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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.

Flowers and showers

Flowers and showers

So I went onto our digital photo albums to see what pics we had taken to remind me of the month only to see they were mainly of meals we had eaten outside or knitting projects! I think the reason for this has been the rain again; the excitement of al fresco dining at last and firing up the barbie is always a photo opportunity, and then being inside meant time spent designing more patterns.

So Richard has had more practise with grilling sardines…

plus he has honed his paella making skills:

There have been some winners. The raspberries have gone mad thinking we have moved to Scotland and we are having a monster crop. Not that we are eating them all ourselves, the blackbirds are feasting on them too. The strawberries are also doing well but I just saw Jussi helping herself to one so we are sharing those too!

I’m not really a big fan of roses but the ones of the front door have also enjoyed the rain with the sunshine, as have others in the courtyard. The serins will be nesting above the door as usual this year we hope.

The clematis too looks marvellous and in the countryside it’s been an astonishing year for the bee orchids, we’ve never seen so many before, just wonderful.

There have been casualties though. For the first time the blue tits’ nest box failed. We saw them making their nest, and a few hatched but then, for some reason, they all died. Very sad. Perhaps the rain meant there were not enough caterpillars for them, perhaps one or both of the parents got predated. We’ll never know, and there doesn’t seem any more interest in the box. One lunchtime a buzzard tried to take one of the blackbirds feeding on the ground, there was a load of squawking and it flew over our heads but the blackbird got away. Nice to hear them and the nightingales singing.

In the veg patch the rain and warm temperatures meant one thing: the dreaded blight. I had to throw away all of the cherry tomato plants, they were already very tall and covered in flowers. But the tell-tale signs were there and when I made myself dig them up they stank horribly. A little later two of the salad tom plants also had to be pulled up, I have four of those left. There are still six plum tomato plants to go in, struggling a bit in their pots, but they are to go in after the broad beans and will be next to the others and I really want to wait and check they’re in the clear. We’ve had a marvellous proper hot sunny day today but I’ve just seen it’s only going to be 20 tomorrow with a chance of rain (more!) so perhaps it’s just as well I’ve waited.

On another positive note there are definitely signs in the countryside that the hunting ban has made a difference. Deer, rabbits and red-legged partridges are regularly seen. Oh and yes we’ve both had our first Covid jabs, the next one is late June.

We’ve just looked outside: the skies have turned a distinct pewter grey and the wind has picked up. It really does look like we’ll start the first of the summer months needing our waterproofs for the morning dog walk. Ho hum.

Plant of the Year Award 2018

Plant of the Year Award 2018

New Year’s Day was lovely. We sat on the green bench (one of Richard’s very first woodworking projects which is still going strong) enjoying the surprisingly warm winter sun. Then we heard a strange noise. We looked at each other, and then looked over towards the chooks. There was Skittle, wings held out wide, standing high on feathered toes and head thrown back. He opened his beak and crowed again. Yep, he. Sir Skittle it seems after all. Putting off what to do now (coq au vin seeming less likely) we left all three together but when I tried to record Skittle crowing I found myself filming this instead (not for the faint-hearted):

Poor old Rocky, and you can see Hattie making sure she wasn’t next. Since then Skittle has been rather too keen on Rocky and as he can’t share his advances with other hens they are now separated (witnessing Rocky squawking and running away from Skittle made it an easy decision). They are still near, and can see each other through the fence, but until we have some more hens we are keeping the girls and boy apart. There has been something nice though about hearing a cockerel doing his cock-a-doodle-dooing, it feels like we have a proper farm.

We have two orange trees in our courtyard. Every January we are reminded how lucky we are to have them. This year I made our regular batch of marmalade and Richard made vast quantities of orange juice for the freezer.

This year I also had a go at making some orange leather from the left over pulp. Normally the leather is made from summer fruits and allowed to dry in the sun but the oven was fine too.

We’ve already had some for our walking trips.

And as I have got back into making bread every week we enjoy toast, marmalade and juice of a morning with a certain amount of smugness.

The courtyard is also home to our plane tree which gets pollarded this time of the year. It always look so forlorn with its haircut.

Another task has been to stack our year’s supply of wood. We have been having something of a saga over buying a new wood burner, and getting it installed, but we’re really hoping it’ll all be done for next month’s post. The fact that the boiler has been on the blink much of the month hasn’t helped.

Another big project on the go is the making of raised beds. Hattie and Rocky here are inspecting Richard’s handiwork, again full update next month.

But it’s also that time of the year to find out who’s the lucky winner of the Casa Azul Plant of the Year! And this year it goes to the trusty toms. I’m not sure how many different varieties I had last summer: there were cherry ones, plum ones, heritage ones, yellow ones, black ones, large beefsteak ones and normal round red salad ones. Some were tall and staked, others bushy. I think I’m right in saying that they were all grown from seed I’d kept from the year before which is marvellous. I should be able to do the same this year too.

And not only did they do well, and taste great (and were all free!) but many were then preserved: roasted, made into passata, sun dried and/or frozen.  The freezer is packed with bags of sauces!

In fact if I had to choose my favourite crop it would be the tomato.  They’re easy to grow really, come in such a wonderful range of shapes and colours (in the past we’ve had the stripey ‘tigerallas’ too), taste so much better than bought ones and are just so versatile.  They also smell nice too. We had them from July until early November.

We’ve been making the most of the sunny weather away from Casa Azul.  Nothing nicer than having a seafood meal on the beach:

You’ll be pleased to hear though that rain is forecast now until the end of the month. Sun and rain with a touch of frost: the perfect month 🙂


August Yo-Yo

August Yo-Yo

Burrs? What Burrs?

We learnt a new word in Portuguese today. The news was talking about the weather and referred to it as ioiô. Yes, yo-yo. Indeed very high and very low. Richard’s weather station, if I remember correctly, measured over 44C, a new record for us. That was at the start of the month, out of nowhere it seemed this scorching heat that kept us indoors, the fan full blast and the duvet kicked to the floor. Either side of that, however, cooler temperatures, misty mornings and a feel of autumn in the air. It’s settled a bit since then: the last few days have been just a normal ‘hot’, but it’s still a bit chilly first thing.

So, says Richard, what on earth happened in August?

Well, it seems we found ourselves collecting elderberries from a friend’s tree; these were turned into liqueur, jam and cordial. We said a tearful goodbye to Spot the dog although Betty was less upset. A play fellow he turned out to be but in the end Betty is The Boss and little Spotty was sometimes getting far too much attention. Somehow, he ended up sleeping on the bed each night…

The house smelled of tomatoes:

Everyday a batch would picked to be roasted. These were then frozen or, if they were Italian plum tomatoes, whizzed in the mouli for passata. And we are having endless salads, the yellow ones making a colourful addition. And many of the cherry toms have been sun dried. The peppers are eventually doing their thing:

Little Chick is over 7 weeks old. Richard is particularly unpleasant about our latest feathered friend. He thinks it’s growing far too slowly and should up its game. I remind him that, although the ducks and ‘roasties’ are ready for the chop at this age that is really not natural. They have been bred to put on so much weight so quickly that anyone foolish enough to keep a roastie alive for too long would realise, with some horror, that it can no longer stand, its weight far too heavy for its legs. Little Chick is growing at a normal speed. We still have no idea yet if it’s destined for the pot or not…

And yes, there has been more time to experiment with the dyeing. Hurrah!

In fact, so much time has been spent on dyeing there is an embarrassing pile of colourful skeins mounting up. Luckily I have hatched a plot with a friend of mine to have a stall at a local market where I’m hoping to sell some (and she her every growing bundle of knitted toys and dolls).

So a strange, unsettling summer in many ways. Despite the huge fire in Monchique we have yet to see one single plume of smoke, quite bizarre after last year’s catastrophe. But a welcome change that’s for sure. For Jussi, autumn can’t come fast enough:

Tomatoes, tomatoes part 2

Tomatoes, tomatoes part 2

Well, I took the plunge yesterday and made some bottled / canned tomatoes. Actually, it wasn’t that difficult it was just that there were so many different stages and it was the first time. I wanted to fill the bottles with whole, peeled tomatoes and have these in a sauce, not unlike a tins of toms that you buy. So that meant skinning a load of toms of course and making the sauce. Plus all the bottles had to be sterilised not to mention getting the food mill out – the kitchen looked a real mess.

In fact buying the glass jars was the first challenge. We’ve only been able to get 750ml sized ones, and these are a touch too big, half litre would’ve been better. And the spare rubber rings (which apparently should be changed every time) don’t seem to be for sale… one of the reasons for bottling was to be able to reuse all the jars again so I do hope we can find the rings somewhere.

Back to the bottling: eventually all the whole toms had been peeled and ready for the jars, but I realised that I hadn’t got enough for the sauce. Next time I’ll have a load of sauce all ready made in advance, and then that just needs to be heated and poured in. So one jar was filled with tom sauce, one half and half sauce and water, and the third only water (which is apparently normal to use).

The huge pan I had ready for the bottling, my jam-making pan, turned out not to be quite big enough. The jars, once filled, need to be closed and completely submerged in water. There was perhaps only 2 cm of water above the jars so that had to be regularly filled up. Then the water needs to brought to a simmer and maintained at 88C for 40 minutes. 40 minutes of checking the water level and checking the temperature… it was great though to see the steam coming out of the jars which hopefully meant they were going to be sealed ok.

This morning, the jars having been left to cool in the water, I gingerly took them out. Looked ok. And then the seal test – the clips were undone and hurrah! it wasn’t possible to open the lids so sealed tight. Job done. I’ll have another go now if I can find some spare rubber rings, I’m rather reluctant to buy more jars if they can’t be used again. It’s good to have another way of preserving up our sleeves though, much cheaper to put up more pantry shelves than buy another freezer!

Tomatoes, tomatoes

Tomatoes, tomatoes

One of the projects set for the summer was to grow as many tomatoes as possible and have them preserved, in one form or another, so that we have them all year round. So the veg patch is certainly bursting with toms – small round ones, yellow ones, stripy ones, long ones… and thanks to the polytunnel we started eating fresh ones much earlier than last year. We’re hoping to extend the fresh season so we can eat those later in the year as well. So far so good.

However, it’s been the preserving side that has been more challenging. Sun-drying tomatoes is easy and the results delicious but you do need the sun, and finding two or three hot days in a row this summer has proven difficult. Imagine that! In Portugal, in August and still a problem! The last attempt had to be thrown away as they had gone mouldy; very disappointing.

Meanwhile I spent ages and ages trying to find a food mill or passata machine here and eventually ordered a mill through Amazon. Once I worked out how to use it we now have tubs and tubs of pasta sauce and soup filling up the freezer.

Perhaps the most successful has been the oven roasted toms, they are divine.  These go on pizzas or make a lovely salsa when blitzed with a blender (alas, this is now on the blink); they are also put into bags or tubs and put in the freezer…

And earlier in the ‘summer’ loads were thrown whole in plastic bags and then bunged into the freezer, these will be fine for soups or stews or made into sauce later on. But our new chest freezer is now full… So now yet another system is to be tested today – canning. We have a large pot for boiling, some Luminarc glass jars and a proper thermometer. The idea is that we can put the jars on the pantry shelf rather than putting anything in the freezer, fingers crossed.

And look – a whole post without me mentioning the fact that it’s raining (again)!

The eagle has landed…

The eagle has landed…

…or rather the pigeon! The only thing remaining to be done on the house was to have a couple of doves / pigeons perched on the roof. With those we would pay the very last of the builder’s fee. And last night they arrived and with them a feeling of completion; there is of course hundreds of things still to be done but by us rather than others. The bird on the roof, the cherry on the cake. Actually, they weren’t exactly what we wanted. Many of the old houses here have ones with wings outstretched as though they are about to take off, but on reflection I like these modern sedentary ones – they look calm and settled, one looking north and the other south.

When Richard asked me to update the blog I realised that I never took any photos when the veg patch was looking it’s best. At one time it was teeming with produce and flowers but I think I was so busy picking and then cooking, bottling, pickling etc that I forgot. Anyway here are some that give you an idea of what’s happening now. All the beans have finished. The borlotti beans and runner beans have been dried for winter use, everything else was eaten. But it seemed strange to me not to have any more growing, so I set about sowing some more and in this heat they have all come through in record time. So a second round of peas, dwarf beans, french beans and runner beans are on the go:

Meanwhile the cherry toms have almost finished but we still have ‘golden sunrise’ and ‘tigerella’ coming through:

What else? The sweet corn have all been eaten – when I found out there was only one cob per plant I thought I wouldn’t grow those again but in fact they were so delicious that I may well do them again next year. I’m pleased with the aubergines and peppers (there are sweet peppers, chilli peppers and red hot chilli peppers) and the melons will be ready soon we hope.

The Brussels sprouts are slowly taking over from the courgettes which are still producing but flagging:

I’m not sure how successful the companion planting was but the nasturtiums did indeed have loads of aphids on when other plants  didn’t, and the bees loved the marigolds which have grown enormous. The flowers have made the garden really colourful, both plants were a range of reds, yellows and vibrant oranges.

However, I’m aware that these pics have made the veg patch look more attractive than it is. It’s midsummer here of course and not having had any rain for weeks means that the land is bone dry and turning a paler shade of yellow:

Our next project is organising the ground around the house, we’re thinking of simply getting some earth and encouraging grass and flowers to grow (with a sign up saying no weeds) because the birds come right up towards the windows as they can’t see us inside and that’s great. Meanwhile, Richard is relaxing:

What rot!

What rot!

What has happened to the weather?! I don’t think it’s just us, an email from a friend in Spain has written: I hope the weather is better there than here because we have come back to winter time! We had a few scorching days in May and I thought oh-oh, it’s going to get really uncomfortable. But then June came – with the rain. Lots of it, and then some more. When that went we returned to the sunny days (with a cooling north wind) and the bbq was dusted off (or rather dried off). But today I went to check up on the veg patch and wore my fleece – it was misty and quite cool! And alas this weather has affected the crops. Some of the toms have got buckeye rot (well, I hope it’s that and not the dreaded blight) and the dwarf peas are covered in powdery mildew:

On a more positive note the veg patch in general is doing well, particularly the cucurbits (the squash shoots are metres long and have completely covered the paths) and the greengages [update: we think they’re yellow plums now] are almost ready, can’t wait.

Finally, from that to this in nine months (facing west):

And this in six (east):