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Category: The countryside

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.

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.

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!

Springwatch

Springwatch

We are avid followers of the BBC programme Springwatch which comes out about this time of year. It covers many plants and animals emerging from the long dark winter of the UK. However, we have our own Caza Azul Springwatch this year covering the birds and plants that have appeared here over the last month.

First up we had Blue tits once again nesting in one of our bird boxes. Unfortunately this didn’t end well as the five little brown speckled eggs were left and didn’t hatch. 🙁

Better news for the Serins however. Although not the best of places for a nest, they had made it on the end of the loquat tree five feet off the ground and in a position to catch any breeze. I’m surprised they didn’t get seasick. However, a good place to photograph and I was there to see two of the three nestlings fledge. And they stayed in the garden fluttering about for a few days as well.

one of the Serin parents

Two nestlings

In fact we have another Serin nest on the go now as well. It’s in the rose bush right above the front door. At the moment we think there are just eggs but hopefully (like last year) some youngsters will emerge from this nest.

Serins above the front door

We also spotted a wren nest. It was in a little crevice where the waterpipe comes into our courtyard. Here two wrens set up shop and we could see them for weeks, first bringing nest materials and then latterly insects, until finally the little critters fledged. They hung around for a few days as well and I counted at least 6 babies flying around the courtyard rather unsteadily. Amazing to think that they had been packed into that little space.

adult wren with supper for the kids

baby wren just fledged

Away from the birdlife, the orchids have put on a tremendous show this year. Although we have a page dedicated to them, I thought I would showcase a few photos I took this year:

Ophrys apifera, Bee orchid

Ophyrus lutea, Yellow ophyrus orchid

Ophrys speculum, Mirror orchid

Ophrys speculum subsp lusitanica, Portuguese mirror orchid

Anacamptis pyramidalis, Pyramidal orchid

Ophrys tenthredinifera, Sawfly orchid

Ophyrus scolopax, Woodcock orchid

Ophrys fusca, Sombre bee orchid

NB there are another 10 different orchids we’ve seen which I haven’t included!

The building work in the courtyard continues. Joining the new wood shed, I’ve put a planter on top of the wall and Jackie has planted some geraniums. Let’s hope they put on a good show this year. I’m also going to tile it with some of our old azulejos when I get a chance. And when we sit on the blue bench hopefully we will get the aroma from the newly planted jasmine.

Talking of good shows, our climate seems to favour roses. I’ve shown the yellow rose earlier from above our front door, but our red rose in the garden is doing tremendously as well.

The good, the bad and the beautiful

The good, the bad and the beautiful

The good: it’s been raining. In fact we have had rain every day in March except 13th. This means the grass is green, the well is full and there are puddles galore for Jussi on her walks. The saplings we put in are beginning to show the very first signs of life.

The seed sowing has been slightly delayed this year until it’s a tad warmer, but those on the kitchen windowsill are coming through.  Each of the sweetcorn has just germinated, I can taste those already. The purple sprouting broccoli is out and being eaten (by us!) and the lettuce, radishes, rocket (and some nettles) are thriving in the demipoly:

The bad: it’s been raining. In fact we have had rain every day in March except 13th. This means the hens and roasties, and even the ducks, spend more time sheltering despite so much lush grass to eat. The broad beans are up and flowering but the flowers look rather soggy and there doesn’t seem to have been many insects about, I’m waiting for the first pod to appear. The peas are bedraggled. The raised beds in the veg patch, it seems not that long ago, were looking great but the weeds love this weather and are slowly taking over:

The beautiful: but we have had some sunny intervals, enough for the spring flowers to appear:

And the blackthorn at the end of the garden has put on a marvellous snowy, showy spectacle:

We have left it too late to clean out the bird boxes as the blue tits are already making themselves at home. And on the morning walks nothing is nicer than hearing the Song Thrush echo down the valley. They have normally gone by now, being winter visitors, but it seems they have decided to stay this year. How nice:

He shot me down, bang, bang.

He shot me down, bang, bang.

narcissus_bulbicodium

One word sums up this winter, our 7th here (that can’t be right, can it?!) and that’s mild. We’ve had the rain, and quite a lot of that, but not the torrential downpours and storms from previous years. We’ve had frosts, but nothing like last year. And we’ve had the sunshine of course, but not the endless days of sunshine (and the resulting drought) as in 2012. This year the low growing narcissus bulbicodium seem to have thrived and meadows are full of their colour, a host of golden daffodils indeed. We’ve also had hailstones:

hail

Brrr, and to think we’ve had winter barbecues some years. No thanks. But spring is around the corner, temperatures are set to go well into double figures and the lush green countryside will soon be sparkling with the jewels of all the wild flowers, can’t wait.

And not only will winter end, but the hunting season too. I would say that, overall, hunting has been less evident this year than previous ones. Betty did get caught in a javali trap (she has learnt to wait patiently as the wire is loosened from around her waist) and one Sunday the sound of shots seemed to come from all directions but we haven’t met the packs of dogs, or too many hunters really this year. We were on a walk one day, however, strolling through the woodland, when we met one guy, camouflaged fromhunting top to bottom with his shotgun slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, also looking out for the birds. Hmmm.

And it’s sad to see the empty cartridges littering the footpaths. The one consolation I get is that there are hunters because there are things to be hunted. We have javali (wild boar), deer, mongoose, foxes, weasels, partridges and millions of rabbits. The hedgerows are alive with birds. This is all because the countryside here is perfect for wildlife, they thrive here. Back in the UK farmers are encouraged to leave land uncultivated so that some of the natural habitat can return and so too the wildlife; the loss of land to development or agriculture is directly linked to the loss of flora and fauna. I also suspect that the birds of prey, the buzzards, red kites, falcons, hawks and owls all eat many more birds than the hunters here shoot.

countryside

So hurrah for the Portuguese countryside and its creatures, great and small.

 

Aah, autumn!

Aah, autumn!

country

I think I’m right in saying that we have updated this blog every single month since starting and this month, for the first time, we almost didn’t make it. Which would have been a shame as it’s been a wonderful month, a perfect autumn misty morning cum glorious sunshine cum parky evening kind of month. Great for walking, gardening, lunching outside and then enjoying a roaring fire. It’s been alive with colour, not the pretty, pretty colours of spring but vibrant green pastures, rich red and gold vineyards, bronze foliage and clear blue skies.

frosty

Jack Frost has visited us a few times adding a sharpness and crunch, red noses and iced waters; a taste of winter. So goodbye November and the season of mellow fruitfulness, and hello to the wrapped-up season.

The colour of straw

The colour of straw

straw1

Crunchy underfoot, alive with insects and pollen, the land is slowly but surely turning a lovely shade of straw. Pale and interesting, hot and dry. It seems almost novel to us after last year’s green and pleasant land, but with no rain and scorching temperatures it’s a different story this summer. Most of the wild flowers have disappeared but hardy souls linger on including this yellow thistle, called a Spanish oyster it seems, and the fragrant, golden sweet yarrow that borders all the country lanes around us.

straw5

Many of the meadows have been cut, leaving unruly hay bales, reminiscent of autumns from yesteryear in the UK. Only the other day an old boy and his donkey cart tottered by. Meanwhile, the veg patch is also sporting the colour of straw. The first of the plums is always the yellow ones, not such a bumper harvest this year alas but we have put them to good use.

straw6

The courgettes as always put on a golden display, such a nice way to be greeted in the morning.  Peaches and plums have been bottled.

straw3

My sister gave me some seeds for climbing yellow courgettes, these are doing well, as are the round lemon flavoured cucumbers. We’ve also been eating one of Richard’s favourite crops, the oh so delicious sweetcorn. It’s always a success and this year I have planted a second crop which should be ready in late August or September.

straw4

The final word goes to our faithful labrador, who is blending in nicely with the colour scheme:

straw7