August already?

August already?

Oh, what happened to July? It was the very first time, in our ten years of blogging, that we missed a monthly post. Perhaps it was significant…

Meanwhile, summer is here. The duvet has been put away, the fan is on and I’m shouting at all the other household members to shut the doors to keep both the heat and the horseflies out. We call it Tour de France weather but we missed watching one of our favourite sporting events this year while the temperatures soared. So no yellow jersey but plenty of yellowing fields.

Richard bought some champagne last month. Actually, not champagne but Portuguese bubbly which is very good. A few years ago we went on an excellent tour to one of the wineries that make it, not so far from us, which has received many awards and some praise from the French (they make it using the champagne method). The reason? Perhaps to celebrate ten years of living at Casa Azul? We moved in on 17 July, 2010. Nope. Perhaps to celebrate Skittle’s second birthday or, even better, Jussi’s 12th? Neither. A bumper harvest? Hardly. No, the reason was to celebrate Liverpool winning the Premier League after 30 years, the highlight of July! 🙂

Celebrations for the 10 year event were more muted, just another delicious meal sitting in the garden.

Actually, poor old Skittle wasn’t celebrating at all. We had noticed that the feathered backs of the hens were wearing a bit thin, and then it wasn’t long before it seemed a bit serious and there were large bald patches. This didn’t happen last year but I suppose he’s more of a man now than a boy… I made a chicken saddle, a padded cotton covering for the back which you slip around the wings, and we put that on Branca one evening. Come the morning it was on the coop floor… we obviously hadn’t put it on properly. We put plan B in action: keeping Skittle separate from his ladies. So now he is in the cage part of the coop and the hens come in and out from the back door. He’s not really on his own as the others are all around him in the field but he doesn’t have the opportunity to mount them. We are really glad to say it has made a huge difference. The timing was perfect as the hens were beginning their summer molt, and now the feathers on their back are coming through. Once they’re all back we’ll let Skittle out again for further fun and frolicking.

Keeping with the feathered theme, the nest in the courtyard turned out to be serins. I’d like to say they all fledged successfully but for some strange reason one kept coming out of the nest. First it would hang over the side (the nest was just above head height, so it was easy to see them), then it fell out onto a branch but we popped it back. Then Richard actually saw it fall on the ground, he picked it up and again put it back. Alas, one morning we found it dead under the tree on the ground. I’m sure it was the same one each time. However, four were fine and fledged, never to be seen again. The bird feeder is constantly in use; the amount we spend on birdseed is ridiculous!

Meanwhile, Richard has been busy in the woodworking department. He has bought another attachment for his angle grinder and made some candle holders from some of the old olive wood we have. He has also taken the original two Adirondack chairs apart, the pallet wood was slowly disintegrating and it was becoming a tad nervy to sit on them. They have been rejuvenated and painted blue.

Two of the ‘roasties’ we bought from the chicken lady back in late June he has already dispatched, how they can grow so fast is beyond me.

Veg wise the best crop so far has been the toms, an early glut meant making my favourite soup: gazpacho. Now the maskotka tomatoes are ready. I bought the seeds for these many years ago and just keep a few from fresh toms every year, so no need to buy more. They are a bush variety and taste divine, highly recommended. We have also had the first of the pimientos de Padrón and there are many more to come, real summer food.

I mentioned in a previous blog how disappointed I was with the Sicilian seed experiment. The broccoli went to seed and the purple cauliflower just had leaves. The latter I kept in the raised bed so that the leaves (which we have been eating) could keep the sun off the soil for the cucumbers. I then saw that one of them had a small, purple head appearing. It grew and grew into…? Not a cauliflower, more like purple sprouting broccoli. It was roasted and actually tasted very nice. And a month never goes by without Richard and his brewing, I think this one was a type of lager.

So what of the missing blog? Well, we have been a tad distracted by trips up north to Ponte de Lima. It’s a charming town, considered the oldest in Portugal, the river Lima runs alongside with an old Roman bridge and it’s generally greener than further south thanks to the increased rainfall it receives. We liked it a lot the very first time we visited, back in 2013, and the fact that Galicia, our favourite part of Spain, is a short drive away adds to the attraction. So… it is to become our new home.

Yep, for some bizarre reason we have started again with the saga of builders and architects and council planning permission and packing up and moving. Not, of course, in the foreseeable future. Not only because of the Covid situation but because we seem to have bought another ruin, and the amount of work needed is a lot more than Casa Azul. The granite walls are thick and solid but inside, including the flooring, all needs replacing, and the roof is to be raised. The reason for moving, despite loving living here, were numerous: we both began to get itchy feet and wanted a new area to explore, my back problem meant gardening was becoming more difficult and for both of us keeping on top of the land (things grow all the time!) was tiring. So we have a smaller house, with less land, but space enough for dogs and chooks and some kind of veg patch. We will of course be having a blog about that but in the meantime here is Casa Lima:

Rewilding

Rewilding

The countryside, very much like our garden, is unkempt. This year many of the hedges and meadows have been left to grow and flourish, wildflowers abound and there is an explosion of colour (deep yellow yarrow, lavender-blue chicory and pale pink mallows galore) and overgrown hedgerows. Our garden too has turned into some kind of wild nature reserve, places are impassable as the flowers battle with the grasses. The reason for this rewilding is not the same for both places. In the countryside the folk have definitely stayed at home; fields that normally would have been cut back by now have been abandoned to nature so that strange new wildflowers we have never seen before have emerged and we have to duck under bushes on our dog walks. This is all simply because the local Portuguese have taken the strict observance of mask wearing and social distancing to heart, and they have been nervous to venture too far from their homes. No surprise really as most of them are on their last legs.

We however, have other reasons. One is that the bother of strimming and ‘keeping on top of it all’ has become increasingly challenging. The second is that we want to have as much wildlife as possible in the garden and leaving areas untouched seems the way forward. The idea is to let nature take care of itself. We are alarmed by the shortage of bugs, and therefore bats and birds, and are doing our bit to help out. We have had a renewed interest in the flora and fauna of Casa Azul and are delighted we have a couple of greenfinches nesting in the plane tree in the courtyard now.

One benefit has been I don’t need to stroll around the neighbouring fields to find the plants I need for dyeing, they are all in our garden now!

It looks charming in a sort of run down cottage garden kind of way. No idea how it will all look over the next few weeks. Meanwhile in the veg patch good and bad news. A real disaster with my Sicilian broccoli and cauliflower which was a bit depressing considering how much time and effort I put into those, the cucumber plugs I bought have turned into water melons (don’t ask) and all the flowers of one set of toms, also bought as plugs, have all simply died. Anyway, on a happier note we have green beans, or rather stripey red beans galore, and the bush toms are well on their way…

plus loads of brightly coloured courgettes:

Richard was pleased that the chicken lady at the local market had returned so we have another batch of ‘roasties’ enjoying the sun. Skittle and co are fine as are the dogs. So all’s well here and hope it is with your and yours. Stay safe.

The birds and the bees

The birds and the bees

This last month has been very busy on the wildlife front – both good news and bad. We’ll get the bad over with first. Jackie’s favourite hen, Rocky, was attacked and killed by a mongoose. I’ll spare the details but for whatever reason it wasn’t able to take Rocky away. So after the event we set up the trail camera and recorded this:

The other hens are in a different paddock and have beefed up defences, so fingers crossed they will be safe.

In better bird news, our Blue Tit nestbox was once again occupied this year and we saw at least four birds fledge. They were rather lucky as minutes after the last one flew the coop, I spotted a ladder snake in the nest box! It was only a small one, so maybe it wouldn’t have harmed the chicks but was investigating if there were any eggs left.

just fledged

That’s the birds and now for the bees. We have loads of bumblebees in the garden doing their stuff but recently I’ve noticed that there are often bees in the barn and now I know why. They are Mason Bees. These are solitary bees in that they don’t have a hive. The female finds a small hole or crack where it builds a nest and stores a supply of pollen and nectar. It lays an egg on this and then seals up the hole. Often there are a number of sealed compartments in any one nest. You can clearly see the sealed up nests in one of the photos below – in our wine store in the barn. In the spring the larva will eat the supply of food and when it is ready will tunnel out of the nest.

Not content with Mason bees, we’ve also got Ashy Mining Bees! These are also solitary bees but live in holes in the ground. We found this one in the kitchen.

This year I have decided to leave a lot of the garden uncut, which gives the wildflowers and wildlife in general more chance to thrive. It has provided a boon not just to actual bees but we have also found a bee orchid in our garden. A first for us.

We turn from bees to hornets. I found this chap had a taste for my beer. I carefully got him out and he, or probably she, recovered to fly off. Mistake! I thought it was a European hornet because it was so large. However, just now I have identified it as the much-vilified Asian Hornet. I think I am supposed to report it to the necessary authorities as the council will come round to find and destroy the nest.

see the miniscule ant as comparison

We also found a dead vole and mole in the veg patch and spurred on from watching a recent wildlife programme, I decided to get the skulls. Basically I left them out for the flies. In just a few days, the fly maggots devoured the flesh to just leave bones and hair. The cleaning was completed by soaking in water for a few days. Betty also found another javali (wild boar) skull which is now also being cleaned and will be added to the bone collection! Thankfully in this case the flesh had all gone so it is just macerating in a bin of water.

the maggots do their stuff

mole and shrew skulls with mandibles (lower jaw)

In other news, I’ve been playing with a few new toys to use on my bowl projects and here is the latest:

Sow and sew

Sow and sew

For Christmas I treated myself to a new cookery book: Made in Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli. With over 400 pages it’s a wonderful recipe book as well as a travel guide, full of information about the island, its people and its food. And with only 12 recipes for meat it’s packed full of scrumptious vegetarian and fish dishes. I bought it to remind us of the lovely holiday we had there, but also to renew my enthusiasm for cooking which has waned a touch. There are lots of recipes for broccoli, cauliflower, aubergine and courgettes… but while reading I noticed there was a recurring theme: the broccoli from Sicily was different to what we know, ditto the cauliflower. He reckoned their varieties all tasted nicer.

So a number of hours were spent on the Internet trying to find seeds for these amazingly delicious vegetables. With the help of google translate I tried in vain to find where to buy the seeds. I eventually found a blogger who also enthused about these particular Sicilian vegetables and I wrote to him (he was called Salvo – we are Montalbano fans too!). He put me in touch with someone who sells the seeds and hurrah, a few weeks later I get 2 tiny packets of seeds in the post: sparacello di sicilia and cavolfiore violetto di sicili. The broccoli are in one of the raised beds now (with protective plastic squares to keep the moth away that lays eggs at the base of brassicas) , and the cauliflower, which promises to be a lovely shade of purple, will go in soon. So a renewed interest in both cooking and gardening.

The latter just as well, what with The Crisis I was worried at one time that we would be relying on what we grew ourselves and lamented that it was all happening during what is called The Hungry Gap ie when nothing much was available. Broad beans aside there’s not much to be picked now that the early purple broccoli and asparagus is finished.

Here in Portugal the State of Emergency is coming to an end, two months on, and we’ll be entering the State of Calamity which to me sounds just as bad. We have to admit that for the most part we have been unaffected. With over an acre of land, and the heart of the Portuguese countryside on our doorstep, we have not been in lockdown in any way. In addition we have honed our social distancing skills (friends? What friends?) and have been working from home for the last 10 years. So, to assuage some guilt, I volunteered to make some masks for a local organisation. The old Bernina was dusted off, perhaps 50 years old now, and the kitchen table taken over in the manufacture of PPE.

Other than that we appreciate more than ever the birds and the bees, the flowers and the shrubs, and the sheer pleasure of being outside. We know we have friends and family who are going through a tough time now and we don’t forget them while spotting the orchids or taking the dogs through the meadows. Never more have we looked forward to greeting visitors here at Casa Azul and enjoying a home cooked meal and sharing a bottle of local wine. x

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!