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.

May 2009 – 2019

May 2009 – 2019

When we saw the house for sale in May, 10 years ago, we took a video of the garden:

And then Richard made the same video last month. Although the videos are to demonstrate the differences, there are two things in common: the wiggly camera (oh the first one is such poor quality) and the nightingales! We had no idea we had nightingales when we shot the first one. You can hear the frogs in the second one now that the pond is established.

Some differences to highlight. The only original part left of the house is the walls! We’ve had a new roof, new doors and windows, new plumbing and new electricity. The animal shed was knocked down of course, as was the olive tree and walnut tree:

The end of the garden overlooking Monte de Vez (the olive trees all look much healthier):

The cherry tree now has a pond below it (all well hidden by the every growing vegetation):

The threshing square with the old pear tree; lavender and roses have all been planted in front of it and are in full bloom right now. And it’s no longer possible to see Luis’ old house opposite:

Don’t worry, they’ll be plenty more then-and-now posts to come 😉

The B word(s)

The B word(s)

Bracing Just as we thought summer had kicked in the clouds came over, the wind picked up and temperatures fell.  It’s a max of 18 today and it’s barely gone much over 20 since the start of the month.  So what are the other B words (and no, not that one)?

Birds Since the first week of April we have been welcomed every morning by the nightingales. There is always one singing in the olive trees at the end of the garden, we never get to see it until it dives for cover when we get too close.  The number of nightingales in the UK has fallen dramatically, and a lot of research has been done to find out why. Loss of habitat seems to be a major culprit. The British Trust for Ornithology states: “…the ideal habitat is probably a dome of increasing vegetation heights, with a crown of vegetation dense enough at the centre to create bare ground underneath, and a gradient of ground-cover towards the edges where the species can nest…” and that is exactly what we have here. Many of the fig trees have grown very tall and are surrounded by smaller bushes including blackthorn and hawthorn, all favoured by the nightingale. This group is in the neighbouring meadow, you can’t see the thick ring of brambles around the base, it’s impossible to enter:

Interestingly, it’s the increasing deer population in the UK which takes some blame, they are simply browsing on the shrubs and bushes where the birds want to nest.

In the courtyard we have had three sets of birds nesting this season (not counting the wrens which made a nest in February but didn’t use it). Firstly, serins built a nest in the rose bush above the door in exactly the same spot as one last year. We would love to know if it was the same pair, or perhaps their offspring. Secondly, goldfinches built a nest in the top of one of the orange trees and lastly, in our plane tree, there are blackbirds. We are surrounded by countryside, there are bushes and trees galore everywhere and yet again our courtyard is chosen. (I think this now makes 6 or 7 different kinds of birds.)

Bugs It would be nice to say that we also have lots of insects but, like the UK, these are definitely on the decrease. We have two buddleias in bloom, their scent is heavenly, but very few butterflies are seen. The lavender has been a magnet for bumblebees in the past but again there are far fewer this year. We really hope the cooler weather has been the main cause and that once the temperatures rise they’ll come out to play.

Broccoli I planted 12 broccoli plants in one of the new raised beds and they grew amazingly well. So much so that most of them had to be frozen, even half was too much for us for one meal. I did find a great pasta dish (I remembered Inspector Montalbano loved pasta and broccoli) and we had that a few times. So for a first crop with the new system that is a happy success.

Baking The first of the fruits are coming now. The cherry season sees me making one of my favourite desserts: clafoutis. The cherry version I do as the French and leave the pips in, and then, as we have had an abundance of gooseberries, I made it with those and that worked really well too. Fingers crossed for a good raspberry crop because those make the best clafoutis of all.

Branca We tried to introduce Rocky back into the flock but the attentions of Skittle were too much for her. Not only did he make her neck a little red she cowered for the rest of the day under the bramble bushes. So we decided that she really did need more time for the feathers to grow back and she also needed company. Welcome, Branca. From day one they have become the best of friends. The plan is that once Rocky is completely ready, Branca will be old enough to meet Skittle too. And with two new hens he’ll, with luck, be less obsessed with Rocky. We’ll see! On the left Branca and Rocky sharing some quinces, and little Hazlenut:

Lacey with Mo and Preta, and the ruler of the roost, Skittle:

Just bossy boots Hattie not shown here. So one cockerel and seven hens – what on earth are we going to do with all those eggs?!

 

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 🙂