A hoo-ha in the hen house

A hoo-ha in the hen house

May 9, today, is a Thursday. Back in 2009 it fell on a Saturday.  I remember it clearly because it’s my birthday and back then we were trying to find somewhere to have lunch, and with limited success. It seemed we were driving around the Portuguese countryside for ages before we eventually found a place. We had been looking for somewhere to live, and again with limited success. For a variety of reasons we decided to abandon the idea. However, we had already booked the following Monday with an estate agent so thought we might as well look at the properties that had been picked for us. The rest, as they say, is history. Yes, it was ten years ago we found Casa Azul. So a warning that for many of the posts to come we will be comparing then with now – and what a difference!

But this post is about today, and the saga with the hens. It started with the visit from Foxy, three ‘roasties’ were killed one night earlier in the year (it had burrowed its way into the old pig pen where they sleep) and a realisation that the two chicken coops we have for the hens were past it. The first one was given to us by my dad in 2010 and then a second one we got in 2011.  For me, having chickens was one of the very special things about living here.

Already roofs and doors have been replaced, they really are rather rickety. So big project for Richard was to build a bigger and more secure place. Somewhere for Skittle and his harem to be safe and sound, and also one that could be walked into – easier for cleaning and collecting the eggs.

But then alas, at the beginning of April, only a few short weeks after getting Cagney and Lacey, Foxy came in the night and somehow opened the metal cage door (a flap which is pulled outwards), squeezed into the cage and tore open the door to the actual coop. It took Cagney away. We were just devastated, and it was awful telling the nice people who had entrusted them to us (in fact who gave us Skittle as an egg too).

The others were in the second coop, they’re too small to have more than four hens in and Skittle is enormous now! So it was full speed ahead for Richard to continue what has become known as the pallet palace:

Lots of sunny days in April meant he could crack on at top speed. We had a few interesting ‘discussions’ doing it but it’s marvellous. There’s also a side flap which can be opened to let some fresh air in if need be. The caged area has lots of perches and the food and water hangs from the roof so everything is well protected. The water from the roof is also being collected, just in a large black bucket for now, but we’ll get a proper system set up for that. The plum tree, grown up since we have been here, will also give extra shade once the heat of summer comes.

Skittle was delighted with his new home and the hens seemed pleased too. The only thing now was to get more hens. Skittle had Rocky, Hattie and Lacey, but three hens for an amorous cock is not enough 😉 So we went to the market and got three more: Preta, Mo (after Salah of course) and Hazelnut. Photos to follow. We went to bed feeling chuffed; the three new hens were settled in the old coop nearby where they could see and be seen by the others, ready to be let once they were sort of used to each other. But come the second night, Rocky was nowhere to be found. It was too early for Foxy to come, and there were no feathers anywhere. Plus Skittle would have made a real fuss. For some reason the pop-hole (the little flap door that leads into the coop) had also fallen down. We had almost given up looking for her when she made a little noise; she was hiding under the plastic wrapping that protects the food bucket. We thought no more, put her away and locked everyone up.

The next morning it was clear what had happened. Skittle and Rocky must have had some sort of scuffle, the pop-hole had fallen down and, alarmingly, cut Rocky very badly on the back of the head. She had been hiding for two reasons. Skittle, when in full love mode, bites the back of the hens’ necks (they don’t seem very keen about it at all it has to be said). Plus other hens are notorious for bothering those with wounds. We put Rocky in the second old coop, which is just in a small field with grass next door, because she seemed a little frightened of Skittle. And then she got out of the field, for some bizarre reason, and was found cowering and covered in blood. Oh dear. So the latest is that Skittle is with 5 ladies, who are sort of getting on well together now (Lacey pleased she is no longer bottom of the pecking order) and Rocky remains in her own coop and area. They can see each other through the fence so she’s not totally isolated but there’s no way she can return to the others until she’s completely healed. Hens, eh? Who’d have ’em?

PS These are our first four hens with the first coop in 2010. It’s incredible to think that this is the same field, the trees and hedgerows have grown up so much. They were the only batch that were always inquisitive and flying out. I don’t remember another lot standing on the coop as these lot did, or trying to roost in the overhanging walnut tree.

The goat lady

The goat lady

There is a lot going on at Casa Azul but I mustn’t let another month go by without saying a fond farewell to my dear friend and neighbour, Dona Helena (affectionately known as the goat lady before we knew her real name).  She used to bring her goats and sheep to the fields near our house and one of the first winters here I went out and gave her some mince pies. We became friends after that, swapping food, recipes, plants and cuttings; she was full of information about the local plants and loved talking about the history of the village. Because of her I know the state of the roads (not tarmacked of course) were during the rainy season, many of the residents kept oxen and donkeys which made it impossible to pass sometimes.  She showed me the house in the village (long empty) where she had classes, the teacher came by bicycle but not when it was too muddy. She hated the fact that, unlike the boys, she couldn’t then go to proper school as it was considered inappropriate for her to travel too far away. She talked about how hard it was living there without water and electricity. There are some large flat stones in the pond on the hill on our dog walk, those she said, were what they had used to wash the clothes.

One day she, her daughter-in-law and I walked up to Ateanha, a village on the hill above ours. Her mother came from there. We walked around meeting and greeting friends and relatives of hers. And then she took us up to the highest point in a clearing in the woods and produced a simple picnic for us to share. She didn’t speak a word of English and it really was thanks to her that I made any progress at all in Portuguese and passed the language test to become a Portuguese citizen.

One day I got up extra early and helped her milk the sheep  for her cheese. She made batches of the stuff which she sold to those who knew. She used a simple, traditional recipe and the cheese dried on a plank under the eaves. The video is one from our website again and I’m really pleased we have that as a fond memory of her. She gave up the sheep and goats a few years back, it just became too much for her.

Now she has gone her house is shuttered up, just like the house of Luis and Laurinda opposite. They were my main friends in the village and it is so very sad that none of them are here any more but we are both so happy to have met them, been invited to their homes, and shared the easy companionship of the Portuguese.

Oh and if there is an old man or woman who lives alone where you live, someone you are on nodding terms with only, go and visit them. Take a cake. Share it with a cup of tea or coffee. Learn about life before the Internet. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Find out what that was and make a new friend.

Marching on

Marching on

The nicest thing about March is that it’s the month with the biggest difference in terms of moving on from winter. There’ll be some cold weather ahead, the cloudless days still give us mild frosts, but there’s a real change in the air. Although much of the blossom in the garden has gone the new leaves and greenness are more than welcome. The plane tree in the courtyard has begun to sprout and the garden is alive with noisy birds, emptying the feeder every day and building their nests. The sun has been really warm so lunch outside has been the norm.

The constant sunshine has also meant we’ve been able to get on top of lots of outside jobs. Some of these have not been planned. The dozen ‘roasties’ were happily enjoying the spring and so far no sighting of the sparrowhawk:

Until Foxy came along and dug a hole under their hut (the old pig pen) in the middle of the night and then there were nine.

So we’ve had to have an emergency plan until there’s time for Richard to rebuild that shed. A layer of chicken wire has been placed flat around the edges and held in place with heavy breeze blocks. We’ve caught it on our night camera having a good sniff around a few times since but so far this set up has worked as it hasn’t been able to dig again. A new shed is a bit more of a priority now, not just because the fox can dig under it, but because the wood is completely rotten and termite infested, one good shove and it’ll collapse.

Meanwhile Richard is getting on with building the Pallet Palace. At the moment we have two chicken coops and these too, along with the pig pen, are past it really. So a single, bigger one is in the making, one that I can walk into. Up until recently Skittle was in his coop and Hattie and Rocky in theirs, and he was allowed to ‘play’ with them in the afternoon. We always knew that if we kept Skittle he’d need a few more hens and if we had more hens we’d need another coop.

So Skittle was put in with Hattie and Rocky and then we got Cagney and Lacey!

These are a cross between a Brahma (like Skittle) and Wyandotte hens, and beautiful they are too. They were given to us by friends, and we’re delighted with them.

They stayed a few days in their own coop and field until they felt it was home, and then we let all the chooks get together. Hattie is sometimes a bit pecky (she is the top of the pecking order after all) but in fact we think they are so pleased that Skittle is sharing his amorous advances they are actually quite relieved. We’ll get two more and so in the end Skittle will have six ladies. What we’ll do with all the eggs is another matter…

As the name suggests the new coop is made of pallets mainly, Richard can add more about this in the next post. It’s already been painted front and back and the door added. Then he’s going to add a caged area, again tall enough to walk into, and this will all be covered. You can just see Hattie and Rocky giving their advice.

Otherwise it’s been seed sowing season for me. I’m always trying different techniques. This year I decided to avoid the seed tray / pricking out stage.  The tomato seeds were all from last year, I’d chosen the seeds from some nice fruit, cleaned and then dried them on kitchen paper. Then I simply cut out the paper with seeds on and put them straight into paper pots with a thin layer of soil on top. I did these on the 19 March:

Here’s what they looked like on 25, less than a week later:

Each paper pot was then plonked in a bigger pot and all but the strongest seedling cut, leaving a single one to grow. It was so much easier and quicker than pricking out individual seedlings and transplanting them. Alongside the toms there are now pots of gherkins, various types of squash, broccoli, sweetcorn and goodness knows what else. There is only one slight problem: I have no idea where these will all go as the raised beds are already filling up and the original beds are still abandoned.

March has not only seen changes in the garden but the village too but these again (some more sad news unfortunately, along with the latest on the roadworks) will be for another post. I’ll leave you with yet another video of the javali who, we hope, we have managed to keep out of the garden at long last. Here is one enjoying a good scratch in the field next door. I love their wagging tails!

Raising the beds

Raising the beds

A fairly quiet month at Casa Azul. Slowly but surely the raised beds are taking shape, although it has been quite a procedure. Getting the wood and Richard knocking it all together seems to have been the easiest part.

First up was to line the bases with empty paper bags of chicken feed. Then each of the interior sides were stapled with plastic. The former is to keep the weeds down, the latter to prevent the beds from drying up too much in the sweltering summer heat.

Then, as Richard had strimmed the grass, two wheelbarrow fulls were raked up (one of my least favourite jobs) and used as the next layer for each of the three beds (there are four but we’re only filling up three to begin with).

Then the beds were filled with soil. I got this from the field next door. The javali (wild boar) had very kindly dug over a lot of the ground to leave large patches of loose, and weedless, earth. Each bed got two wheelbarrow loads.

Then each got two wheelbarrow loads of chicken straw compost. And then these layers of soil and compost were repeated. (Are you counting how many times I have filled and tipped the wheelbarrow into the beds?!) It did seem a bit ironic that one of the reasons for doing this was because my back starts to complain bitterly after bending over and weeding and having the beds raised quite high was to limit this.

I am embarrassed to admit that this bed here below, on the left, is what most of the original beds look like. The right half has been cleared to put the garlic in, and there are onions and leeks elsewhere, but the rest is slowly being overgrown. It has just become too tiring so really hoping the boards will stop the weeds taking over.

So taller beds, filled with wonderful weedless soil, and with vegetables planted closer together is the plan. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile we are delighted with our new wood burning stove, finally installed. And tonight, along with the purple sprouting broccoli, we had the first of the asparagus harvest.

The fruit trees are all in blossom, the blackthorn at the end of the garden looks simply splendid. I think a small glass of sloe gin is needed to celebrate 🙂

Plant of the Year Award 2018

Plant of the Year Award 2018

New Year’s Day was lovely. We sat on the green bench (one of Richard’s very first woodworking projects which is still going strong) enjoying the surprisingly warm winter sun. Then we heard a strange noise. We looked at each other, and then looked over towards the chooks. There was Skittle, wings held out wide, standing high on feathered toes and head thrown back. He opened his beak and crowed again. Yep, he. Sir Skittle it seems after all. Putting off what to do now (coq au vin seeming less likely) we left all three together but when I tried to record Skittle crowing I found myself filming this instead (not for the faint-hearted):

Poor old Rocky, and you can see Hattie making sure she wasn’t next. Since then Skittle has been rather too keen on Rocky and as he can’t share his advances with other hens they are now separated (witnessing Rocky squawking and running away from Skittle made it an easy decision). They are still near, and can see each other through the fence, but until we have some more hens we are keeping the girls and boy apart. There has been something nice though about hearing a cockerel doing his cock-a-doodle-dooing, it feels like we have a proper farm.

We have two orange trees in our courtyard. Every January we are reminded how lucky we are to have them. This year I made our regular batch of marmalade and Richard made vast quantities of orange juice for the freezer.

This year I also had a go at making some orange leather from the left over pulp. Normally the leather is made from summer fruits and allowed to dry in the sun but the oven was fine too.

We’ve already had some for our walking trips.

And as I have got back into making bread every week we enjoy toast, marmalade and juice of a morning with a certain amount of smugness.

The courtyard is also home to our plane tree which gets pollarded this time of the year. It always look so forlorn with its haircut.

Another task has been to stack our year’s supply of wood. We have been having something of a saga over buying a new wood burner, and getting it installed, but we’re really hoping it’ll all be done for next month’s post. The fact that the boiler has been on the blink much of the month hasn’t helped.

Another big project on the go is the making of raised beds. Hattie and Rocky here are inspecting Richard’s handiwork, again full update next month.

But it’s also that time of the year to find out who’s the lucky winner of the Casa Azul Plant of the Year! And this year it goes to the trusty toms. I’m not sure how many different varieties I had last summer: there were cherry ones, plum ones, heritage ones, yellow ones, black ones, large beefsteak ones and normal round red salad ones. Some were tall and staked, others bushy. I think I’m right in saying that they were all grown from seed I’d kept from the year before which is marvellous. I should be able to do the same this year too.

And not only did they do well, and taste great (and were all free!) but many were then preserved: roasted, made into passata, sun dried and/or frozen.  The freezer is packed with bags of sauces!

In fact if I had to choose my favourite crop it would be the tomato.  They’re easy to grow really, come in such a wonderful range of shapes and colours (in the past we’ve had the stripey ‘tigerallas’ too), taste so much better than bought ones and are just so versatile.  They also smell nice too. We had them from July until early November.

We’ve been making the most of the sunny weather away from Casa Azul.  Nothing nicer than having a seafood meal on the beach:

You’ll be pleased to hear though that rain is forecast now until the end of the month. Sun and rain with a touch of frost: the perfect month 🙂

 

Feliz Ano Novo

Feliz Ano Novo

It’s the last day of 2018 and in many ways it’s days like these that we appreciate the most: there’s a gentle wind but it’s sunny, not a cloud in the sky. You can sit in the courtyard and almost begin to feel too hot. It’s wonderful walking weather. It’s perfect gardening weather. It’s delightful dozing in the afternoon weather. It’s green.

The sun is bringing out the daffs and in the courtyard we continue to have some colour.

Skittle is also enjoying the warmth, and the light brings out some wonderful colours. There are some emerald green feathers in the tail if you look hard enough. The three chooks are now in new quarters but they have already eaten most of the grass. Rocky and Hattie are giving us two eggs most days still.

We also have some exotic species frolicking in the laurel above the pond. They’re from Asia although we suspect they have flown from a cage rather than thousands of miles as they are not migratory. Yes, a flock of red-billed leiothrix (Leiothrix lutea) has made our garden its home. And lovely they are too, but despite being quite raucous of a morning they are very hard to spot.

So Christmas has come and gone. The cake has been eaten, there are a few mince pies in the freezer and only a drop or two of home made liquor is left.

The pallet tree is making it’s third appearance.

The pudding is making it’s second appearance. Or rather it was made last year (I made two) and have managed to keep it away from Richard and not make another one this year. Not sure if the maturity or the copious amounts of brandy made it extra delicious. Homemade ice-cream from Jersey Black Butter is the perfect accompaniment.

The washing up still has to get done. Putting up the lights sadly reminded us that Luis and Laurinda used to keep theirs strung up outside the house, along with a giant reindeer, all year. They just turned them on in December.

Along with the festivities and eating and drinking we have found time to work in the garden. Some of you may remember that this time last year we bought 33 saplings. Not surprisingly we lost a few (the wild boar dug up a couple) and decided to replace some and get some more too. So we bought an additional 12 including 6 more strawberry trees and 3 more red oaks.  Most of them are doing very well though and it’s great to see the garden slowly but surely becoming a sort of woodland.  We have also cleaned and put up the two nest boxes Richard made, both were used last year by the blue tits so we’re hoping they’ll return as they do every year.

Meanwhile the garlic, onions and some broad beans are in. The purple sprouting broccoli is fab as always. And there are still some peppers in the veg patch! Ahh but who will win the prestigious Plant of the Year Award? That’s for the next post.

Happy New Year to all our readers, may 2019 bring you peace and happiness and plenty of space on the sofa.

Changing of the seasons

Changing of the seasons

The seasons are traditionally thought of as lasting 3 months each, however we have often noted that Spring and Autumn at Casa Azul, although in many ways our favourites, seem to slide by very fast. October is often warm and sunny, almost summery, but as soon as November begins we get the fire on and prepare for the frosts. This year was slightly different in that we lit the first fire on 28th October but we are yet to have a frost. I think that is the reason for the leaves on all the trees hanging on for longer than usual and providing a great show of colour. This is especially true of the grape vines.

 


Even the small vine at the front of our house has put on a bit of a show.

We’ve also had our first rain of winter and so mushrooms are popping up all over the place. Here is a parasol from the garden…
… and a particularly impressive Omphalotus olearius. There are many of these around here as they like to grow at the base of olive trees. This mushroom is very similar to the Jack o’ Lantern, famous for being bioluminescent.

Talking of olives, we’ve also completed our olive harvest. Very late indeed for us but actually we were amongst the first round here to harvest. In fact the local olive presses are only just opening up for the season and we managed to get ours done very quickly. It was a very good season as the olives have plumped up nicely from the recent rain and they were really good quality or so we thought. We got 200 kgs which is pretty good for us. This didn’t, however, impress the bloke at our local press who only gave us 7 litres per 100kg as opposed to the normal 8 litres. It’s a bit of a complicated story but if you have 300kgs or more you pay to have your olives pressed and then you get your oil. If under (like us) you have to swap your olives for oil at the going rate but don’t pay anything. As it happens our olives went into a batch with someone else and that was the oil we got anyway.
I suppose I’ve saved our biggest news until last. Every year around this time we get nightime visitations from wild boar (javeli as they are called here). We’ve got a thick bramble hedge around our property so they usually only root around the fields outside but this year they managed to find a hole in the hedge and one morning we woke up to find our garden had been ploughed! Fortunately they didn’t dig up any plants.

And they came back night after night despite us frantically trying to block up any holes. Of course, we never see them by day and wonder where on earth they go. We have a night camera and have often caught them on this but we have been a bit lazy this year and not set it up. However here is a video of a big porker from a previous visitation:

And finally another video. Although it’s November, as I said we haven’t had a frost and it’s been very mild. So mild in fact that we still have wasps (and a few bees). Here’s a video I took of a very active nest in the ground. They were very busy but not aggressive at all. (PS I’m not sure what they don’t do!)

Leslie, lichens and little chick

Leslie, lichens and little chick

The clocks have gone back, the wind is cold, some potted plants have been moved to frost free areas and all the outside cushions and paraphernalia have been brought under shelter: autumn is well on its way. This blog post has ‘change’ as its theme.

First up is Leslie. Now, I don’t know about you but there’s something strange about calling a hurricane ‘Leslie’. It just doesn’t sound right. According to Wikipedia, ‘Hurricane Leslie was the strongest cyclone to strike the Iberian Peninsula since 1842. A large, long-lived, and erratic tropical cyclone, Leslie was the twelfth named storm and sixth hurricane of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season.’ Well, funny name or not, we were all waiting for the tempest of a lifetime (remembering the storm of January 2013 when we lost power and water for three days, an olive tree and the local bus stop) but in the end we managed to escape lightly. We were, however, on the fringe as Coimbra district was in fact the worst hit.

One casualty was the pergola on the threshing square. Firmly cemented into rocks and built of sturdy beams it took off, the vines acting as a sail. Luckily the plum tree stopped it from falling out of the square. We think it’s repairable. On the right shows the structure a year ago, on the left is what it look like now:

Our neighbour’s peach tree was blown in half (and we got such lovely peaches from it last year!) and on our various walks in the local countryside there is evidence of some of the strong gusts.

Elsewhere Little Chick is no more. No, not in a pot. She (fingers crossed) is just not little anymore. And sadly, less loved by her step mother. One day Hattie was by her side, making sure she got the best of the raspberries, clucking if she went too far, and sleeping together. Now, Skittle (new name!) is bottom of the pecking order, bullied a little in fact. She must feel quite confused going from fussed over to pecked at. Anyway, she will grow larger than her fellow feathered friends and no doubt will get her own back in time.

Change too refers to the new dye colours I’m seeing as the lichens turn green to dusty pink. I have decided to write about my dyeing experiences separate from this blog (hurrah, says Richard). For those interested just follow the Natural dyeing link on the right under Pages (or if you really interested check out my Etsy shop ).

And our courtyard has a new addition, many thanks to my friend Sue for bringing one of her wonderful ceramics for us on a recent visit:

Otherwise, some things never change.

The sun still has its hat on in October which means continuing to have lunch outside. We’ve been busy with typical October tasks: figs have been made into chutney, made into jam, bottled and stolen by Jussi; walnuts have been gathered (we still have loads from last year!) and stolen by Jussi; the pond has been cleared and the leaves swept up. There are still cherry tomatoes to be had but otherwise the veg patch is a sorry sight. The three hen paddocks have been cleared, the brambles hacked away as much as possible and all the debris burned. We have yet to light our first fire but Richard has been doing things with the wood pile.

So that’s it for another month. Rain and almost freezing temperatures are set for the days ahead. Leccy blanket time.

Harvest festival?

Harvest festival?

As regular readers will know, Jackie is queen of the veg patch while I am to be found foraging for fruits or whatever I can find in the hinterland. Some things like the plum trees are scattered around the garden while others I find on my daily walk with the dogs. This year’s harvest has been a mixed one, as it always is.

It started off with the non appearance of the plums. A few desultory yellow ones as ever but very few from the half dozen or so other varieties we have in the garden. Our huge cherry tree as always, produced a few very small cherries.

That was basically in June and July,  since then things have looked up. We have a few peach trees which were here before us and have never produced much but this year a bountiful harvest! Well a couple of dozen at least.

The almond tree did the usual – half a dozen, which were so paltry, Jackie mistook them for something else and they ended in the compost. A mixed bag from the apples: lots of small but tasty ones from the big tree, one large solitary apple from the small tree. The pears which were fantastic last year, this year: nowt.

Surprisingly, given our hot dry summers, blackberries do really well round here. We don’t need a fence round our garden as over the years we have developed a very large and impregnable hedge of brambles. Of course blackberry and apple crumble is a perennial favourite.

And now as we enter October we are approaching the end. It’s been another good year for the figs. We have a few tiny trees but there are plenty of big bountiful trees on our morning walk and so lately I have been coming back to the house with a plastic bag full of them ready for Jackie to make chutney, jam and also bottling a few.

Also it looks like the prickly pears have done a good job, it just remains to be a bit careful when picking them. Eaten fresh they are delicious and last year we made a very nice syrup.

Although I’ve mentioned a number of fruits, the locals are only really interested in two. The grapes which have been rather disappointing this year and the biggest harvest of them all: the olives which don’t look too bad at the moment, but I don’t think we’ll be bringing ours in until at least mid November.

Meanwhile after the hottest September on record for Portugal and an equally unseasonably hot start to October, as I write this blog it seems we are in for some welcome rain. After a miserable start to the summer we haven’t actually had any since the start of July.

 

Sad September

Sad September

A long, hot September which saw us travel to Galicia and northern Portugal for 10 days of mostly camping. The dogs, chooks and house were all looked after by a marvellous couple and meant a stress free trip. However, there’s rather a shadow at the end of this month as we have just said goodbye to our neighbour and friend Luis. He was taken to hospital on Friday but didn’t make it. The funeral was today. We also learnt that his wife, Laurinda, will not be staying on alone in the house and that it will be sold. It is all incredibly sad news for us.  Nicer neighbours you could not wish for, Luis was always ready to help us, and to see their house lie empty will be heartbreaking. So here, in memory, are a couple of photos of just some of the many times when they were there to give a willing hand:

Our first olive harvest was a great success thanks to Luis. He kindly sold us his machine last year as he was no longer able to pick his olives.

And Laurinda was there to help for our first killing of the roasties. Goodbye, dear friends.