Browsed by
Category: The countryside

Just around the corner…

Just around the corner…

It may be the longest day of the year but it’s also the shortest summer. We have gone from spring to autumn. It’s grey, wet and a bit miz. We are wearing jumpers. The idea that ‘the nights are drawing in’ seems a tad depressing. There have been some bright days but the barbie is covered up again. Unsurprisingly, we have been watching the footie: all those games in the sunshine! With cooling water breaks! Anyway, the resident meteorologist assures me, yet again, that summer is around the corner…

So let’s go outside and see what’s there. The strawberry pot, planted up in February, is doing well. We just have to move it out of Jussi’s way before she gobbles this lot up. The raspberries have come and gone (the blackbirds won) as have the gooseberries (having been turned into 2 clafoutis, 2 large bottled jars for winter pud and 4 pots of jam).

The plums, at least the yellow ones, are going to give us a bumper harvest. And the two linden trees were amazing with their flowers this year. Picking those for herbal teas was a sense sensation: the sweet, honey-like smell was quite overpowering, and the bees overhead buzzed incessantly. I managed to get, between downpours, a good few baskets for drying.

We have a pomegranate tree, or rather bush. It looks stunning now with its bright scarlet red flowers; we only get one or two fruit, they just drop off before maturing, but it looks lovely.

In the veg patch the runner beans are doing well, we have 6 plants and manage to get plenty for a meal every day. The aubergines, melons and peppers have shot up in the wet weather so hoping for a good year for those. The courgettes are also delivering the goods now: courgette fritters, stuffed courgette, courgette pasta… when they work they are fabulous. The salad toms, the ones that escaped the blight, have fruit although those are still green. We really need some heat and sunshine to get them going.

Meanwhile the rewilding of the garden has taken a different turn. It did look lovely last year but it’s a tad scruffier now with loads of grasses and brambles coming though.

It’s all great for the wildlife though. We mentioned in the last post that the hunting ban meant seeing more animals, and we continue to see deer on many of the dog walks. Richard came across a dead one unfortunately but he took the head and he now has a rather impressive skull to add to his collection. It belongs (belonged?) to a roe deer. The moth is a passenger moth apparently.

Meanwhile we can hear baby barn owls, always very pleasing, late at night. We were also excited that, after 10 years, we had an apricot harvest. Well, we got three! The joy of small things.

Sing a song

Sing a song

We are right into spring now. On my morning walks the countryside is a riot of green. The olive green is with us all year as is the green of the pine trees but now they have been joined by the green of a wide variety of oaks including holm, kermes and the ubiquitous Portuguese oak as well as the slightly different shades of the hawthorn and strawberry trees. As well as taking in the greenness of the trees we also have our eyes combing the ground as it’s also the orchid season and we always see at least a dozen species. I must admit to being a bit of a wild flower nerd as well and have compiled a list of almost 200 species of wild flowers found in these parts.

But this year I’ve also been trying to attune my ears. A couple of years ago I couldn’t tell the difference between the song of the Robin and the Blackbird so I made a concerted attempt to identify the common birds we get around here by their calls and songs. The tea-cher, tea-cher of the Great Tit and the calls of the Wood Pigeon and Cuckoo are obvious but there were many birds I could hear on my daily dog walk and without seeing them I had no idea who was making the sound. I therefore made a real effort to remember and if possible record the songs I was hearing and then check them on various websites when I got home. Fortunately there seems to be a progression from winter through to spring. Winter is pretty quiet on the whole but we get a few thrushes who are winter visitors to mid Portugal and they are the only ones singing, certainly in February and luckily they have a distinctive and clear song.

Thrush singing

The Robin is famous for singing all year round but on my walks in March I was hearing loads of them and they are not shy so you can often see them singing as well which helps. Later, another group of birds started up. After concentrating on this song, I identified it as the Chaffinch. I think of its distinctive call as reminding me of water tumbling over rocks rising to a crescendo. We don’t get many in the garden but this at least told me there were plenty in the countryside.

A week or two later I started hearing another very distinctive song. This turned out to be the Wren. It is supposed to be the most common bird in the UK. A bit surprising as you don’t see many but its song is so distinctive, once you hear it, you know it’s the little bird with the strong voice.

Wren in its nest in our courtyard (2018)

Another distinctive call we hear is the Green Woodpecker. Almost never seen but its call can be heard from distance with its distinctive laugh, or yaffle. I remember Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss (UK TV series from the 70s) and remembered it was a woodpecker.

Jackie’s favourite is next. They arrive within a few days of 1 April every year and are of course distinctive for singing at night – the Nightingale. This year when I take the dogs out last thing at night, I can often hear three of them. Although they often sing from the top of a tree during the day, if you get anywhere near, they disappear so are also rarely seen (by us at least). Also at night, I nearly always hear the Barn Owl with its distinctive screeech. Again rarely seen (as they are out at night!) but I was lucky enough to see one at close quarters a few years ago perched on a wall right above me. I know they live in the abandoned house next door so hopefully we will hear the higher pitched screech of some youngsters sometime soon. We also hear the distinctive Twit, twooh of the Tawny Owl but these always seem to be quite far away.

rare spotting of a Nightingale in our garden

Lately there is one songster that has been loudest of all on my daily walk but I never see him. He repeats his call which is very distinctive. Jackie thinks they are singing, “I don’t want to have lunch with Ed Meeeel iband”. Strange that we don’t see them in the countryside as they are highly visible in the garden – the Blackcap.

Blackcap (male)

Every year we get Blue Tits nesting in our nest box and I know we have already got some eggs this year, however, I have never identified their song. Listening to recordings it just seems like a high pitched tweet but I’ll keep trying. Lastly but not least, the one bird we always hear in the garden rather than on our walks is the Blackbird. They are around all year but have only just started to sing. No doubt they will already be building nests in the garden. And after all my research, I think I can finally distinguish it from the robin.

One of last year’s Blue tit brood

If you want to check out the calls and songs there are plenty of websites out there but I have found the Britishbirdsongs website and the rspb to be very useful.

A month of two halves

A month of two halves

It rained this month. Goodness, did it rain. Our dog walks were turned into river crossings and we were always hoping our waterproofs would be dry enough for the next one. To add to the slight feeling of gloom constant rain brings (we felt like characters in T C Boyle’s novel A Friend of the Earth) Portugal was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons: The Worst in the World label felt very grim. We discovered one of neighbours spent 12 days in intensive care having caught Covid (she’s on the mend), the boiler man had caught it and a local wood man too…

The garden, having had such a cold January, has not been looking it’s best. There have been casualties. The geraniums are no more. Plus the plumbago, which normally gets frost bite, has gone completely black and all the plants in pots wondered why I hadn’t put them away this year.

Then while Jussi was making a great recovery, hurrah, Betty went and got a hole in her side (chasing something through a hedge we think) so yet more vet’s fees! (You’ll see she’s wearing her plastic hoodie in the top photo).

But all bad things come to an end. First of all the incessant rain has stopped, temperatures have risen and we’re having lunch outside again. It’s incredible how the sunshine lifts our spirits. This has meant getting the gardening gloves on. The plane tree has had its annual snip:

I never really like doing it, not that the task is difficult, it’s just that it always looks so sad afterwards. It’s incredible to think that the new branches grow more than 2m in a year, and there will be birds nesting in it again.

We have been to the garden centre and bought some flowers and strawberries to cheer the courtyard up. The hens have been moved yet again to a new field.

And the end of the garden looks just marvellous again:

I’m particularly pleased that the ornamental plum seems to have made a full recovery, it really was looking a bit sad towards the end of the summer. Not only is the blossom so cheerful but the leaves make such lovely blue and green dyes for my yarn; I knitted a jumper with all the different coloured yarns I have dyed over the last few years:

But, along with the sunshine, we have had some good news: Richard has at long last got The Letter stating that he has been accepted for Portuguese citizenship. We went to the Council office to get his card but were shooed away and told it was non-urgent, we’re hoping we can get that done in March, just two years after he applied!

Plus, drum roll, we also got The Letter from the Ponte de Lima council saying that our plans for the house have also been approved, almost a year of waiting there! We have sent these to a builder we met last year and now we are hoping we can afford the work that’s needed to be done. (Rather ironically the Penela council had a meeting yesterday in the village to discuss the naming of the streets, it’s been infuriating not having either house number or street name. They’ve been promising to do something about that for at least a decade).

So small steps forward. It doesn’t look like normal life will return here until after Easter, but as soon as the restaurants are open we hope to celebrate the light at the end of the Covid tunnel and getting the moving up north back on track.

Meanwhile we are enjoying the countryside in the spring sunshine. The wild flowers and orchids are starting to come out, the birds are singing and the mornings are lighter.

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: