the drone of the helicopters, the intense heat of a 40° sun but we are safe and sound. Until the weekend I was lamenting the fact that the temperatures were affecting the vegetables but now I realise losing some of this year’s crop is nothing compared to those who have lost all.

It’s been very hot, of course, for the chickens, all three batches. The ‘roasties’ seem to suffer the most, sitting panting on the ground dipping the beaks into the water. Ah well, Richard is sharpening his knife so they won’t be suffering for much longer! The new hens, we are really pleased to say, are continuing to grow well. The eldest black one laid her first egg 27 May and has since been laying every day; perfect, nut brown eggs.

Many years ago, we saw that one of the fields allocated to the hens had little shade midday so we planted a couple of lime trees. It gives me great joy to see our new hens sitting under them, exactly as planned!

The veg patch is bursting with growth, somewhat curtailed by the heat, but battling it out. Far too many crops to mention here but we are eating the cucumbers, a little celery, the parsley, the runner beans and I’ve already pickled a jar of gherkins. Oh, and the courgettes of course.

The sweetcorn should be ready soon and some of the many tomatoes too.

Fruitwise we are eating the raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. Having our own eggs again means ice cream is back on the menu so we’ve had some delicious gooseberry and elderflower ice cream. The neighbours’s peach tree put on a good show again for us too.

We are really hoping for a bumper crop of plums. Alas, our Stanley plum tree has died – such a shame when we had so many last year and they were just so delicious. The redcurrant almost died, a few twigs left only, and the blackcurrant also died. At the end of the day some things can cope with the freezing temps (remember it went down to -6° quite a few nights over the winter) and blistering heat, and others can’t. The red and yellow plums, damsons and greengages will make up for that we’re sure.

Meanwhile, back in the courtyard, it’s looking lovely since being painted and the pink against the blue is surprisingly striking. Just a shame it’s too hot to sit outside and enjoy it – ha!

Finally, the most important things in our lives are also fine. Less lively in the heat…

…but thankful for the cool of the outdoor ponds.

Richard has just come in from watering the garden. He says there are more helicopters over the valley from us and a new fire has broken out. With the summer just starting these are certainly unsettling times.

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Hens back on track

Hens back on track

After the disappointment of our Orpingtons, we happened to meet an old friend who told us that she bought her chickens from Miranda do Corvo market (not far from us) and that they had a wide variety on sale. We had not been to this market before so we decided to give it a go and picked up some more chickens. A couple of weeks later we are really pleased. Although the seller wasn’t sure what breed he sold us, after a search on the internet we are fairly sure they are crosses between Rhode Island Reds and French Marans. Two of them are Bluebells – the Bluebell sisters and the other is now known as Rocky. We still have one Orpington – Bright eyes. And one of them has already been laying eggs for a few days – beautiful brown ones.

A bluebell sister

Rocky

Meanwhile our two original hens have officially fully retired from laying duties.

And in the third pen the roasties and ducks are about ready for the chop. Once they can eat from the feeder while sitting on the ground definitely means they are ready!

roasties and ducks

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Orpington blues

Orpington blues

It’s rare that we start a post with a heavy heart but here goes… I have been wanting to get some different breeds of hens for some time now. The standard brown ones are fine but they don’t lay for very long and they’re… well, standard brown. When we bought the chicken plucker a few weeks back the guy there told us of someone who breeds Orpingtons; one look at some photos and I was hooked. And not only do they look nice but they are also dual-purpose birds so suitable for eating too ie the male chicks aren’t going to be killed straight away as they don’t lay eggs.

Anyway, arriving at the place the first thing we realised was this was a private home not a commercial business. There wasn’t a chicken to be seen. The guy soon turned up in a large truck, he’s actually a builder by trade. He took us through and round the back and it’s clear he has a large, well-organised operation going on. There are various pens of breeding trios and seeing the birds for the first time we understood what they mean by ‘heavy-breeders’ – they are enormous. We were shown inside a room where the chicks are.  They are under a heat lamp. “You have a heat lamp?” Er no… He can’t tell which are males or females so that’s a no go. Another pen has older chicks, still under a heat lamp and still un-sexed. Thinking it was a wasted journey he took us round the back, past some very inquisitive goats, to some paddocks with small white marquees in. On opening one of the doors an assortment of hens flew out which he said were about 2 and a half to 3 months or so. I had really wanted the golden lace winged ones (as pictured above) but he only had one. So in the end we took that, a brown ‘chocolate’ one, a black one and a striking black lace winged one.

Just as we were leaving, hens all boxed up, he said that in fact these hens were all under a lamp too, there was a table in the middle and the lamp hung from under it. We were astonished, we have never used a lamp. And later we thought it was odd that he hadn’t let them out until we were there, it was well gone 3 and a hot day…

We took them home, popped them in their new coop and stood back. First days and first impressions were not so favourable. They seemed very dull and lacked interest in anything. Ah well, they looked nice. It soon became apparent that they were listless rather than docile. They ignored any of the ‘grown-up’ food preferring a mash of baby food and water. Despite the warm weather we worried they had not acclimatised to their new habitat but research confirmed that chickens do not need any type of heat lamp after 3 – 6 weeks, depending on the breed. Basically, once they have feathers they’re fine. These hens were all at least 10 weeks old!

One by one the hens were obviously not well and taken into a special box in the barn, a borrowed heat lamp installed. Only the black one, with her huge beady eyes, seemed fine. She took to perching immediately and was always the first one out in the morning, the others stayed sulking inside. The three died. We have gone through various emotions, animal welfare is very important to us, the very reason we want to have and look after our own is so they can have the best lives possible. We don’t know what happened really but we think that the change of environment was too much for them and they hadn’t built up any defences. They weighed nothing.

The remaining hen doesn’t want to be called Billy-no-mates so tomorrow we are going to buy her three friends. I hope they all get on. Orpingtons are known to be gentle and can be picked on by other hens, fingers and feathers crossed for her.

Not to end the post feeling down-hearted I must say that the garden is looking lovely in the May sunshine, it is alive with flowers and birds. The white lillies, already in the garden when we bought it, are just splendid next to the red bottle brush:

The rose, clematis and blue nigellas also look nice:

Along with the nightingales, robins, blackbirds, black caps and great tits the frogs add their voice, we must have at least 50 in the big pond right now:

And we have finally finished – hurrah! the painting of the blue around the courtyard:

So we are appreciative that we can eat all our meals outside in such nice surroundings, we are now looking forward to enjoying our own eggs once again.

 

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Busy bees

Busy bees

It’s been one of our busiest months, not just in the garden or veg patch but around the house too.  I’m sure we thought that, once we had been in the house for seven years, we wouldn’t have much to do. But with the new wall this has meant painting, re-organising the rooms, moving stuff from one place to another (my old office is now Richard’s ‘man cave’), putting up shelves, painting, putting up new lighting, buying a new sofa and, yes, painting. I still need a desk of some sort for the main computer. I’m perched on a stool under the stairs at the mo.

The courtyard too has had a face lift. We had painted the lower part of the walls a solid blue which faded, so we did it again and that faded. Last year we went to a paint shop and asked for advice: this meant us buying special fixative first which is applied to a cleaned wall. And then expensive exterior paint, two coats. So yet more cleaning and painting. Urrgh. I have to say I don’t want to see another paint brush again for a long time. Alas all the walls, I am reluctant to say, need their second coat and I have lost enthusiasm. Anyway, it all looks a lot nicer and pics are to follow.

Meanwhile April has not been behaving itself. The nightingales are here, the colourful orchids and wild flowers are appearing but the showers, or any real rain, have yet to come. It’s been very dry. Dry and hot. The lack of rain has meant watering the garden and veg patch (we haven’t had the wood burning stove on all month). Despite the drought we are drowning in peas and broad beans and have just had the last of the asparagus and beetroot. The veg patch has seen far too many bugs already, especially aphids. There are ladybirds (didn’t see a single one last year) but these are too few and too late. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slugs and snails have kept away; they love the wet weather (and our many frogs have very beady eyes). Strong winds and ants have meant most of the broccoli and cauliflower have failed. On a more positive note three different kinds of runner beans are running up their poles, gherkins and cucumbers are showing signs of flowers, and there are courgettes in too. The sweetcorn are doing well. All the other seedlings have now been potted on and these will all be planted over the next few weeks of May; the game of putting all the plants away at night into the polytunnel and then back out again in the morning has begun.

We have a new set of ‘roasties’, this time 3 ducks, 5 white chickens and 2 brown ones. Which reminds me: the highlight of Richard’s month has been the purchase of a chicken plucker. Expensive? Yes. Worth the money? You bet. Half an hour of plucking has been reduced to a cool 10 seconds. One happy Richard.

Cooling off time for the dogs, two happy hounds:

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