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.

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.

Good riddance, 2020

Good riddance, 2020

Richard was looking back at previous posts and noted two things. The first was my reference to a cough in February: I have had a cough for what seems like weeks now which I just can’t shift... we then remembered that it really did continue for a long time, when I returned to the chemist to get yet more cough medicine all the perspex shields had been put up, and one night he even slept in the spare room to get some sleep. I also recall saying, well into spring, that I still wasn’t feeling 100%. Of course nowadays it would mean a trip to the Covid test centre but presumably it was just another virus…

The second thing that Richard noted was I had given the broad beans Plant of the Year award for 2019! Well, they deserve to have it two years on the trot. Highly recommended. We had some for our Chrimbo meal and will have more this weekend. The latest crop are doing well, along with the beetroot:

The sun came out for the 25th, certainly warm enough to enjoy some homemade sloe gin and chicken liver pâté for starters, but as last year the wind was a tad chilly and we ate inside.

The cake and (pallet) tree are usually decorated with knitted trees. However, the moths got to most of them while in store in the attic so I had to make some more decorations. This year I chose a woodland / wildlife theme:

The hens are all fine. Interesting that Hazelnut, now that all her feathers have grown back, has actually changed colour. She was nearly all brown before but is distinctly piebald now. This is her and Momo:

Lacey and Hattie are the biggest, but Hattie is the boss:

We’ve just noticed that Preta has started to lose some feathers again on her back; earlier in the year this happened to them all (except Lacey) and some of you will remember we separated Skittle for a while until they grew back. Branca is the smallest and is the only one to lay white eggs. Yesterday we got six. Well done, Laydeez.

Skittle meanwhile has found his tail but some of the longest, most colourful feathers are still to regrow. We found the saddle made for Branca earlier in the year which fell off overnight, I don’t think we put it on properly. We have now put it on Preta, it doesn’t quite fit, she must be quite narrow across the back, but it serves its purpose. Skittle has started rearing up and flapping his wings over his back in anticipation of spring fun so we do hope Preta is fully feathered by then.

In the spring, we often spend time looking for nests. They are always difficult to find (unless they belong to the blackbirds) and we’ve only discovered this little one in the Acer now all the leaves have fallen.

We had a bee in the kitchen the other day. The only flowers we have are on the viburnum. We have a number now and they definitely deserve some recognition. They blossom three times a year, and are then covered in black berries so great for the bees and the birds. Despite the scorching summers they need little water and just grow with the minimum of care. Perfect for lazy gardeners like myself.

The bird feeder is always occupied by squabbling greenfinches and sparrows, the goldfinches prefer the seeds in the meadow next door:

So good riddance indeed to a horrid 12 months. 2021 must surely be a brighter, less turbulent year. We wish joy to all our readers and a Happier New Year.

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.

S is for…

S is for…

September, of course. And the month has produced its usual harvest of figs which has meant, yet again, being in the kitchen and wondering what on earth to do with those left over from jam making and bottling. Nigel Slater’s fig and mascarpone tart has been baked numerous times, fig clafoutis, fig tartlets with goats’ cheese, figs in salads… luckily the chickens like them too.

Summer. Ha, well the temperatures shot up earlier this month, the first 16 days saw highs of over 30C. So we were able to watch the delayed Tour de France with the heat we usually associate with the sport. On 12 September it reached 37.9C.

Spring. Well, sometimes it feels like that too. First of all we’ve had a bit of rain, actually it thundered down one night as a tropical storm went over the house almost blowing over some of our young trees we planted a few years ago (they are now propped up with breeze blocks), and this has meant everything is slowly going green with little shoots everywhere. There’s a new emergence of wild flowers particularly autumn crocuses Colchicum autumnale (see top pic) and autumn snowflakes Leucojum autumnale. We need to look out for the lovely ladies tresses Spiranthes spiralis which also appear this time of the year. It’s the tiniest of orchids and we had some in the garden last year.

The birds have also started singing once more and our dog walks have become a musical affair. The robins, in particular, are trilling everywhere, a real delight.

Stinger. We have some water outside the house for the birds, always so nice to look up and see the splashing of a bird bathing, but we noticed that it wasn’t just our feathered friends appreciating the water. Asian hornets were also arriving and having a sip or two. Hmmm. They seemed to be arriving and leaving in the same direction which we decided to follow. Just around the corner the sound of insistent buzzing could clearly be heard from the middle of our willow tree. Rather nervously we got as close as we dared and sure enough the tree was swarming with a whole variety of flying insects including wasps and hornets, Asian hornets. So we took some photos and have reported them on a site dedicated to dealing with them. Quercus, the environmentalist group, has admitted though it has “lost count of the number of Asian hornets’ nests found in Portugal, but the number is already in the many thousands.” Which explains why they haven’t got back to us… we tried to find the nest but no luck. The hornets are causing 5 million euros a year in losses to the honey industry.

Skittle. On a more positive note we have let Skittle out to join his lady friends. We are so pleased that all their feathers have grown back and they all look healthy. Skittle was certainly pleased to start frolicking once more.

One slight downside is that Lacey, rather annoyingly, has decided to become broody again, for a second time this year. Not only does it mean she hogs the nest box (although there are two she is in the favoured one) it also means that Skittle only has five hens instead of six, and she is the only one (being the biggest) not to have lost any feathers. She makes the most appalling noise when you pick her up and collect the eggs.

Something brewing in the barn. Richard has no fewer than three types of concoctions bubbling away. First, another batch of beer. Apparently it’s a Brown Porter (whatever that is). Secondly, he went off scrumping and came back with a whole load of apples from the nearby fields and is having another go at making cider. He knows a lot more about the fermentation process now so we’re hoping for an even better batch this year. And thirdly, he’s collected all our grapes and yes, stood on them, and is making Vinho Tinto de Casa Azul, probably not a vintage. With all these percolating away it means he’s always darting in and out of the barn taking readings, making notes, stirring and goodness knows what else.

Singsong. Not to be outdone by Richard on the crafty front this is the name of my latest knitting pattern I’ve designed (on the left). It’s being tested now but I’m also working on yet another one, I have done well over 20 now.

Stalling. Sadly we have heard nothing at all from the Ponte de Lima council about our application for the house plans. Nada. They keep telling our architect they’ll be in touch but what with Covid… etc etc. A bit frustrating but we recognise how lucky we are being here. We continue to live in a sort of bubble really but today we ventured into Coimbra for a little shopping and lunch. We were very surprised by what we saw: the streets and cafés and squares were bustling with people and there was a nice atmosphere. There was an obvious lack of coach tourists walking up the main drag but despite that shops seemed fairly full, we think there were quite a few Spanish tourists making their own way across the border and of course the Portuguese are holidaying at home too. Most people were wearing masks, definitely in the shops (which is the law) but also in the street. We had a nice meal sitting outside, all the tables were taken by the time we had finished our café pingados. In fact they didn’t charge us for the coffees, I think restaurants are just so pleased people are frequenting them.

Sunsets, which come earlier and earlier. I put the chooks away around 9.15 in the summer but now, at 7.30, it’s time to lock them away. We hope everyone else is well too.

August already?

August already?

Oh, what happened to July? It was the very first time, in our ten years of blogging, that we missed a monthly post. Perhaps it was significant…

Meanwhile, summer is here. The duvet has been put away, the fan is on and I’m shouting at all the other household members to shut the doors to keep both the heat and the horseflies out. We call it Tour de France weather but we missed watching one of our favourite sporting events this year while the temperatures soared. So no yellow jersey but plenty of yellowing fields.

Richard bought some champagne last month. Actually, not champagne but Portuguese bubbly which is very good. A few years ago we went on an excellent tour to one of the wineries that make it, not so far from us, which has received many awards and some praise from the French (they make it using the champagne method). The reason? Perhaps to celebrate ten years of living at Casa Azul? We moved in on 17 July, 2010. Nope. Perhaps to celebrate Skittle’s second birthday or, even better, Jussi’s 12th? Neither. A bumper harvest? Hardly. No, the reason was to celebrate Liverpool winning the Premier League after 30 years, the highlight of July! 🙂

Celebrations for the 10 year event were more muted, just another delicious meal sitting in the garden.

Actually, poor old Skittle wasn’t celebrating at all. We had noticed that the feathered backs of the hens were wearing a bit thin, and then it wasn’t long before it seemed a bit serious and there were large bald patches. This didn’t happen last year but I suppose he’s more of a man now than a boy… I made a chicken saddle, a padded cotton covering for the back which you slip around the wings, and we put that on Branca one evening. Come the morning it was on the coop floor… we obviously hadn’t put it on properly. We put plan B in action: keeping Skittle separate from his ladies. So now he is in the cage part of the coop and the hens come in and out from the back door. He’s not really on his own as the others are all around him in the field but he doesn’t have the opportunity to mount them. We are really glad to say it has made a huge difference. The timing was perfect as the hens were beginning their summer molt, and now the feathers on their back are coming through. Once they’re all back we’ll let Skittle out again for further fun and frolicking.

Keeping with the feathered theme, the nest in the courtyard turned out to be serins. I’d like to say they all fledged successfully but for some strange reason one kept coming out of the nest. First it would hang over the side (the nest was just above head height, so it was easy to see them), then it fell out onto a branch but we popped it back. Then Richard actually saw it fall on the ground, he picked it up and again put it back. Alas, one morning we found it dead under the tree on the ground. I’m sure it was the same one each time. However, four were fine and fledged, never to be seen again. The bird feeder is constantly in use; the amount we spend on birdseed is ridiculous!

Meanwhile, Richard has been busy in the woodworking department. He has bought another attachment for his angle grinder and made some candle holders from some of the old olive wood we have. He has also taken the original two Adirondack chairs apart, the pallet wood was slowly disintegrating and it was becoming a tad nervy to sit on them. They have been rejuvenated and painted blue.

Two of the ‘roasties’ we bought from the chicken lady back in late June he has already dispatched, how they can grow so fast is beyond me.

Veg wise the best crop so far has been the toms, an early glut meant making my favourite soup: gazpacho. Now the maskotka tomatoes are ready. I bought the seeds for these many years ago and just keep a few from fresh toms every year, so no need to buy more. They are a bush variety and taste divine, highly recommended. We have also had the first of the pimientos de Padrón and there are many more to come, real summer food.

I mentioned in a previous blog how disappointed I was with the Sicilian seed experiment. The broccoli went to seed and the purple cauliflower just had leaves. The latter I kept in the raised bed so that the leaves (which we have been eating) could keep the sun off the soil for the cucumbers. I then saw that one of them had a small, purple head appearing. It grew and grew into…? Not a cauliflower, more like purple sprouting broccoli. It was roasted and actually tasted very nice. And a month never goes by without Richard and his brewing, I think this one was a type of lager.

So what of the missing blog? Well, we have been a tad distracted by trips up north to Ponte de Lima. It’s a charming town, considered the oldest in Portugal, the river Lima runs alongside with an old Roman bridge and it’s generally greener than further south thanks to the increased rainfall it receives. We liked it a lot the very first time we visited, back in 2013, and the fact that Galicia, our favourite part of Spain, is a short drive away adds to the attraction. So… it is to become our new home.

Yep, for some bizarre reason we have started again with the saga of builders and architects and council planning permission and packing up and moving. Not, of course, in the foreseeable future. Not only because of the Covid situation but because we seem to have bought another ruin, and the amount of work needed is a lot more than Casa Azul. The granite walls are thick and solid but inside, including the flooring, all needs replacing, and the roof is to be raised. The reason for moving, despite loving living here, were numerous: we both began to get itchy feet and wanted a new area to explore, my back problem meant gardening was becoming more difficult and for both of us keeping on top of the land (things grow all the time!) was tiring. So we have a smaller house, with less land, but space enough for dogs and chooks and some kind of veg patch. We will of course be having a blog about that but in the meantime here is Casa Lima:

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.

The birds and the bees

The birds and the bees

This last month has been very busy on the wildlife front – both good news and bad. We’ll get the bad over with first. Jackie’s favourite hen, Rocky, was attacked and killed by a mongoose. I’ll spare the details but for whatever reason it wasn’t able to take Rocky away. So after the event we set up the trail camera and recorded this:

The other hens are in a different paddock and have beefed up defences, so fingers crossed they will be safe.

In better bird news, our Blue Tit nestbox was once again occupied this year and we saw at least four birds fledge. They were rather lucky as minutes after the last one flew the coop, I spotted a ladder snake in the nest box! It was only a small one, so maybe it wouldn’t have harmed the chicks but was investigating if there were any eggs left.

just fledged

That’s the birds and now for the bees. We have loads of bumblebees in the garden doing their stuff but recently I’ve noticed that there are often bees in the barn and now I know why. They are Mason Bees. These are solitary bees in that they don’t have a hive. The female finds a small hole or crack where it builds a nest and stores a supply of pollen and nectar. It lays an egg on this and then seals up the hole. Often there are a number of sealed compartments in any one nest. You can clearly see the sealed up nests in one of the photos below – in our wine store in the barn. In the spring the larva will eat the supply of food and when it is ready will tunnel out of the nest.

Not content with Mason bees, we’ve also got Ashy Mining Bees! These are also solitary bees but live in holes in the ground. We found this one in the kitchen.

This year I have decided to leave a lot of the garden uncut, which gives the wildflowers and wildlife in general more chance to thrive. It has provided a boon not just to actual bees but we have also found a bee orchid in our garden. A first for us.

We turn from bees to hornets. I found this chap had a taste for my beer. I carefully got him out and he, or probably she, recovered to fly off. Mistake! I thought it was a European hornet because it was so large. However, just now I have identified it as the much-vilified Asian Hornet. I think I am supposed to report it to the necessary authorities as the council will come round to find and destroy the nest.

see the miniscule ant as comparison

We also found a dead vole and mole in the veg patch and spurred on from watching a recent wildlife programme, I decided to get the skulls. Basically I left them out for the flies. In just a few days, the fly maggots devoured the flesh to just leave bones and hair. The cleaning was completed by soaking in water for a few days. Betty also found another javali (wild boar) skull which is now also being cleaned and will be added to the bone collection! Thankfully in this case the flesh had all gone so it is just macerating in a bin of water.

the maggots do their stuff

mole and shrew skulls with mandibles (lower jaw)

In other news, I’ve been playing with a few new toys to use on my bowl projects and here is the latest:

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