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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.

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!

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.

Happy anniversary

Happy anniversary

A typical September which saw us pottering about plus a short jaunt across the border for an over indulgence in seafood. However, the big day was September 11th, the day we landed in sunny Portugal 10 years ago. We celebrated with a family photo and some of Richard’s home made beer, of course. They do say never to work with children or animals, this was our fourth attempt… Jussi really did not want to look at the camera despite a dog biscuit perched on top.

September is typically one of the harvest months and we enjoyed, for the first time, not exactly a bumper crop but really a fair number of almonds from the tree we planted. This is just a few of them that Richard spent an afternoon shelling.

We certainly do have a huge crop of prickly pears. I shall have another attempt at making some syrup from them, otherwise the birds are in luck again.

The dyeing pots and pans have been out again. First up, the blackthorn berries which, despite being shrivelled up, made a marvellous green:

Plus, more excitingly, I had a go at using the woad plants I had sown back in the spring. It’s a rather long and complicated process but seeing the yarn turning blue as it oxidizes once taken out of the pot is amazing. I shall, I keep saying, write up all these experiments one day…

We always knew, with a cockerel and 7 different hens, we would collect a colourful clutch of eggs most days (although Skittle has nothing to do with the egg making) but sometimes that is just too many… These are to be given away. Oh, and more soap-making done this month too.

We have been appalled at the reduction in insects every year. This moth was rescued from the deckchair and placed far more appropriately on some lichen. The camouflage was so good you couldn’t see it in the photo. Compassion now for the giant grasshoppers and locusts, they are left to munch on the leaves of the bay tree rather than getting flicked off and eaten by Jussi.

Finally, the garden is crisp and dry. The rain we have had was welcomed, and there’s more to come. The summer may be over but the new seedlings that have all shot up are already giving everything a green sheen, and a fresh, springlike look. Yesterday, we had all three meals outside; I suspect that’s the last time. It does seem strange that the autumn mists and fallen figs are here when only last month we said summer had arrived at last.

Please tell us if you want some eggs!

Belated congrats

Belated congrats

We just realised the other day that we missed two milestones, or whatever they are in kilometres, last month.

The first one was Skittle’s birthday. Yep, Little Chick was born July 2018 and is now the handsome, and somewhat frightening, Skittle, who loves nothing better than seeing his ladies have all the best tidbits that are thrown to them. He does this by picking up a morsel, a small piece of cucumber or torn cabbage leaf and then dropping it. He then stamps his feet and makes a low clucking sound until a hen comes and takes it. Very endearing. Wakes us up first thing in the morning he certainly does, but he has become such a great addition to the feathered family.

So Happy Birthday, Skittle!

The second milestone was that ten years ago last month we wrote our very first blog post! It was called Dream to reality. So a whole decade of blogging, and not a single month missed. Parabéns to us, too!

Here comes the summer – at last!

Here comes the summer – at last!

So it’s the fourth week of August and finally the summer has come. What do we mean by summer, then? Well, it means not feeling chilly on the morning dog walk, it means not being able to have lunch outside because it’s too hot, it means Jussi panting inside all day, it means the drone of helicopters overhead collecting water, it means the roasties roasting and hiding under the large olive tree in their field, it means supper outside and being thankful when the sun dips behind the buckthorn and then not being chilly when it sets. It means the steering wheel of the car being too hot to touch, it means being able to do three wash loads in a day and it means not going anywhere near the veg patch as all the plants will look like they have died. It means the pond needs topping up yet again. It means an eerie silence in the afternoon: not a tweet, cluck, bark or tractor sound. We had a brief spell earlier in the year which got us braced for a long, hot summer and then nothing happened. In July the temperatures didn’t reach 30, let alone the scorching 40s we have become used to.

So we can now confidently respond, when asked what the weather in Portugal is like, that every season and every year is different. (One constant is that Betty, as every summer, delights in terrorising the neighbours’ visitors on their early evening stroll around the village).

Meanwhile the residents of Casa Azul have been going about their business. Richard mentioned in the last post about the plums. They have continued to produce an embarrassing amount and so the kitchen is back in factory mode with bottling, roasting, jam and leather making galore. Red plum leather is our favourite for long, autumn walks.

The freezer is also full of whole plums for winter crumbles, and bottles of cordial. The damsons in particular have been great, we’ve never had so many.

We always have a splendid show of blackthorn flowers in February. This year, I think for the first time, we have more sloes than we know what to do with, apart from the two bottles of gin in the pantry that is…

The raised beds have been a great success in terms of the toms, these too have been piling up in various bowls around the kitchen waiting their turn, the plum versions are roasted and moulied for delicious passata. At the end of the day the summer tasks are very similar every year.

Richard, meanwhile, has been doing some sort of alchemy in his quest for liquid gold.

Yep, one big change is that the barn and courtyard have been turned into a brewery. Cheers!

ETA: well, that was short lived. Three days later and the temperatures have dropped, not going above 30 for the next 10 days. Oh and it rained this morning…

The goat lady

The goat lady

There is a lot going on at Casa Azul but I mustn’t let another month go by without saying a fond farewell to my dear friend and neighbour, Dona Helena (affectionately known as the goat lady before we knew her real name).  She used to bring her goats and sheep to the fields near our house and one of the first winters here I went out and gave her some mince pies. We became friends after that, swapping food, recipes, plants and cuttings; she was full of information about the local plants and loved talking about the history of the village. Because of her I know the state of the roads (not tarmacked of course) were during the rainy season, many of the residents kept oxen and donkeys which made it impossible to pass sometimes.  She showed me the house in the village (long empty) where she had classes, the teacher came by bicycle but not when it was too muddy. She hated the fact that, unlike the boys, she couldn’t then go to proper school as it was considered inappropriate for her to travel too far away. She talked about how hard it was living there without water and electricity. There are some large flat stones in the pond on the hill on our dog walk, those she said, were what they had used to wash the clothes.

One day she, her daughter-in-law and I walked up to Ateanha, a village on the hill above ours. Her mother came from there. We walked around meeting and greeting friends and relatives of hers. And then she took us up to the highest point in a clearing in the woods and produced a simple picnic for us to share. She didn’t speak a word of English and it really was thanks to her that I made any progress at all in Portuguese and passed the language test to become a Portuguese citizen.

One day I got up extra early and helped her milk the sheep  for her cheese. She made batches of the stuff which she sold to those who knew. She used a simple, traditional recipe and the cheese dried on a plank under the eaves. The video is one from our website again and I’m really pleased we have that as a fond memory of her. She gave up the sheep and goats a few years back, it just became too much for her.

Now she has gone her house is shuttered up, just like the house of Luis and Laurinda opposite. They were my main friends in the village and it is so very sad that none of them are here any more but we are both so happy to have met them, been invited to their homes, and shared the easy companionship of the Portuguese.

Oh and if there is an old man or woman who lives alone where you live, someone you are on nodding terms with only, go and visit them. Take a cake. Share it with a cup of tea or coffee. Learn about life before the Internet. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Find out what that was and make a new friend.

Changing of the seasons

Changing of the seasons

The seasons are traditionally thought of as lasting 3 months each, however we have often noted that Spring and Autumn at Casa Azul, although in many ways our favourites, seem to slide by very fast. October is often warm and sunny, almost summery, but as soon as November begins we get the fire on and prepare for the frosts. This year was slightly different in that we lit the first fire on 28th October but we are yet to have a frost. I think that is the reason for the leaves on all the trees hanging on for longer than usual and providing a great show of colour. This is especially true of the grape vines.

 


Even the small vine at the front of our house has put on a bit of a show.

We’ve also had our first rain of winter and so mushrooms are popping up all over the place. Here is a parasol from the garden…
… and a particularly impressive Omphalotus olearius. There are many of these around here as they like to grow at the base of olive trees. This mushroom is very similar to the Jack o’ Lantern, famous for being bioluminescent.

Talking of olives, we’ve also completed our olive harvest. Very late indeed for us but actually we were amongst the first round here to harvest. In fact the local olive presses are only just opening up for the season and we managed to get ours done very quickly. It was a very good season as the olives have plumped up nicely from the recent rain and they were really good quality or so we thought. We got 200 kgs which is pretty good for us. This didn’t, however, impress the bloke at our local press who only gave us 7 litres per 100kg as opposed to the normal 8 litres. It’s a bit of a complicated story but if you have 300kgs or more you pay to have your olives pressed and then you get your oil. If under (like us) you have to swap your olives for oil at the going rate but don’t pay anything. As it happens our olives went into a batch with someone else and that was the oil we got anyway.
I suppose I’ve saved our biggest news until last. Every year around this time we get nightime visitations from wild boar (javeli as they are called here). We’ve got a thick bramble hedge around our property so they usually only root around the fields outside but this year they managed to find a hole in the hedge and one morning we woke up to find our garden had been ploughed! Fortunately they didn’t dig up any plants.

And they came back night after night despite us frantically trying to block up any holes. Of course, we never see them by day and wonder where on earth they go. We have a night camera and have often caught them on this but we have been a bit lazy this year and not set it up. However here is a video of a big porker from a previous visitation:

And finally another video. Although it’s November, as I said we haven’t had a frost and it’s been very mild. So mild in fact that we still have wasps (and a few bees). Here’s a video I took of a very active nest in the ground. They were very busy but not aggressive at all. (PS I’m not sure what they don’t do!)

Sad September

Sad September

A long, hot September which saw us travel to Galicia and northern Portugal for 10 days of mostly camping. The dogs, chooks and house were all looked after by a marvellous couple and meant a stress free trip. However, there’s rather a shadow at the end of this month as we have just said goodbye to our neighbour and friend Luis. He was taken to hospital on Friday but didn’t make it. The funeral was today. We also learnt that his wife, Laurinda, will not be staying on alone in the house and that it will be sold. It is all incredibly sad news for us.  Nicer neighbours you could not wish for, Luis was always ready to help us, and to see their house lie empty will be heartbreaking. So here, in memory, are a couple of photos of just some of the many times when they were there to give a willing hand:

Our first olive harvest was a great success thanks to Luis. He kindly sold us his machine last year as he was no longer able to pick his olives.

And Laurinda was there to help for our first killing of the roasties. Goodbye, dear friends.

 

Renewal

Renewal

Six weeks since the new year and our last post and we have been as busy as ever. Last year, I built a new wood shed in the courtyard and flushed with success decided to make another one next to it. This was earmarked to store a few items from the barn to open up a bit of space there. I also got some more gravel to make the courtyard a bit more attractive. Possibly the only advantage of living close to a quarry is that gravel is very cheap – where else could I have got 2 tonnes for 8 Euros?

We’ve also done something we have been planning to do for the last 8 years – we went skiing in the Serra da Estrela! It’s just over 2 hours drive from us and despite there not being much snow, there was enough and the added bonus was that the slopes were almost completely empty.

One of the reasons we love living here is that the countryside is stunning and the misty mornings have made it even more beautiful.

In the photo above you can see a few willows. Jackie has started pruning the one in our garden and made some bird feeders out of the branches. Here is a Great Tit perched on one,  enjoying a treat. Other birds have also been out in force including one of our favourites, the Robin.

As well as pruning the willow, Jackie has been hard at it pruning the plane tree in the courtyard and getting sage advice from one of the hairy ones. The other hairy one, meanwhile, has been hard at it under the orange tree. This is the tree that keeps on giving. I must have made gallons of orange juice so far this winter and there is still more to come.

I’ve also got myself a new toy. I’m not sure what it’s called – a rasper? It’s an attachment to my small angle grinder and acts like a turbo sander. Anyway, it made short work of a piece of olive wood turning it into a small bowl. Watch this space to see how this new hobby develops!

before and after

Although we have had daffodils for a quite a few weeks now it is always great to see the first fruit blossom – and the winner this year is the apricot (I wonder if any of the fruit will manage to reach maturity this time?) and although there have already been some wild irises in the countryside, this is the first one to appear in our garden. Roll on Spring!!