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Cold but colourful

Cold but colourful

The countryside around us is always surprisingly verdant for most of the winter as the types of oak, olives, pines and eucalyptus etc around us are evergreens. It was delightful coming across a row of these acers in a village we walked through as we took good advantage of the dry, sunny weather.

The garden is in flower. Well, sort of. Two of our three types of buddleia are putting on a show as are many of the roses, amongst others. I saw a red admiral the other day. And yes, we even have a few strawberries!

Meanwhile Richard has been getting his craft beer kit out again. I think this is a black IPA. He has made no fewer than 35 brews so far and very nice they are too.

Richard has also found time to finish, at long last, the wooden fruit bowl he carved from the fallen cherry tree. It certainly has an artisanal look about it but we like it a lot.

Meanwhile the Christmas cake has been made and is being ‘fed’ on a regular basis. (Am I the only one who forgoes the teaspoon and just sloshes the brandy over the cake each time?) The pud has also been made, only the slightest of hiccups when I realised I must have used self-raising rather than plain flour…

I spent a few hours in the sun cracking open some of last year’s walnuts. Some of them had divided themselves into three rather than two, rather strange.

I have taken the plunge and opened an Instagram account to promote my knitting patterns. I do not enjoy all this new malarkey, something always goes amiss. Not having a smart phone slightly hampered things but now that it can be linked to Facebook I have managed to do that through the desktop. However, the three posts I first put up were taken down immediately as they were against the community guidelines. They give great detail about what that entails (terrorism / nudity / fake posts etc etc but nothing was mentioned about hand knitted tops). I can post successfully through my Facebook page so am sticking to that for the mo (@kiddiwinksknits if you’re interested).

There are a couple of ponds on our dog walks. This one, if we remember to keep quiet on arrival, is a favourite spot for a heron and we can catch it keeping a beady eye out for the frogs.

There are loads of jobs in the garden to do, the asparagus bed needs to be cut down and mulched but it is gloriously golden in the sunshine and I am reluctant to remove it.

On the animal front, Jussi survived an operation in January to remove a tumour, but alas has a few more now and has been on a diet of eye-wateringly expensive pills. They do seem to have helped but she won’t be able to be operated on again so we just hope she continues to be in high spirits, she is well over 13 now, and nothing has affected her appetite as yet.

Betty is slowing down and has become rather soppy wanting cuddles on the sofa, but again she is still in high spirits. It’s a dogs life for her (not).

Autumn is the new summer

Autumn is the new summer

We said in the last post that September was springlike. Well, without doubt, October was summer. It was marvellous: the average high was 25, with the highest reaching 30. And average lows were only 11, and some of the evenings never got below 16 so some lovely balmy evenings.

We took advantage of these nice days with a number of trips to the beach, plus a night away with friends by a lagoon. This entailed eating lots of seafood, walks on the sand collecting shells and flamingo feathers, and bird spotting too.

It also meant the barbecue hasn’t been put away yet and the smell of grilled fish lingered in the courtyard many an evening. We are regulars at the local markets, trying to do our bit to keep them going. There have been quite a few supermarkets open in the region since we arrived and they are taking their toll. However, there is usually a good range of fish, and fruit and vegetables too. (Although it remains a mystery what the Portuguese do with the aubergines, cauliflower and broccoli as we are never served those in a restaurant).

The month ended with some downpours though but despite that it got top marks. The weather has now turned to winter: temperatures have plummeted, the fire is roaring in the living room and the leccy blanket will be taken out of its box soon. So spring, summer, winter in two months… Oh, and there’s snow on the Serra da Estrela!

The village

The village

Or should that be villages? When we first moved in there was a lot of paperwork to be done: forms to be filled in, proof of residence to be made, photos taken… we traipsed round various offices together always taking all the documents with us, never knowing what was needed when. It was therefore with some amusement when we got any authorisation, our residência for example, as it seemed we were not living together. We were given different postcodes, one of us is living in the village to the east, Galega, and the other to the west, Chão de Ourique! We are in fact living bang smack in the middle of the two, perhaps the village boundaries go through the house.

Anyway, this was way back in 2010. Although the house may be in two villages it has neither a number nor a street name (the bank manager is always moaning about that). Some of you will remember the council had a village meeting back in February asking for suggestions for names. Last month we received a note from them saying that the proposed name for ours was Rua da Escola (and giving us 10 days to object and come up with something different). Ah, I hear you say: you’ve never mentioned the school. That’s because there is no school. There is a building which was used as the school, D. Elena went there when she was a child in the 1940s, but it hasn’t been used as one for decades. A name is better than no name though and now we wait for our number. (Which might help us to send parcels to the UK; at the moment the customs declaration form has to be done online but all attempts to fill it in fails as the address is incomplete…).

The old school house

D Elena told me that the schoolteacher used to arrive by bicycle. In those days the road was just a dirt track and when it rained heavily he wasn’t able to come as it was all too muddy, especially as people kept oxen which made the road even more impassable in bad weather. She used to complain that she wasn’t allowed to go to the bigger school when she was old enough, as her brothers did, because it was in another village and she was a girl. She had to stay behind.

Which brings us to the next topic: it seems the village is for sale, including the old school house. There are 17 buildings on the west side, Chão de Ourique. Only six of these are lived in: three with Portuguese and three with Brits. Alas, at the start of the month there were seven occupied houses but we had to say goodbye to Ol’ Man River who lived alone at the far end. There is a lamp post in the village which serves as a notice board and as most notices are about who has died it is referred to as the death pole. We were sad to see his name and picture there but at 96 he had had a good innings, as they say. Despite his age he was always quite cheerful, we could often hear him singing, and always asked us what day of the week it was. His house, along with D Elena’s, is to stay with their families, as is another house, but the remaining are either for sale (five of those, I exaggerated a little) or abandoned (three).

Luis’s house opposite is for sale…
…as is the house next door…
…and the one next to that.

There might even be more abandoned houses but as they have no roofs and have become one with nature it’s not always so clear what was a barn and what was a house. I often wonder what the village must have been like when all the houses were fully occupied and the old people who live here now, or up until recently, were children. D Elena used to talk about the past with pleasure until she remembered how hard it was without water and electricity (and the muddy roads) and got a bit tearful.

For sale
Empty since we have been here

Meanwhile the greenfinches in the plane tree in the courtyard have left their home. They fledged this morning having stood on the edge of the nest flapping their wings and tweeting loudly for the last four days. They haven’t gone far, we can still hear them in the olive trees over the wall begging to be fed.

The last word goes to Jussi. Despite being a pedigree Labrador, with a whole string of operations and emergency treatments and medicines under her belt, she has, amazingly, turned 13. I have lost count how many times I thought she wouldn’t make it through the latest saga of illness, including the operation for the tumour at the start of the year, but she is quite perky, for her age at least, although her daily walk is just through to the end of the village and back. Alfredo is still around to shout Gordo! and chuckle whenever he sees her. Parabéns to Jussi.

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Here we go again…

Here we go again…

I wanted to start the new year off with some enthusiasm but it hasn’t been a wonderful start, really. First up was Jussi’s operation. She was diagnosed with a tumour on her right side towards the end of last year. Any hopes that it may well not grow very large were quickly dispelled so we decided to have her operated on, although the vet warned us that, as an older dog (she’s 12 and a half), there are risks. It was a bit of a tearful farewell when we dropped her off but the good news is she has made a remarkable recovery and is still fairly keen for a shortish walk in the morning. So, despite the eye-watering vet’s fees, (more tears!) that is good news in the end.

The weather has been grim. Most of the new year has seen us waking up to beautiful frosts but although the temperatures haven’t fallen as low as previous years it’s been relentlessly cold day and night for much longer. Usually the winter sun has been warm enough for lunch outside but not this year. The plants have suffered, even those I put away under the table under a lean-to roof are looking awful. The geranium leaves completely froze and now hang limp. In the garden the prickly pears have collapsed. The chicken water was rock solid in the mornings. I saw three dead birds under trees one morning; the idea they froze in the night is very upsetting.

The garden birds are getting extra treats though and are consuming vast amounts of sunflower seeds. It’s nice to see them so close, the thrushes are back and we can often hear a green woodpecker.

Now the weather is turning, it’s blowing a hooley outside at the moment, and we have a week of rain and storms to look forward to, oh joy! We have moved Skittle and his harem to their original coop which means more grass for them so at least we won’t be walking in the mud to let them out. With luck it’s been made mongoose proof now.

Nothing deters Betty from her morning walks though and she’s fine; she’ll be ten this year. So again we should be positive about that.

On top of all this we are back in lockdown, with much stricter rules this time. Any opportunity to shop apart from essentials has been thwarted: supermarkets can only sell food and drink (alcohol not after 8pm), and there is more of a police presence on the road checking drivers are only out and about as allowed. This means of course more delays on our new house, the bets are on for whether it will be more than a year before the council approves the plans…

On the work front Facebook has decided our website is spam and is refusing to allow us to write posts that promote the latest podcast. Not only is this very frustrating there is absolutely no way of contacting them to complain, I just don’t think that should be possible.

Ah well, we are both safe and sound and for that we are exceedingly grateful. We have found time to do our favourite hobbies which means beer making for Richard and another knitting pattern designed by me.

January is marmalade making month so that’s the next project, and something I enjoy, but fingers crossed for a warmer and more positive February.

Bean feast

Bean feast

I have at last cleared the three main raised beds, a task which is now so much easier to do than when the beds were just on the ground. There were hardly any weeds, the boards keeping them at bay, and the soil was just so crumbly that any gatecrashers were dealt with swiftly. I’ve always quite enjoyed preparing the beds, getting the trowel or rake out and sowing seeds or plugs, it was the back breaking weeding that was so dispiriting. The longer I put it off, the worse the situation became and so when I eventually forced myself to tackle the beds my back complained bitterly for a week. Now it seems there is science behind the enjoyment: the benign soil bacteria mycobacterium vaccae can trigger a release of serotonin in the brain and that makes you feel happier. Which is why gardeners enjoy pottering, the close contact with the soil is a real feel-good factor.

Two of the beds are now covered in a thick mulch of cut grass. Richard has strimmed the whole garden and I have raked up what I needed. It wasn’t an easy task for him, I gave the impression in the last post that we have not had much rain but this isn’t true. Between the lovely days of sunshine we’ve certainly had our share of heavy showers and finding a window to strim has been difficult. It also meant the grass had grown exceedingly tall. It’s all done now but will need doing again soon.

The third bed has been planted with beetroot plugs from the market, it has also been planted with broad bean seeds. I went to find last year’s packet only to discover the box was not with my other seed packets but had been left in the potting shed. The shed gets boiling hot in the summer, not ideal conditions for seeds. Anyway, rather reluctant to buy more (there are loads in a box) I went ahead and sowed a whole load, two to a hole (on their sides to prevent rotting) and would you believe it – they have all come up! Already, within two weeks! They survive the frosts and provide a great spring / early summer veg. We froze a few packets of them which we will have for our Christmas meals. So a great success and therefore how can I not give them the Plant of the Year Award 2020?

And clearing the beds also meant removing the dead plants from the summer, including the runner beans. Once we’d had our fill, and also frozen some too, the rest of the pods were left to dry on the plant. Many of the beans collected from these have already been used in a casserole. Next year I’ll have another go with the dwarf purple ones. Definitely a plant to recommend on any veg patch: easy to grow, reliable, hardy and tasty too. Well done, the beans.

Another bed tackled was the asparagus. The ferns turn the most beautiful golden colour but these have been cut down and mulched ready for the first crop in March.

We have a new batch of roasties. Unfortunately, we no longer have the same number as we first bought; one disappeared. Regular readers will know we have lost hens or roasties to three different animals: fox, mongoose and sparrowhawk. I set the camera up to see which was the predator this time, but this is all I caught:

It came a few times, and was clearly interested in the roasties (in their cage temporarily) but it does seem rather far fetched that a cat killed, and carried away, a (admittedly the smallest which had a limp) roastie… anyway, they are all bigger now and have been let out again to enjoy the grass. This one looks like a contender for our Christmas dinner.

Some of you will also remember that 2 years ago we bought a whole load of saplings. The ones that have survived erratic summer watering (and Richard’s strimmer) have done very well. These are all now taller than me, and the liquidamber and red oak, while not as tall, are putting on a fine winter show:

I am embarrassed to admit that in the barn are a number of dye experiments that have been forgotten about. So one sunny day I had a go with some lichen, evernia prunastri, that had been sitting in its concoction since November 2018, another 2 years ago. I couldn’t remember what the VSU on the label meant until it was cooking in the kitchen and Richard wanted to know what the ‘very strange smell’ was, and then I remembered: very stale urine!! A sort of pale lilac colour was the reward (not as peachy as it seems here).

The dogs are getting on but are fine. Betty has lost some of her colouring, she used to have brown patches on her face, and Jussi is plodding along.

Richard has also made yet more beer and got his wood working tools out again for various projects. We have both enjoyed getting out and doing some walking.

Our concelho has now joined the “very elevated risk” areas re Covid, there are new State of Emergency procedures in place so excursions for the mo are restricted to the local countryside. We can’t even drive out of the area. Fortunately, we have stocked up on both wine and wood and continue to be more than appreciative of our personal situation. We do hope our readers are safe and well too.

Blowing hot and cold

Blowing hot and cold

We started the month with a short trip across the border to Mérida in search of vultures, Roman ruins and good Spanish food. We were not disappointed. We were hoping to have a few days away at the start of November too, again to cross the border but this time to travel north to watch La Vuelta; travel restrictions have put a stop to that. Portugal has returned to a State of Calamity and there is an air of grim resignation among the villagers about the months ahead.

The resident meteorologist tells me that it takes a longer time to go from spring to summer than it does to slip from summer to autumn. September can often be warmer than June but come October temperatures start to fall considerably. During the day it can be just lovely, really very warm, especially with clear skies and out of the wind, but come the evening it’s quite chilly and we have had the wood burning stove going at night for a while now. I suspect it won’t be long before the electric blanket gets taken out of the box…

The veg patch is waiting for the broad beans to be sown but in the meantime it is still giving us peppers, including the pimientos de Padrón, and tonight we are having some cavolo nero (an almost black curly kale). The yellow peppers have been great and the warm sunny days have meant that some of the fruiting trees are flowering again.

We’ve taken full advantage of the sun to eat out in restaurants more than usual, especially those that have outside access. This horseshoe whip snake found in the garden has also been basking in the sun (on the left 😉 ) .

We came home the other day to find some chillies left for us by a neighbour so there’s some chilli oil in the making to add some heat to our food. And for those who remembered that last year we made some prickly pear jam: we are eating it now and it is delicious. Almost like apricot, a beautiful ruby colour and perfect on home made toast.

On the chicken front Skittle, rather foolishly, has lost his tail. And we have a new set of frangos who have been enjoying the new sweet grass. Otherwise a quiet month, some of the many walnuts have been shelled, the pond cleared of its leaves and hedges pruned. A rather poor olive harvest has not encouraged us to pick them again this year; plus we still have the oil from two years ago!

Once again we have been appreciating the countryside and the ease we can get out and about so easily. Let’s hope things will improve for November.

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!