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Reasons to be cheerful…

Reasons to be cheerful…

…one: we have potatoes! Okay, not such an abundant harvest as previous years but potatoes we have; most have been dug up, dried in the sun and then packed into boxes. There are still some plants to go but with the earth dried hard it’s a slow task. Not only potatoes but a wonderful crop of aubergines, plus courgettes, peppers and now the toms. Also lettuce, cucumbers (both long, green ones and round, yellow ones) and sweetcorn. There are some good-sized melons.


…two: and so we are eating a lot of our own food. It seems to have taken a long time for the summer crop this year but now we sit down regularly to a plate of home-grown, home-made food. There’s plenty of pork left and now chicken too, Richard has killed all the fat, white ones so only the nervous brown ones left.


Barbecued pork with oven roasted potatoes and aubergines followed by foraged crumble (we may not have any plums but there are apples and blackberries in the fields), mmmmm. And the chicken paella was very good too. There’s something about cooking outside that makes it all tastier.


…three: we are a buzzin’. If the high temperatures are not enough we are reminded that it’s summer by the constant hum and buzz of the bugs. Butterflies and bees and wasps (we have a couple of nests so entering the polytunnel and shed is with some trepidation) and creatures we have no idea what they are called fly around from dawn to dusk. The bumblebees are tireless. I thought they were wearing themselves out as they started to die on the lavender, we would awake to see a number of corpses clinging to the flowers or crumpled on the floor. This seemed a bit strange. Then I noticed a tiny white crab spider lurking which apparently kills wasps and bees, but not this one anymore.




This miniature shredded wheat turns out to be the nest of a praying mantid. Meanwhile the big task today is to make the annual batch of ratatouille. Richard is making mead, but that’s another story…

Veggie roundup

Veggie roundup

I have been very remiss at blogging recently, but the intention has been there while snapping the veg patch. I took these photos 15/16 July when I pulled up the last of

the potatoes and replaced them with a second batch of courgettes and some buttercup squash. Then, amazed how fast everything had grown in just 3 weeks, I took another pic and today a shot of one of the squashes, almost ready to eat.

Needless to say we’re eating the courgettes now, the first batch took 13 weeks from sowing to harvest – this lot 6! In fact that’s something I still have to get the hang of – trying to get a succession of produce. Either the second lot grow much faster and we end up with more than we need, or it’s too hot / cold and nothing much happens. And if it worked one year it didn’t the next, and why one melon plant has given us 7 fruit and yet the other is fading fast with just one I have no idea. It all still feels a little hit or miss at times!

I think the purple sprouting broccoli, sprouts, leeks, onions, sweetcorn, garlic, cucumber (the round, yellow ones) rainbow chard and all the solanaceae group fall into the ‘do well every year’ group. Perhaps the toms a touch disappointing compared to last year but the aubergines and peppers are fab, and the potatoes a great success.

Then in the ‘do well one year but not the next’ go the remaining brassicas including swede and turnips, (and what happened to the cauliflowers this year?!), squash, roots (well, the carrots and parsnips – the beetroot do well) and the beans.

And in the ‘why am I even bothering’ category fall the peas (alas) and broad beans. Am still determined to give these a go this autumn though, last winter we had a frost most nights which took their toll so with a slightly milder winter they may be fine. They are definitely not being sown in the spring though, that has never worked.

And always willing to experiment there are some new crops in the veg patch this year. The celeriac, flageolets beans (grown from a packet of dried beans my dad bought over), beefsteak toms have all done well, whereas the red cabbage became pig fodder.

Talking of pigs – they have certainly made a large and significant contribution to the veg patch:

Unfortunately, the weeding, digging and sh*t shovelling has done little to reduce my ever expanding waistline. The plethora of plums, abundance of apples, bucketfuls of blackberries and now (fistfuls?) of figs have seen me baking cakes, tarts and pies galore. Oh, and there goes the oven bell…

Rain! (well, drizzle)

Rain! (well, drizzle)

Finally a bit of rain has made an appearance. Not much I’m afraid but I suppose you can only expect showers in April. At least it has put a temporary halt to the fires. We went for a drive last week and saw the full extent. Vast swathes of forest turned black. Here’s a photo taken from our house. Originally the hills in the distance were all green, covered in pine and eucalyptus trees. They had started cutting down some (after all much of it was managed plantations) but now all that remains is a small green patch visible on the far right, next to the village (a small white splodge on the photo) which was fortunately untouched.

However, the welcome rain has had an effect on our veggies and even the rhubarb has come through.


And we’ve been eating plenty of onions and purple sprouting broccoli.

The courtyard is also doing pretty well. Here is a bit of the herb garden and our lime tree which is about to burst into flower, as are the orange and lemon trees.

Even the plane tree which was nothing more than a stick a few weeks ago has plenty of leaves.

The animals are also doing well  – the roasties are putting on weight and enjoying the grass which has started sprouting everywhere.

And of course the two hairy ones enjoy it whatever the weather.



We finish 2011 with some sad news – our bees have buggered off. Or, to put it technically, absconded.

When winter started they were very quiet as expected but some of them were still out and about foraging as normal. We were very lucky as there was plenty of food available as our rosemary bushes were still in flower as was a large eucalyptus tree in the next field to us. Then yesterday they seemed to be very active, chewing up their wax and dropping a lot of it just outside the hive. This morning I checked again and all the bees had disappeared!

Every one had gone leaving behind a healthy-looking hive with plenty of honey and pollen stores. After a bit of web research it’s still not clear what has happened. The presence of wax outside the hive and some telltale signs inside the hive, indicate robber bees – i.e. bees from other hives stealing the honey. But I think they are just opportunistic, stealing the stores after my bees had already skipped off. So I think the bees I saw yesterday were not mine but these new scavengers. Mine had already gone, maybe some time before.

healthy looking comb - a ring of pollen stores and some honey in the corners

Apparently absconding is rare but it does happen – the strange thing is, it is usually a result of some kind of disturbance or when there is a lack of food – neither of which has happened here. I have to say I’m absolutely devastated.

I won’t be defeated though, it’s just back to the drawing board. In the new year I’ll ask around and see if I can find out what has happened and get some more bees. Every cloud has a silver lining however, as there is a fair amount of honey in the hive I can harvest and I can render down some wax to see if we can make a candle or two.

In better news, in the winter sunshine, which we’ve had plenty of, we managed to spend some quality time enjoying the garden and doing some bird watching. What started it off was a rare sighting of a great spotted woodpecker on the walnut tree. It stayed for ages which was great. Then we started to notice loads of other birds. In all in about an hour we saw 14 species: blue tit, great tit, meadow pipit, thrush, goldfinch, greenfinch, chaffinch, sparrow, robin, blackbird, black redstart, pied wagtail and serin. And that’s not including a buzzard which we saw the day before soaring high above the garden as well as long tail tits which often fly through the olive trees in small family groups. No pictures here but they are all on our bird page

I’ve also been busy in the kitchen. I used up some spare tiles to line the kitchen shelves. I have to say it makes cleaning them much easier and looks a lot better too.

tiling the shelves

Of course Jackie has been busy in the garden as ever and here she is doing some weeding ably assisted by the hairy one.

As you can see the veg patch continues to feed us over the colder months and although we’ve pulled the last of the (delicious) turnips up we still have swede, chard (partly grown for its amazing colour), beetroot, leeks and some sprouts on the go. Soon some calabrese will be ready and with luck, some peas. Jersey new potatoes were planted yesterday and Jackie’s also busy planning next year’s crop hoping for an even bigger harvest. The almost daily sunshine this month has meant lunch outdoors but with only a few days rain we’re hoping January will be wetter to water the newly planted trees (shade for the hens) and fill the well but the weather forecast is sun for the next 10 days (we’re only slightly complaining!).

We mustn’t forget the hens who laid a total of 1064 eggs this year and gave us wonderful eggs benedict on Christmas day.

Meanwhile the oranges are growing bigger than ever and we’re both looking forward to new projects we’re planning for 2012 – come and visit and see for yourselves!

So here’s to a Happy New Year to our friends and readers and hope it’s a good, productive and peaceful one!

Feliz ano novo!

November newsround

November newsround

A mild, if not rather wet, autumn so far. Everything’s getter greener and taller, a bit like spring really without the flowers. Some evenings there has been a beautiful light and pink or yellowy grey clouds depending if it’s going to be sunny or rainy the next day. Richard’s away in the Isle of Man so I’m here defending the fort, or rather the farm, alone. Meanwhile, here’s a round up of casa azul news.

Veg etc
I have to admit to being a rather fairweather gardener, although I don’t mind digging in the frost on a cold but sunny day I really don’t like working in the wet – who does? So I’ve only just pulled up and cleared the last of the tom beds, this included removing the nasturtiums which we’re growing well but I’ve now got masses of enormous nasturtium buds which will be turned into poor man’s capers. The asparagus have turned a beautiful bronzey yellow, these are soon to be cut back and mulched along with the raspberries.

In the polytunnel there are lots of wild flowers coming up (from seed collected throughout the year) plus yet more edibles – mainly brassicas. These will go in soon, and tomorrow more onions are being planted and, at long last, I’ve got the garlic.

I’ve also got plenty of rocket growing, this has just never worked in the heat so it’s fingers crossed for a winter attempt. Lettuce seems to thrive in the cold, and isn’t affected by the frost, so I’m hoping rocket will too.

Elsewhere in the garden mushrooms are supplementing our diet. I don’t know if you read the account of Nicholas Evans and his mushroom fiasco in the guardian but it makes fascinating and sobering reading.

The ones on the left have opened and are now huge, tempting grub but am definitely sticking to the field mushrooms.

I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck but last year the sprouts grew without any bother, I hardly did anything with them. This year, alas, they’ve been plagued with grey aphids and some of the heads didn’t open properly, and a few of the stalks are massive with enormous leaves but few sprouts. I also spotted the other day that one of the stalks was completely inundated with caterpillars – how come I never saw them before? I counted at least 30 chomping caterpillars, and the one on the left was found the french tarragon.

So what to do with a box of bugs? The hens love snails and giant slugs so decided it would be an early Christmas present…

The chickens
The hens aren’t quite up to their full laying capacity, 2 or 3 a day but that’s fine. They’re slightly sulking now because our plan to keep them off the growing grass, well weeds, is working well and their plot (which looks like something from the WW1)  is surrounded by green. Once the roasties are dispatched the hens will go over there, and their mud bath of a plot can have a chance to regrow.

Along with the fact they they realise that the grass is greener on the other side one of them is moulting and looks very funny without a tail.

So I was hoping that my gift of grubs would cheer them up. I tossed the caterpillars on the ground, the hens came dashing forward and then stopped in their tracks and squawked loudly. They eyed the crawling mass with trepidation and then, with beaks in the air, walked off. They weren’t interested at all! I covered the caterpillars with corn but the hens simply ate the corn and left the caterpillars. As these were all now gallivanting off in different directions I ended up having to stand on them all. So much for good intentions. At least the lettuce and purple sprouting broccoli leaves keeps them happy.

Meanwhile the roasties have been let out and are enjoying the grass and opportunity to stretch their wings. They are the biggest, fattest birds I have ever seen and Richard’s number one task on returning is to sharpen the knife. I swear when they walk the earth trembles.

The wild boar
One of the nice things about being in the countryside of course is that we are surrounded by nature. In this part of Portugal that includes the javali – wild boar. Up until recently I have enjoyed the fact that they come to the neighbours’ fields but now the beggars have trotted into our garden. Before Richard left we were given loads of prickly pears and agaves to plant in our garden and I wasn’t best pleased to see that most of these had either been knocked over, dug up (some dragged into bushes), and, it seems, eaten. After the second visit I’ve had to block the entrances to our garden with cut down olive branches, a temporary measure. Richard’s number two task on returning is to get the saw and hammer out.

Before and after replanting, can you see the teeth marks?!

So that’s it for now. The bees are still buzzing, I think they were disappointed that the nasturtiums were cut down. And, of course, I’m not really alone. The hairy one continues to prove she’s Portuguese, having eaten many of the olives she delights in munching walnuts and looks longingly at the roasting chestnuts on the fire. Which reminds me, time to get the wood burning stove going and have a glass of something. Cheers!

Isso é verão, não é?

Isso é verão, não é?

It’s been a strange start to the summer. April and May were lovely (if you didn’t worry about the lack of rainfall) and saw us eating outside most evenings. Now, with the first of the summer months, the wind is cool, the clouds grey and it’s been showery – nothing substantial though and the grass yellows every day.

It’s a good time for the veg patch. The courgettes, surprise surprise, won the race for which veg we would be eating first from this year’s sowing, followed by the colourful chard. We’re either eating the produce or knowing we’ll be eating it very soon.

The extra four beds (there are now 13 of various sizes) have made a difference, both in terms of having more veg but also in the extra time looking after it all. We won’t be adding any more for the time being, what with the soft fruit and fruit trees as well there’s a lot to do if nothing is to be wasted. So at the mo we are eating our potatoes (the bed replaced with 44 leeks), onions, garlic, two kinds of French beans (the dwarf purple ones are recommended – always aphid free and prolific), broad beans, calabrese, cauliflower, courgettes, carrots, beetroot, chard, a few parsnips and turnips here and there, lettuce, raspberries and rhubarb. We’ve had one cucumber too.

The peas haven’t done very well, as last year; I really must remember to sow those and the broad beans in the autumn. We have also started to eat the tomatoes – hurrah! We’re growing more of these this year, and different varieties too.

The organic cherries are the first up – not surprising. What is surprising though is that these are not the ones in the polytunnel. The sunny spring has meant the ones outdoors have done very well and grown better than those under plastic. (It’s the aubergines and peppers which are appreciating the polytunnel more, both are flowering.) One of the new kinds we’re trying this year is the Roma kind – San Marzano. I’m really hoping to be able to freeze these for sauces throughout the year.

Yesterday I picked a mixture of veg for something I’m going to make, can you guess what?

My parents came last month and as always we try to make the most of my father’s woodworking skills. Last year he made a wooden support for the grapes in the courtyard and these are now doing very well so we hope to have a better harvest this year. As Richard said this time he was put to work making a new chicken run – I hope he didn’t think he was here on holiday! They bought with them a buddleia and this is now flowering, and it has attracted a very interesting butterfly (or is it something else?). Update: it’s a Broad-bordered Bee Hawk-Moth Hemaris fuciformis apparently. How nice!

So waiting in the wings are the sweetcorn, winter squash and melon, fennel, aubergine and peppers, perhaps some peas plus all the wonderful plums.

Here’s another pic of the veg I picked, all chopped and ready for the next stage… You’ll have to wait for the next update if you can’t guess.

Finally, away from the fruit’n’veg, we have bought 8 new chickens. Like last time they are about a month old, there are 4 white and 4 brown ones. To put us in the right frame of mind we differentiate them from the ‘egg chickens’ by calling them the ‘roast chickens’ – no room for sentimentality! Today they ventured out of their hut and into the run. We bought them, as the previous ones, from the market in Ansião. The man said the white ones would be ready in 3 – 4 weeks and the brown ones a couple more weeks after that! I suspect we’ll let these live a little longer, and get a little fatter. We also need to pluck up enough courage for D Day!



Now the new year has begun, our thoughts turn to preparing for this year’s main harvest. Having said that we still have plenty of winter veg in the garden to eat now. We have only just finished the swedes and cauliflowers, there are quite a few leeks left and the brussel sprouts keep coming and coming. Anyway, with thoughts for the future, I recently constructed the polytunnel (ably assisted by the hairy one) which we shall mainly use for starting seedlings off until they are big enough for the main veg patch. We’ll also grow some tomatoes in there full time and some strawberries have already been installed for safe keeping. If the last few days are anything to go by we may also use it as a sauna when the warmer weather comes.

It was actually very easy to build (just as well as I’m not exactly a master craftsman and more commonly referred to ironically as ‘Handy Andy’ by my mum). Let’s hope it stays up through to the end of winter!

Actually, further to my initial remarks in the first paragraph, there is quite a bit more going on as you can see from the picture below. As well as the brussel sprouts , there are cabbages (left), the purple sprouting broccoli (centre) will soon (insha’allah) be ready and on the right, Jackie is tending the celery (which is doing fantastically well), carrots and spring onions.

The big chill

The big chill

It’s thundering down with rain, the wood burning stove is blasting away in the corner and the dog is at my feet – a perfect time to update the blog. Which, in fact, we haven’t done for some time. I suppose because we haven’t done any major projects recently around the place, and it’s a little quiet in the veg patch too. Smaller tasks have been taking up our time: firstly, the chickens are getting bigger and bolder. They are extraordinarily inquisitive and somewhat adventurous. The gap in the fence that surrounds them was for a time filled with a wooden pallet propped closed by a leaning pole. This they loved to climb (and then slide down) and squawked loudly when it was replaced with a proper gate (made by Richard) and latch. One was on the roof of the hen house the other day attempting, in vain, to get at the overhanging branches of an olive tree. There was some alarm last week when I realised they had all disappeared, Richard reassuring me with the fact that there were no bodies anywhere. Faint clucking led me to look over the stone wall and there they all were in the neighbour’s field. It then began to become a regular escapade –  a flutter of wings, a scramble over the brambles and freedom! When their wanderlust took them into the far distance we knew something had to be done. So that part of the wall is now covered with corrugated iron. Watching them approach it the first time was amusing. As soon as they drew near their necks came up, their eyes popped open and they began to complain very loudly! I try and tell them that they already have a large grassy field all to themselves, how lucky they are not to be cooped up all day but they are still a little sulky…

Secondly, we have planted quite a few more trees, mainly fruit, near the pergola. We now have another quince, apple and peach. Plus we have a persimmon and a Christmas tree. This rain will be great for them.

Last year we had the first frost mid December. This year it’s been crunchy underfoot already a few times these past few weeks. The marigold and nasturtiums, which were still bravely going, succumbed immediately. All the peas and beans, left in the soil so as not to have bare earth, turned black as did the leaves of a sweet potato I’d planted a few months ago. However, everything else seems impervious to the freeze, even the lettuce is happy to have frozen frills.

And although it’s a quieter time in the garden there’s still a lot growing. The seeds for the winter growing turnips are just coming through (I do hope they survive) and the onions and garlic sets planted last month all have shoots. These join the onions I bought in plugs, and the ones I’ve grown from seed, so all go on the allium front. Villagers who have the field next to us (that the chickens love) chatted over the stone wall to talk veg. They wanted to know what the very large green things I was growing were. They were referring to the artichokes and purple-sprouting broccoli. I knew the Portuguese for these vegetables but failed to get them to understand what they were, as for explaining how to eat an artichoke…

We’re eating the spinach, leeks, sprouts, swede, turnips, celery and carrots. Plus the calabrese which I’m really chuffed with:

Not forgetting the herbs and now the oranges in the courtyard, which reminds me – it’s also a perfect day to make some marmalade.

Thrills and spills

Thrills and spills

I’ve been meaning to update what’s been happening in a minha horta for a while now. It’s mostly going well but there have been casualties. First up the experiment to grow beans and peas throughout the summer failed. I sowed these early July. Everything grew wonderfully at first and then it just became too hot. The dwarf broad beans (which have failed at every attempt now) just went brown and died, the peas flowered and then dried up, the dwarf french beans had loads of flowers and beans but these were hollow and dry. The only slight success came from the runner beans but now they too have no flowers. So, in short, useless.

The courgette sown early August has given us a few courgettes, enough for some fritters and a cake. It’s rather pathetic really but the flowers are lovely in the morning still. On a more positive note we are now eating the leeks, carrots and lots of sprouts.

More good news comes from the cabbage, cauliflower and calabrese (aka broccoli) sown mid August. They have done really well. The calabrese heads are now bigger than tennis balls so am really looking forward to having those soon.

Another problem has come from the strong winds and rain we’ve had. The purple sprouting broccoli is almost as tall as me, and the sprouts are not far behind. But gale force winds and soggy soil saw them lean precariously, and one broccoli stem fell over completely. I tied it up, and could see it was broken at the base, but amazingly it seems to be ok. Many of the leaves looked sorry for themselves but it seems to be still alive. Fingers crossed.

The asparagus, rhubarb and raspberries have all been ‘put to bed’ for the winter. Garlic and more onions are in but otherwise there are big empty patches covered in manure and protective cardboard waiting for the spring. So of course now I’m working out what to grow next year. I’m also digging more beds as I’d like to grow additional varieties of plants, especially tomatoes. We’re eating those roasted from the summer but I’d like to have a lot more. Looking back I need to remind myself that this was the first year that I have done this, and overall it’s been great. Occasional feelings of chuffness well deserved methinks! I’ve learnt masses of course but am so looking forward to next year, and all those seed packets, already.

Next week we’ll be up the olive trees getting in the olive harvest but meanwhile we’re enjoying our new four-legged companion who has been with us for a week now and feels like she’s always been part of the family.

Back to the veggies

Back to the veggies

Although we’ve been focussing lately on chickens and relatives, the veggies have kept on coming. Only now are things coming to an end – we’ve had our last cucumber, the final tomatoes are hanging on and turning red (or yellow) and the courgette production has eventually slowed down to a trickle. However, we have made the best use of our bounty and Jackie has been busy roasting and freezing, pickling and drying a lot of the veggies ready for winter. Even the very few raspberries that we have carefully nurtured have now been picked and frozen one by one and we shall have enough for one final end of summer treat.

It is interesting that the cycle of fruit and veg has come round again from when we first arrived just over a year ago. I remember then, the first fruits we sampled were the pears and this year they have come and gone in a period of weeks and in a flurry of delicious pear crumbles. Also the quinces. Unfortunately our quince tree has had a torrid time but there have been plenty by the sides of various lanes that we have been able to purloin and process into quince jelly and quince cheese. Now the walnuts are coming into season. Despite eating my own weight in walnut cakes over the year we still haven’t finished last year’s crop. Likewise the olives which will be ready in a few short weeks.

It never stops down on the farm…

last of the melons and pears, first of the walnuts
dried chillies
what to do with sunflower seeds?
the oranges are on their way