This year, perhaps even more than most, has been all about the weather. The long, hot, dry spring and summer that caused the horrendous wildfires, the briefest of warm dry autumns and now, in early December, Jack Frost is already nipping at our toes. We’ve had a week of sub zero temperatures and as is usual here, if it’s cold, it means bright blue skies during the day and clear dark skies at night. And no rain. And it makes my daily morning walk with the dogs all the more pleasant.
And especially because the autumn colours are fantastic.
I’ve also been busy with my saw and nails. As soon as I finished the new wood store, I knocked this coffee table together. I’ve also been to a friend’s house and used his wood turning lathe. Maybe something to think about in the future?
They say the hardest part is the waiting, well it was with the cider (4 months in fact) but it’s now ready and it tastes pretty good.
Meanwhile the harvests keep on coming. We’ve still got plenty of quinces on the tree but I have to say both me and Jackie aren’t that keen to make any more quince jellies or crumbles. Especially as the oranges are also now ready for marmalade making. Because we have had so little rain, although there are plenty of them, they are very small and so not really worth juicing.
Latest update: As I type, it seems the drought has been broken – to a certain extent. Storm Ana has passed by and dropped 57mm of rain over the last 24 hours. It’s also taken the leaves off the plane tree in the courtyard. Below is a photo taken a couple of weeks ago and then another taken this morning (with hailstones). We still need plenty more rain though.
So all in all another busy but thoroughly enjoyable year at Casa Azul and plenty of projects planned for next year too. We hope you like the ‘new look’ blog and all there is to do is to wish all our readers a very happy festive season and may your gardens and lives be bountiful in 2018!
October arrived and with it more deadly fires. By mid month we were promised rain and it came but only an inch fell on our garden. However, this may have been enough to save the trees which were hanging on grimly. It was also enough for the grass to come alive once again but for how long? After that paltry inch we’ve had no more and the sun continues to beat down. We’ve even been eating outside in the evenings as it’s been so unseasonably warm.
The last few weeks has seen everyone out and about collecting their olives. In contrast to the very poor grape harvest, I don’t think the olives have done that badly. Mind you we only picked 86 kg this year, we could have picked more but we were very busy doing other things. Also we chopped a number of our old straggly trees down last year and they are just starting to come back. Our new year’s resolution for 2018 is to ensure we get a pro in to prune them properly to maximise the harvests in future.
Something I’ve been planning to do for a while was to build a wood shed in the courtyard. We’d been keeping the wood in the barn but now this has freed up more space to no doubt fill with more clutter. We shall see.
The lack of rain didn’t stop some bounteous harvests. We got one whole pomegranate and half a dozen almonds! We’ve already had a few quinces but we’re waiting for some more to ripen before Jackie starts making her delicious quince jelly. There are plenty of oranges (as usual) but they are already turning orange. Next up the marmelade!
In livestock news we got some more roasties – chickens and ducks and a guinea fowl. The bloke at the market had this little chap mixed in with the ducks so we thought we’d take him (or her). Apparently they get very noisy and can fly, not advisable with Betty on the prowl, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that. We did have a bit of sad news. The last of our second group of laying hens died. She hadn’t laid for quite some time so was well into retirement age. The new group are very slow to lay but Rocky who had been the first, stopped and became very broody. Now she’s back on track laying again along with one of the greys so we have one brown egg and one white one most days. The other two, Bright Eyes and Barbara are still to start. Get a move on girls!
I’ve saved the biggest news this month till (almost) last. Ever since we’ve lived here there have been problems with the mains water. Every month the water main bursts, the blokes come round, dig a hole in the lane and fix it. This has been going on and on. Well finally they have decided to put in a new main and resurface the lane. So far so good. However, in their infinite wisdom, the council has decided to also widen the lane which means knocking down a whole load of dry stone walls and pulling up ancient olive trees. Of course we were against this as the lane only sees about half a dozen cars on it per day. But it gets worse. They have knocked the walls down and uprooted the trees along parts of the lane but now the work has stopped. There are a few ruins and pieces of land lining the lane and no one seems to know who owns them so they can’t knock their walls down without their permission. So no new water main, no new road, just a mess.
In better news the cider is still slowly maturing in the barn but in the interim I’ve been doing more home beer brewing, or craft brewing as it’s now known. Need I say? Delicious!
Oh, and one more thing. Did I say I’ve now freed up some space in the barn? Well it’s already being used for two of my new toys. In the background you can just see the old olive cleaning machine we bought from our neighbour Luis, but in the foreground is my new bike. It may not look that flash but it brings back many happy memories of exploring the mountains of northern Vietnam as it’s a Minsk, a tough as old boots Russian built, go anywhere dirt devil!
We’re now into July and the heat is still relentless. In the aftermath of the fires, the controversy regarding the growing of eucalyptus has intensified. In fact a number of villages have decided to not wait for government (in)action and are taking matters into their own hands and have decided to chop all the eucalypts down within a certain radius of the village. Lets hope it makes a difference. After the fires we actually had some rain. Well not much more than a shower but it was enough to coat the truck in ash. Although we’ve had it for a few years I had to give it a wash for the first time!
In garden news, I forgot to mention previously that for the first time we had a decent harvest of loquats. We did what we do with all the fruits – made jam and crumble.
We’ve also had the yellow and red plums and are currently waiting for the huge amounts of greengages to ripen. Despite the heat and little rain, the apples have done really well as have the pears which should be next up. Jackie will be reporting on the veg patch later this month (hopefully it hasn’t completely frazzled by then), but I wanted to say that the corn on the cobs were as delicious as ever. They are probably my favourite product of the veg patch.
In June we also had Jackie’s dad over so we’ve been doing that most Portuguese of traditions – throwing sardines on the barbie!
After the disappointment of our Orpingtons, we happened to meet an old friend who told us that she bought her chickens from Miranda do Corvo market (not far from us) and that they had a wide variety on sale. We had not been to this market before so we decided to give it a go and picked up some more chickens. A couple of weeks later we are really pleased. Although the seller wasn’t sure what breed he sold us, after a search on the internet we are fairly sure they are crosses between Rhode Island Reds and French Marans. Two of them are Bluebells – the Bluebell sisters and the other is now known as Rocky. We still have one Orpington – Bright eyes. And one of them has already been laying eggs for a few days – beautiful brown ones.
Meanwhile our two original hens have officially fully retired from laying duties.
And in the third pen the roasties and ducks are about ready for the chop. Once they can eat from the feeder while sitting on the ground definitely means they are ready!
Just three weeks ago Jackie mentioned that the almond was the first tree to blossom, followed by the blackthorn and peach. Well since then the cherry, plums, apricots and now the pears have joined the party. And in fact the almond and the apricot have already set fruit. Last year we had 2 almonds and we are yet to get any apricots, so lets hope this year is a bumper crop!
Last year we really hacked back a number of greengages and more grew up from water shoots in the hen run. These have borne flowers for the first time this year, so it’s looking good so far. In addition, the grape vines have sprung into life and also the kiwis which were newly planted in the autumn. We won’t have fruit this year but we are hoping for a good show.
The other trees are not holding back either. The plane trees in the courtyard and the garden are showing signs of life. The courtyard plane has been great. It lets all the sun shine through in the winter and then provides plenty of dappled shade in the summer. Just what we wanted.
Also in the courtyard, we haven’t mentioned the orange trees for a while. These guys fruit in the winter of course and have provided plenty of oranges. Only a few days ago, I picked bucket loads of them and got 8 litres of juice but there are still dozens left on the trees!
Still in the courtyard, the quince is in full flower. That never disappoints with plenty of quince jam and quince crumbles to come.
Last year we had daffodils in December, or should I say, December 2015. This year they have been late but are now putting on a show for us, as is our Forsythia which is in full bloom.
Last but not least, even the figs have burst into life – last year was a bumper crop. More of the same again please!
Last month I noted that the hens were feeling the heat and one had molted quite significantly and was being picked on by the others. Well, it grew back its feathers and is now back to normal. It has also cooled down a bit now, it is October after all! and we have bought some frangos or roasties as we like to call them (chickens that we grow to eat). All was well for a few days then one became ill and died and then another two became ill. We thought they had coccidiosis which is a very nasty disease and highly contagious, so we quickly separated the two ill ones and later had to put them out of their misery. Thankfully since then a week or more has passed and the rest of the bunch seem happy. We also have four ducks and they all seem to get along well together. It is interesting that when we bought them, the ducks were much smaller than the chickens but they just grow so much quicker and are already bigger.
It’s also been good and bad news with the fruit. We have had very few apples this year – so no cider :-(. And the grape harvest has been a poor one, so I’m not making any wine. We are however, drinking the stuff I made last year and although it’s not as full bodied as it could be, it’s very light, fruity and very palatable.
The really hot summer has meant that we have got loads of prickly pears. You have to be very careful picking them, but once skinned they are delicious. And the fig harvest has been fantastic. I’m amazed at how many varieties there are growing wild around here. We have green ones and purple ones and some with honey coloured insides and some bright red. Anyway, I’ve been busy making fig jam, fig crumble and fig rolls (Thanks for the recipe Pam).
We love having guests over the summer and this year has been a very busy one. We’ve had 8 sets in all and as well as enjoying plenty of meals at Casa Azul, we’ve also enjoyed eating out, as the photos below show – especially seafood!
We’ve also had one uninvited but very welcome guest. Ron Weasley. I hope he feasted on all the voles and mice in the garden so they don’t eat the veggies!
The baking heat continues. We have a thermometer we keep in the shade in the garden and on 8th August it peaked at 45.6 degrees! In fact over a third of the days in August so far have registered 40 degrees or higher. Of course these are not official readings – if they were we would be the hottest place in Portugal. Anyway, searingly hot! Not surprisingly most of Portugal has been hit with devastating wild fires but fortunately for us none of them are near here. At least over the last few days the heat has relented enough for me to enter the garden to find that the blackberries are ready and looking very plump.
I guess they must have stored up much of the rain we received in May. I have to admit they are not as tasty as British blackberries nor as juicy – no stained purple fingers that were typical of blackberry picking sessions of years ago. In any case it is a welcome harvest given that the plums let us down so much. Having said that, the one plum tree we planted (and therefore the only one we water), the Stanley plum, has outdone itself. We had a few fruits last year but this year its tiny branches are straining under the weight. As I type, Jackie is collecting and bottling some of the fruit and no doubt has plans for the rest as well.
The heat, however, is affecting our apples as they are even tinier than usual and there are not so many on the wild trees in the area either. I’m not sure I’ll have enough for any cider this year.
We have three pear trees. There is an old one which is covered with tiny, hard fruit and no use to anyone. We have a slightly younger tree right at the back of the garden which almost dies every year but struggles on. This actually has half a dozen fruit which may turn out all right and we have a very young tree which we planted a few years ago and this one also has about half a dozen decent sized pears. OK so not exactly a bumper crop but beggars can’t be choosers.
We planted some grape vines around our pergola which are quite frankly pathetic but there is a wild vine growing along a wall. It produces very small grapes, not good for eating but the right sort for wine and last year I had enough for 12 bottles of very passable red wine. This year, it’s not looking great but fingers crossed.
We also have three large mature walnut trees and these always produce a great crop – in actual fact we still have nuts from last year waiting to be shelled, so that won’t be a problem. And I think the figs will be OK as well but we won’t be getting those for a while.
Meanwhile, the hens are also feeling the heat. As usual, they don’t lay so many eggs in summer but one of them has molted quite drastically. In our experience if one hen shows any sign of weakness or sickness, the other hens pick on it mercilessly. It’s very sad to see but fortunately our pen is big enough for the baldy one to stay out of trouble and I am pleased to report that it is slowly regrowing more feathers.
We also had a strange snake event. I found a large Montpelier snake attacking a much smaller Ladder snake. They were caught in a deadly embrace for quite a few minutes until finally the Montpelier snake decided to bail out and slunk away. It was only then that I saw how large it was – it was well over a metre long, which is large for round here. The Ladder snake looked a bit dazed but also managed to slither off. I saw the Montpelier snake again the following day. This time it had eaten something as it was very lethargic and I could see its belly was distended presumably with its favoured prey, a lizard, of which there have been loads in the garden this year.
So that’s it for the wild crops (and animals), Jackie will be back next time to update on the trials and tribulations of the veg patch. Let’s hope by then we will have had some rain and cooler weather…
It’s now mid July and we are well into the summer. Every day for the last 2 weeks has been well over 30 degrees with a scorching hot sun. I’m amazed that there are still some green patches of grass about but they won’t last long I’m sure. Many of the soft fruits have already come and gone – we had plenty of strawberries, a few gooseberries and plenty of the summer raspberries, but mid July brings the plums. Last year we didn’t have many yellow plums but the red ones and the greengages made up for them. This year we’ve got a few yellow ones but hardly any greengages and we had only 3 or 4 red ones! So not great news.
However, the only plum tree we planted, the Stanley plum, goes from strength to strength. Although still only a small tree, it produces quite a few fruit and as opposed to most of our other varieties, it is great for cooking with and the stewed plums are divine. Here’s a recent photo which shows they won’t be ready for a few weeks yet.
Meanwhile, our two almonds are just about hanging in…
Of the other trees, it’s still early days for the apples and pears, although as there are plenty of wild apple trees about, which are doing very well, I’m sure I’ll have enough for another batch of cider which went really well last year. Talking of which, I recently made another batch of home brew and I have to say it just gets better and better. And I much prefer my own home brewed bitter to the generic lager which is usually the only thing available in Portugal (although this is changing rapidly with a number of micro-breweries popping up locally).
But back to the garden. I’m not sure why but the mixture of a wet spring followed by a boiling summer seems to have induced a growth spurt in the prickly pears. We had a number of yellow flowers a while ago and it looks like we’ll have quite a few fruit. Careful of those spines though!
And of course the sun has brought out the lavender and the bees. We lost a few lavender plants to the frosts this year but I replaced them with an ancient wheelbarrow.
Last month I showed this pic of a new project.
Well, it developed a bit further into this:
and finally this, undergoing its final inspection:
It’s my new observatory. I’m quite pleased with it, especially the sliding roof. It’s been christened the “Star shed”
After a very damp winter and spring, summer has finally arrived. The second half of June has been a scorcher and the well, which was still full a week or so ago is going down rapidly with the veg patch watering in full flow.
It seems to have been a mixed spring for the birdlife. We had a family of blue tits fledge from a nest box but a couple of serins aborted their nest on the pergola leaving a solitary egg uncared for. We presume one or both of the parents met a sticky end. We also noticed a chaffinch nest near the house and were pleased to see the 3 eggs hatch. Unfortunately, upon returning one day the nest was bare, far too early for any off the littl’uns to have fledged.
In better news, Jackie has been constantly filling up the bird feeder as new families of tits and sparrows have been devouring the seed. Every day now we see great tit parents feeding their young nearby.
We’ve not noticed so many bees this year yet, but we have seen a number of carpenter bees, identifiable as they are enormous and black. We’ve been watching them feed on the nectar of the sweet peas by the pergola but also they have been boring holes in the same pergola, where presumably they laid their eggs. However, a few days ago I heard the familiar tap, tap, tapping of a woodpecker. He had found the bee grubs and was making more holes in the pergola to get at them.
And there’s plenty of other wildlife about as well. We have seen loads of lizards recently and a baby horseshoe whipsnake made an appearance in the courtyard. In fact we only ever seem to see either whipsnakes or laddersnakes around here, I’m sure there must be others. Anyway, these two are pretty harmless. They don’t even seem to bother the frogs when they have a drink in the pond.
To round off the wildlife, plenty of these little critters have been seen around here lately as well. absolutely delicious.
Meanwhile I have been busy on a new woodworking project. More news on this next month hopefully:
And to round off, a bit of colour. Here is the above mentioned pergola, where all the action seems to happen.
Despite all the doom and gloom of Jackie’s last post, plenty of plants have in fact done very well this summer, many of them without any help from us. Our little plot of land doesn’t have a fence to keep the wild things at bay but we are completely surrounded by a wall of brambles. And, despite this summer’s heat we have had another bumper harvest of blackberries. It’s the one thing Jackie hasn’t made a preserve of but I love to make my favourite dessert – blackberry and apple crumble. We get the apples from our own tree but there are also loads of apple trees around here on the dog walk. So I managed to scrump many more, enough to make some cider. Last year it was pretty good so fingers crossed.
Despite the grape vines on the pergola not doing so well, there is an old vine growing over one of the walls. As opposed to the ones we planted which produce large grapes for eating, this one has produced loads of small grapes.
Most of the locals only grow two things, grape vines for wine and olive trees for olive oil. Their grapes are all small so I guess the one we have must be of the same variety and also good for wine, so I’m having a go. In essence wine making is extremely simple (certainly as practised by our nearest neighbour Luis). Just crush the grapes, filter out the gunk and just let it do it’s stuff. There is enough wild yeast on the surface of the grape to ferment the juice. You just need to keep the fruit flies out or you will end up with vinegar. As you might expect, some people take a bit more care than Luis and I am being guided by an excellent little book: “First steps in wine making” by C.J.J. Berry. The price on the back is 6 shillings but as they have been making wine for centuries, I’m sure not that much has changed since this little gem was published. If nothing else, it is an interesting read. As opposed to Jackie’s elderberry wine, which is ready now, after a year in the bottle, the grape wine should be ready in weeks. Again, fingers crossed.
Probably the biggest surprise has been the peaches. We’ve got three peach trees on our land, all of which have just grown on their own and although peaches have always made a start they have never come to fruition, until now. There is quite a large tree next to the well and every day a load more fruit fall off it. I have to say that 99% of the peaches have worms inside, so it’s taking a bit of a chance to eat one straight away but it’s no problem to cut out the bad bits and be left with plenty of good flesh.
This time, I decided to get involved in the dark arts of chutney making and I’ve made three jars of peach and pepper chutney (with our own red peppers). Jackie couldn’t resist of course and has also made some chutney – peach and chilli (with our own chillis). We will find out in a few months who is the peach chutney king or queen. And there are still more peaches left, so as well as bottling a few, I’m making an experimental peach and blackberry crumble this afternoon and no doubt a few more will make their way into a peach cordial.
Fig trees grow wild round here and have had another good season. So far we’ve only had them fresh off the tree or in fig tarts. We’ve got loads of jams of various flavours already and I think Jackie is preserved out at the moment but we’ll have to see what else we can do with them.
So never mind being busy with the veg patch, there is plenty of wild fruit to be collected as well. I cast an eye over the garden and note that next up, it’s the walnuts…