Spring has sprung

Spring has sprung

Spring has sprung so fast this year that we have forgotten to post pics of most of our fruit blossoms. The cherry, plum, almond, apricot and pear are already on the way out, the quince is looking really good and the courtyard is filled with the scent of orange blossom, only a week or two from picking our last oranges.

small orange tree

The best of the wild flowers is in May but already we have cistus and snapdragons showing off. Jackie does a tremendous job of picking the wild flowers and replanting them in our garden so we see both of these while out walking and in the garden.

cistus (and red robin)
wild snapdragon
someone’s always got to get in the shot

Following on from last month’s mention of the orchids, this month has seen a few more including the woodcock, conical, mirror and sombre.

Woodcock orchid
Conical orchid
Mirror orchid
Sombre orchid

I’ve been busy in the courtyard. I’ve made another bowl…

and also been busy making beer. We can’t run out of beer in these troubling times. Although this is my eleventh all-grain brew, I haven’t as yet described or put up any photos of the production. I’ve got a sack of barley malt which provides the bulk of the beer. To this I add some speciality malts depending on the type of beer I want. This is then steeped in warm water (mashed), the sugary liquid (wort) drained out into my Robobrew and then boiled for an hour and hops added. When the liquid has cooled to 20 degrees, I pour it into the fermentation vessel (a large plastic bin), add the yeast and leave it to do its job over a few days. Once fermented, it is bottled, conditioned and drunk. From sack to glass the whole process takes less than a month.

weighing the grains and boiling the wort
brewing is best in the sunshine. You have got to taste the product when brewing

Jackie has also been busy trying to make best use of the ever increasing number of eggs produced by our small flock. A new one for us but a staple of pubs throughout the UK – pickled eggs!

Another then and now…

Another then and now…

A few years ago I saw a Gardeners’ World episode where Monty Don had received loads of messages from people asking why their bulbs had not come up, it was a glorious spring. He explained that the winter had been too dry, bulbs need the rain. Well, this year, after a very damp winter, the bulbs are indeed up and running, earlier than usual. The orchids have also appreciated the mild, wet season and we have fields of giant orchids, far more than usual I’m sure. Standing tall and proud they look simply marvellous in the sun:

The early purples are also up:

And here is an albino version, along with a sawfly:

I saw the first naked man this morning on the dog walk but it wasn’t properly out yet, I’m sure this must be the earliest we have seen them.

Meanwhile, ten years ago, February had been exceedingly wet indeed. The house had been given a new roof, yet to be tiled, but it looked like, well, a building site – and a very muddy one at that! 2010:

You can see we cut that scraggy olive tree down, a lone shoot was allowed to grow and is doing very well:

We made the pond ten years ago too:

Today, it’s impossible to see it through all the vegetation. But trust me, it is full of enormous frogs:

The front was extended for a bathroom and study:

The rose bush, which is in a large pot, is now impossible to move. The roots have grown through the hole at the bottom and into the courtyard. The house faces south and the blue bench Richard made, one of his first woodworking projects, is top spot in the afternoons.

We kept the stairs, but now they are difficult to use as the ivy we planted has gone mad, and we are reluctant to cut it as the birds roost there at night, and the wrens have made a nest:

It’s the garden which has changed the most. You can just make out the new trees we planted:

The rosemary were all tiny cuttings, it’s all getting rather scruffy now but again I’m reluctant to prune as the flowers are loved by the bees:

In the veg patch now we are enjoying the asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli, also earlier than usual. The broad beans are doing really well and we have some more frangos so that Richard can always have a roast on Sundays.

Talking of food we took advantage of a wonderfully sunny day and headed to the coast and our favourite restaurant for a seafood lunch. It was just what the doctor ordered; I have had a cough for what seems like weeks now which I just can’t shift so an hour or two in the sun was perfect.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

Good riddance to January, that’s what we say. A mostly gloomy, soggy, grey, damp month this year with few occasions to gloat about the winter sun being warm enough to have lunch outside. There have been some nice days for bracing walks but otherwise it’s definitely been a time for enjoying the wood burning stove and appreciating whoever invented the electric blanket.

The hens, having been given access to a lovely grassy plot have turned that into a mud bath already. But the laying has picked up (although I don’t think a day has ever gone by without at least one egg in the nest box) and they seem cheerful enough despite all being various shades of brown now.

The wild birds all seem very lively too, the garden is alive with singing and chirping and fighting over the bird seed feeders. A constant tapping noise outside the house intrigued us: a great spotted woodpecker was in the walnut tree. There’s often one in the huge walnut tree at the end of the garden but nice to have one nearer too.

The original veg patch is slowly disappearing. Richard has spent a long time lifting up all the old roof tiles that had been used to edge the beds (and which provided perfect tunnels for the voles to scamper up and down). His reward: a glass of one of his homemade ales.

Last weekend was the first time it was warm enough to get on top of all the January jobs ie pruning. So the plane tree has been pollarded, the vines pruned, some hedges clipped, the gooseberries thinned and the raspberries cut back too. The plane tree branches grew almost 3m in one year but Jussi was not so impressed.

Just the willow needs to be tackled now. Time also was found for mulching many of the beds, plus a load of mulch spread on the bed earmarked for the sweetcorn. The sweetcorn have always done well, the first year I planted them I was a tad disappointed that each plant gave only one or two cobs but they are always delicious. One thing I have never been able to do is stagger crops so everything is ready at the same time but a few weeks of eating sweetcorn most suppers is fine, and actually they freeze well and finding a packet at the bottom of the freezer is a nice surprise.

Which brings me to the coveted Plant of the Year award for 2019. Would it be the sweetcorn? Tempted. But in fact I’ve gone for something more prosaic: the broad bean. Planted in the depth of winter they survive the frosts and wind. This lot were photographed 6 and 31 January. Only two failed to germinate. (The raised beds are a marvel, so much easier to use than the original beds. Can’t believe it was a year ago Richard made them).

They’re ready May, and again stacks of long pods suddenly appear and it’s beans with everything. But we like them a lot, they’re reliable (the hens get the tops with the black fly) and with their lovely, scented flowers are great for the bees too. They’re also great great nitrogen fixers so whatever goes in next, brassicas are best, benefits from that. Well done, the broad beans.

Boas Festas!

Boas Festas!

The rain stopped just before Christmas, hurrah. We were tempted to have lunch outside on the day but decided it was just a tad too chilly, but very nice to enjoy a little pre-prandial glass of homemade something sitting in the sun.

We had a nice day despite my back suddenly giving me jip, a tooth falling out, the postie being even slower than usual so half the pressies weren’t delivered, and then choosing Ad Astra for our Christmas evening movie… but otherwise it was great! Richard had earmarked the biggest of the roasties he’d killed earlier in the year and there’s still plenty of chicken left. He’d also made a whole batch of orange juice so we could have Buck’s Fizz with our traditional Eggs Benedict (with smoked salmon not bacon) in the morning.

The lovely sunshine we’re having now has meant the strimming could no longer be put off, the grass really was incredibly tall, and now the garden and veg patch look presentable again. It has also meant the first of the frosts; we’ve been greeted by a blanket of white these past few mornings.

The hens have been given a special treat too and now have access to the meadow from the other side of their coop which is lush and green. Here is Skittle with Momo and Hattie:

He’s been a bit off colour recently; he’d lost his crow (very silly of him) and wasn’t perching at night. And, to some relief from the hens, had lost his mojo too but he’s back on form now. Here’s Lacey and Preta:

And this is Hazelnut and Branca:

Just poor old Rocky is still on her own but she can see through the fence to the others but is well protected from Skittle, the back of her neck never recovered completely (although it looks fine from this angle) from the accident back in May. She’s rather shocked by the daffodils, as Richard was when he discovered them while strimming:

A Portuguese friend we know, on hearing about our summer trip to Galicia, said: “The Spanish and Portuguese are neighbours, but they are not brothers”. It made me think of Jussi and Betty: our dogs live in the same house, but they are not sisters.

Despite their differences I am sure they would join us in wishing our readers the very best for 2020 and the adventures that lie ahead. See you then.

The Somme

The Somme

The meteorologist-in-residence says that it rained every day in November. Sometimes just constant, gentle ‘Tet’ rain as we call it (anyone who has been to Hanoi in February will know exactly what that is) or chucking it down, hammering on the roof and creating enormous red puddles. Combined with mild temperatures it means that the garden is disappearing under knee deep grass so that even going out when the sun does shine means coming back soaking wet.

It means that the hen run really is a huge mud bath and great precaution is needed when putting Skittle and his harem away at night. Fortunately the field next door, which they can have access to from the back entrance of the coop, is on the way to being a lovely lush meadow and they’ll be able to appreciate that soon. We are still getting eggs every day.

It means that there are flowers as well as berries on some of the bushes; here the medronho (strawberry tree) and the hawthorn think it’s both autumn and spring:

It means too that we are having a particularly colourful autumn. The leaves have remained on the trees for much longer both in the garden and out in the countryside. The acer campestre we planted almost 5 years ago has put on a stunning show for the first time:

Meanwhile in the veg patch I was astounded to see red peppers as well as green on the plants. The hens appreciated the last of the toms, a little manky from the wet. I’m pleased to say the garlic which I’d planted earlier in the month are already sprouting, the broad beans are in as well as the leeks. The asparagus has been chopped down and mulched.

Also a certain event next month has not been forgotten. Both the cake and pud have been made, and the sloes decanted. Richard has also mended the pallet tree so we’ll be decorating that tomorrow. Which reminds me: the real Christmas tree we planted in the garden will be celebrating its tenth festive season this December; I must take a photo of that, it looks marvellous.

Alas, the olives have still to be picked but December seems set for blue skies so a combination of warm afternoons and frosty mornings ahead. Perfect picking weather.

Autumnal stuff

Autumnal stuff

At long last the rain has come, although it does seem like it won’t go away anytime soon. The garden is turning a lush green, the hens a dirty brown and the sky is a heavy grey. We feel though we did make the most of a mostly sunny month with walks in the countryside and trips to the seaside but the olive harvest was started only just before the rain and then abandoned. With luck the one measly bin I filled will at some point have others added to it but neither of us enjoy picking olives and getting wet.

We have been able to do some hobby stuff. Richard disappeared under the trees for a few days to make a (rather belated) wedding present for my niece who got married in the summer. Olive has the most beautiful grain and it’s so nice to use the wood from our own trees.

I also managed to get some sock knitting done with some hand dyed yarn. These are a combination of buckthorn berries, wild madder root and comfrey leaves all taken from the garden.

And then I put the woad to good use (I mentioned my efforts of dyeing with this in last month’s blog) by designing and knitting a little cardi for my nephew’s son – yes! I am a great aunt!

And I’m delighted to say I did use the prickly pears to make jelly; let’s hope all the prickles got taken out…

Finally, we are noticing the mushrooms coming up. Huge boletus line the wood paths along with a new white mushroom we have never seen before. We saw them first in the raised beds, and then were surprised to see them in the forest too. They are all white, with white gills and spores, and we assume they belong to the amanita family (which includes the death cap) but at easily 20cm in width we are completely unable to identify them.

Do tell us if you know what they are!

Happy anniversary

Happy anniversary

A typical September which saw us pottering about plus a short jaunt across the border for an over indulgence in seafood. However, the big day was September 11th, the day we landed in sunny Portugal 10 years ago. We celebrated with a family photo and some of Richard’s home made beer, of course. They do say never to work with children or animals, this was our fourth attempt… Jussi really did not want to look at the camera despite a dog biscuit perched on top.

September is typically one of the harvest months and we enjoyed, for the first time, not exactly a bumper crop but really a fair number of almonds from the tree we planted. This is just a few of them that Richard spent an afternoon shelling.

We certainly do have a huge crop of prickly pears. I shall have another attempt at making some syrup from them, otherwise the birds are in luck again.

The dyeing pots and pans have been out again. First up, the blackthorn berries which, despite being shrivelled up, made a marvellous green:

Plus, more excitingly, I had a go at using the woad plants I had sown back in the spring. It’s a rather long and complicated process but seeing the yarn turning blue as it oxidizes once taken out of the pot is amazing. I shall, I keep saying, write up all these experiments one day…

We always knew, with a cockerel and 7 different hens, we would collect a colourful clutch of eggs most days (although Skittle has nothing to do with the egg making) but sometimes that is just too many… These are to be given away. Oh, and more soap-making done this month too.

We have been appalled at the reduction in insects every year. This moth was rescued from the deckchair and placed far more appropriately on some lichen. The camouflage was so good you couldn’t see it in the photo. Compassion now for the giant grasshoppers and locusts, they are left to munch on the leaves of the bay tree rather than getting flicked off and eaten by Jussi.

Finally, the garden is crisp and dry. The rain we have had was welcomed, and there’s more to come. The summer may be over but the new seedlings that have all shot up are already giving everything a green sheen, and a fresh, springlike look. Yesterday, we had all three meals outside; I suspect that’s the last time. It does seem strange that the autumn mists and fallen figs are here when only last month we said summer had arrived at last.

Please tell us if you want some eggs!

Belated congrats

Belated congrats

We just realised the other day that we missed two milestones, or whatever they are in kilometres, last month.

The first one was Skittle’s birthday. Yep, Little Chick was born July 2018 and is now the handsome, and somewhat frightening, Skittle, who loves nothing better than seeing his ladies have all the best tidbits that are thrown to them. He does this by picking up a morsel, a small piece of cucumber or torn cabbage leaf and then dropping it. He then stamps his feet and makes a low clucking sound until a hen comes and takes it. Very endearing. Wakes us up first thing in the morning he certainly does, but he has become such a great addition to the feathered family.

So Happy Birthday, Skittle!

The second milestone was that ten years ago last month we wrote our very first blog post! It was called Dream to reality. So a whole decade of blogging, and not a single month missed. Parabéns to us, too!

Here comes the summer – at last!

Here comes the summer – at last!

So it’s the fourth week of August and finally the summer has come. What do we mean by summer, then? Well, it means not feeling chilly on the morning dog walk, it means not being able to have lunch outside because it’s too hot, it means Jussi panting inside all day, it means the drone of helicopters overhead collecting water, it means the roasties roasting and hiding under the large olive tree in their field, it means supper outside and being thankful when the sun dips behind the buckthorn and then not being chilly when it sets. It means the steering wheel of the car being too hot to touch, it means being able to do three wash loads in a day and it means not going anywhere near the veg patch as all the plants will look like they have died. It means the pond needs topping up yet again. It means an eerie silence in the afternoon: not a tweet, cluck, bark or tractor sound. We had a brief spell earlier in the year which got us braced for a long, hot summer and then nothing happened. In July the temperatures didn’t reach 30, let alone the scorching 40s we have become used to.

So we can now confidently respond, when asked what the weather in Portugal is like, that every season and every year is different. (One constant is that Betty, as every summer, delights in terrorising the neighbours’ visitors on their early evening stroll around the village).

Meanwhile the residents of Casa Azul have been going about their business. Richard mentioned in the last post about the plums. They have continued to produce an embarrassing amount and so the kitchen is back in factory mode with bottling, roasting, jam and leather making galore. Red plum leather is our favourite for long, autumn walks.

The freezer is also full of whole plums for winter crumbles, and bottles of cordial. The damsons in particular have been great, we’ve never had so many.

We always have a splendid show of blackthorn flowers in February. This year, I think for the first time, we have more sloes than we know what to do with, apart from the two bottles of gin in the pantry that is…

The raised beds have been a great success in terms of the toms, these too have been piling up in various bowls around the kitchen waiting their turn, the plum versions are roasted and moulied for delicious passata. At the end of the day the summer tasks are very similar every year.

Richard, meanwhile, has been doing some sort of alchemy in his quest for liquid gold.

Yep, one big change is that the barn and courtyard have been turned into a brewery. Cheers!

ETA: well, that was short lived. Three days later and the temperatures have dropped, not going above 30 for the next 10 days. Oh and it rained this morning…

Progress?

Progress?

Ever since we moved in (over 9 years ago!) we’ve had problems with the water supply. Almost every month there would be a burst water main. Although it would be fixed promptly we always had to have spare water on hand if needed. So in September 2017 we were pleased to hear the Camara (local council) had decided to replace it. However, in their infinite wisdom they had also decided to not only replace the water main but also to give us a new and wider road. The fact that our lane sees only a trickle of traffic every day didn’t seem important. We were really dismayed to hear this because it meant that they were going to tear down the lovely old dry stone walls and also many olive trees which lined the lane. Why oh why? They were true to their word and in October the olive trees and walls came down. Of course, true to form, nothing was then done for almost 2 years. But then the diggers and road machinery trundled into the village in June this year and the job was done. An improvement? You be the judge.

And from the other side…

In better news, the plum harvest has been amazing this year. The yellow plums were first as ever. They usually put on a good show but we had so many more than we could ever use. The reds are usually the tastiest but also we never get that many. This time loads! Then we went back the UK for two weeks and came back to the greengages. So many we had a number of branch breakages! Next up are the damsons. Now we are left with lots of rotting fruit on the ground but litres and litres of cordial and plenty of plum jam in the larder.

yellow and red plums

Meanwhile the apples and pears are coming along but we will have a bit of respite before they are ready. We’ve also got a new intake of roasties. Following on from the success of the “Pallet palace” for the hens we now have “Fort Frango” for the roasties.

time to say goodbye to the pigpen
…and hello to Fort Frango!

We picked up our first batch from Penela market on Thursday and they are already settling in nicely.

And finally for this month. As always we have plenty of birds nesting in our garden and courtyard. This year we’ve seen blackbirds in the plane tree in the courtyard and the usual serins in the rose above the front door and of course every year we get blue tits in the nest box. It’s a bit late as these little guys fledged in May but I realised we hadn’t included any pictures on the blog. Interestingly there are two broods in one box. The bigger brood at the bottom of the picture fledged and then four more (you can just see two of them at the top of the picture) fledged a week later. We think that a second blue tit had secretly laid the second batch and let the parents of the first brood feed her little ones as well. This apparently is not uncommon.