The lamb

We have had two rainy weeks to end March and start April, with another week of showers forecast. As autumn and what bit of winter we get were dry, we need the water desperately. This rain has washed away the ash from the autumn forest fires and brought up spring grass and plants to green the land again. I have pruned over 120 olive trees and almost finished pruning the vineyards now. Because of the extensive wildfires the government has passed a law that for fifty metres around a house there should be no trees over five metres high, very few trees in any case, and the land under them must be clear. This work has to be completed by the end of May and if it is not done a big fine will be issued, then if the work is still not put in hand the land will be cleared by the local authorities and the bill given to the landowner. I am pushing hard to finish the vines so I can start on the trees and woodlands beside our house.

Our shepherd João brought his flock onto our land yesterday and again today, presenting a forlorn figure slowly ambling through the south olival with his umbrella out against the rain. I watched him as I sat in the study with the log fire burning in the corner, and took this picture from my seat beside my desk, through the conservatory, into the edge of the south olival (olive grove).

After lunch the rain stopped for a while so I togged up and went to prune some more vines. The flock passed beside me and he stopped for a chat; his “We-e-e-e-ll,” bleat makes me smile every time. He had to move on to follow his hundred-sheep flock; they are like an eating machine for grass, making a munching sound as they slowly flow around you, smelling pleasantly of lanolin, grass and, well, sheep.  Nice.

The flock had gone over the hill and I heard an isolated bleat from my south olival. There was a sheep left behind. There was a lamb trying to feed from it. This sheep wasn’t trying to follow the flock but stayed with its lamb. After a couple of minutes I decided they needed help, as the lamb was clearly too tired to follow its mum to the flock. I walked across to it and picked up the lamb; the sheep headed off in the opposite direction, bleating. Long story short, I gave João the wet lamb, he thanked me and said the sheep which had now joined us wasn’t much of a mother.

An hour later the flock came back with him and I saw the little white lamb and its mum again. I remarked that it was hard for such a little thing to walk with the flock and asked how many days old the lamb was.

“Days?” he said, “It’s not got days yet!”

“How old, then?”

“Oh, about two hours. She had it in the olival this afternoon.”

“What, today, this afternoon??”

“Yes, but she hasn’t enough milk for it yet. They stop making milk before it’s born.”   So when I had “rescued” the lamb it was only an hour old!  I asked if it was normal for them to just have a lamb whilst wandering around and he said, “Of course!”

“Oh.”

“Haven’t you seen a young lamb before?”

“Not that young, no. First time for me.  Are there more sheep that might just have a lamb now?”

“You see the ones with a red mark in their back?” From the study window I’d seen about twenty and wondered why only those were marked with a big red “T”.

“He’ll stay in the barn tomorrow and after that . . .” and he shrugged. “They are always running about at seven days, you know,” which I did but only vaguely, being a townie and feeling somewhat simple now. I wanted to give the little lamb a name, and offer the fireside to dry and warm him. And thereby seem even dafter and foreign.

But I’ll be on the lookout now, João !

 

A few minutes later, I asked “What do you call a very young lamb?”

“Cordeirinho or Borrego.”

“And when does it stop being ‘Lamblet’ or ‘Lamb’ and become ‘Sheep’?”

“When you sell it.” Oh.

 

 

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Pruned as per textbook

We had a dry winter and by the end of January 2017 I had pruned sixty olive trees at 1¼ hours each; as we have three olive groves each of about 120 trees I do one grove a year.

In mid-February I was busy with pruning hundreds of vines and cutting by hand the weeds around their legs. With March being the finish of the pruning season the olives had to be done quickly, so I called on Senhor V and his team again: they did over two hundred trees in eight man-days, not in the pretty and theory-recommended way that I would, but in a serviceable manner.

 

Top olival, fast pruning

Following the pruning 10mm of rain fell in April and 76mm in early May; not enough for a good crop when the next rainfall was only 3.5mm in August and 16mm in October. After this rain the locals spread their toldos (plastic nets about six or eight metres square) under each tree and harvested what it had managed to produce.

Janet and I were concerned because their crop was small, the harvest should be four weeks later, and maybe they knew something we hadn’t heard yet. We walked through our olive groves and found that despite Sr V’s rough work the stunted trees would yield enough olives to give us a colheita; maybe I had misjudged his ability to get the trees into fruit.

Varejador runs off the tractor battery

 

 

We had heard the buzzing rattling sound of “the latest thing” in getting the olives off the tree without having to use ladders; there are actually two gadgets with an electric motor on the end of a telescopic pole.

 

 

One, bata-palmas, is like a pair of seven-fingered plastic hands which clap together. The other, a varejador. is a pair of five-fingered hands which oscillate past each other like small beaters. In both cases you comb the fingers through the drupes (olive-laden twigs) to shake free the olives. Having been told they make the job several times faster and much safer, we went out and bought a varejador.

It is lovely working in the top olival, quiet.

Clive combing olives from the tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long story short, four days later we loaded seventeen crates of galega olives into the Subaru and took them to the co-operative lagar in Fundão (which is a cold-press mill), arriving mid afternoon.

Janet with the winnower to remove leaves and twigs

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were fortieth in the queue to the gates of the olive mill, and in the compound there were maybe sixteen more vehicles waiting or unloading.  I went to the front office and paid to become a member of the co-operative of olive growers. We waited for another hour.

Quarter of a ton of fresh olives

After an hour’s wait, now 30th in line.

Nearer to the front of queue for the lagar

 

We did a cryptic crossword. It went dark.

We waited. I walked to the nearest coffee bar for a coffee; it was full of chaps like me who had left their vehicles loaded with olives in the queue.

The moon came up and the temperature went down and you could see your breath. We sat in the cold car and we waited.

A two-wheeled tractor with trailer full of olives

All manner of vehicles arrive to unload olives at the press, from large commercial tipping lorries with several tons, medium-sized drop-down tailboard lorries, tractors with trailers, vans, Mitsubishi L200’s, two-wheeled tractors with trailers, and estate cars. By the time we emptied our crates into the balances it was after eight at night.

We took a day off then did it all again but went to the lagar early on a frosty morning, although it was lunchtime before we unloaded. Total yield, half a tonne, with very low acidity so Extra Virgin quality, which will be ready in a few days for collection.

The ladders, toldos and varejador are stored away for next November. The oil has just become available for members and we bought some to try – it is lemony yellow, buttery and softly fragrant like olives and citrus – delicious!

On holiday in Madeira last October we were walking up in the hills surrounding Funchal and saw a small but lovely vegetable garden fenced from the road.

We stopped and were admiring it for a few minutes when its gardener emerged from his potting shed and came to talk with us. He explained that in their climate he could grow anything well. I asked about some of the herbs he has and he gave me a cutting of a soft-leaf plant taller than himself which he said was herva cidreira, for making a tisane. That which we have on the mainland is low-growing with thin leaves like mint; his is clearly a different variety – maybe a completely different plant.

We nurtured the cutting in wet paper towels and mugs of water whilst on holiday and potted it when we returned to the farm.

It lived on the kitchen windowsill for a few weeks until we knew it had rooted and would survive. Janet over-wintered it in the conservatory where it had plenty of sunshine and warmth. In spring I pinched the tip out and potted it on, and by April it had two strong shoots. I planted it in the vegetable garden under irrigation before we went on holiday again. 

It thrived, until the day I was working on the pimiento plants next to it and dropped the rake handle on the fork of the two shoots, splitting the plant almost in two down the middle.

I sellotaped the stem together and staked and tied the two shoots together with string to hold them upright. The plant survived and has grown strong again. Even through the scorching summer this tender-leafed plant has survived and is very healthy.

 

This morning I fancied a herb tea and decided to have one from this plant. Long story short, it looked delicious and tasted horrible!

So, what is the plant? Why did this chap have the plant in his garden?

I think I’ll stay with lemon verbena from the herbaceous border!

Although 0.3mm of rain was forecast for yesterday the sky remained clear with no sign of rain even in the distant Spanish mountains. At teatime a few clouds appeared and water droplets fell for a minute. I was at the far end of our land and didn’t get wet. Was that all? Forecast wrong. But at least it was the harbinger of rain.

At 11pm as I was closing my laptop computer, with the living room windows still open, I thought I heard drops of rain on the “lawn” outside. I went onto the patio and there were certainly sounds of raindrops so I sat on the swing seat and listened as rain arrived, then remembered to put the rain gauge out. I listened happily for the next twenty minutes as the first rain since mid May pattered off the vine leaves and soaked into the bone-dry earth; 3.5mm fell and the air smelled sweet.

after the shower

This morning there was mist hanging on the village and the moisture allowed sounds to carry clearly. I sat and listened to the cockerels dotted around the landscape and the bells of a flock of sheep in a field to the east of the village. It was cool, lovely!

Three days ago I checked the sweetness of the grapes with the saccharometer and found that they are ready for winemaking. However they are not big and plump. After late frost froze off the first crop of baby grapes, then two weeks later in May the same again followed by three months without rain, we are lucky to even have an estimated twelve crates of fruit, under half the usual yield. I decided to hold out for some rain, to wash off traces of ash from the forest fires from the grapes and to get juicier fruit. The first rain for fifteen weeks – at last! Now, at 9am, the sun is hot as usual, but the air feels fresher and smells good.

The muffled sound of a slow propellor aeroplane awoke me this morning, so I knew that the forest fire in Louriçal do Campo was still burning and in its third day. I turned on the television and found (on national news) that there is now a fire even closer to us, on our side of Fundão.

alcongosta fire 14aug 2017 credit RTP

The TV shows scenes of urgent activity and people shouting with flames in the background. Outdoors here, although it is hot weather the sun is not white but orange and glows onto the parched fields where faint ash drifts down.

 

 

As we walk on the patio it swirls around our feet. The air is smoky blue, still and quiet as on a foggy day. There is no sound of birds nor barking dogs, not even tractors today. It’s like the world is waiting for something. There is the smell of woodsmoke in the air.

This picture was taken at breakfast-time from the swing-seat on our patio.

When the wind starts to blow the sun brightens and the blue smoke thins, allowing us to see through and across the valley to our village.

From the patio I can sometimes hear the drone of a fire-plane above the blanket of smoke which lies thick and grey over the Serra de Gardunha near Fundão. Today is a public holiday, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and normally Fundão would have an extra market day. Clearly that won’t happen now.

alcongosta fire2 credit RTP

Castelo Novo is surrounded by fire and people can’t leave their village. On the internet we find that 300 firemen, 95 vehicles and 12 planes are involved in fighting the fire. Many local roads and even main roads in the area, the A23 and N18, have sections which are closed. This is for three reasons: to prevent rubbernecking, to ensure fire services have clear access, and to avoid cars getting trapped and subsequent loss of life. These are reminders of the huge fire in Pedrogão Grande last month in which officially over sixty people died -word on the ground is more like double or treble that number. The flames consume much of the oxygen from the air locally, so a car engine can’t work; it stalls. Then the car’s occupants die from smoke and asphyxiation. The same in any house in a burning forest, and there are hundreds of these houses hidden in the woods; after the fire there are no trees to hide them and their blackened walls are revealed.

Santa Luzia dam near Pedrogao, empty

Because over 70% of Portugal is classed as in severe drought (and 10% more as extreme drought) there’s little water available to douse the flames. Santa Luzia dam is almost the nearest to Pedrogao Grande and the picture was taken in July 2017. Even the base of the dam is virtually dry, and a fire plane could not fly over the surface to scoop water up from here.

 

 

Our neighbour has just phoned us to say another fire is burning six miles from us. We hope there’s no wind tonight. This picture was taken at 7.30pm from our lawn.

Update, 16th August.

No wind overnight and the bombeiros  have put out the main fire. Several fire planes went overhead mid-morning, going to the current big fire further south in Santarem. The air is much clearer now and the temperatures are back to high 30’s. We had an Amazon delivery at lunchtime and the driver said diversions are in place because power lines are down – in rural Portugal power and phone cables are not buried, they are on wooden poles. Several times we have driven through fire zones to see burning poles hanging from the power lines they once supported.

Sometimes there is poor mobile coverage in forest fire zones because the power line to the mobile phone relay masts have burnt down.

 

 

We were on holiday in Madeira and on returning to the hired car, found a ticket on the windscreen with a parking fine. To park, it seems, cost €1.50, but we had not seen the ticket machine. The fine was €150. I was distressed.

I had been reading an inspiring book, “Care of the Soul” by Thomas Moore. In it the author points out your responsibility to look after your own happiness and psychological wellbeing, and explains how to do it. “Tending the things around us and becoming sensitive to the importance of home, daily schedule, and maybe even the clothes we wear, are ways of caring for the soul”, to give ordinary life depth and value.

I have always used a fountain pen and ink for marking and for writing letters, and had decided that now, in my sixties, I’d save up to buy a really nice pen.

Parker Sonnet Fougere silver

It turned out to be a Parker Sonnet pen made of solid silver with a gold-and-platinum engraved nib and pretty gold trim. I could get a second-hand one for £230. Paying a €150 fine would wipe out what I’d saved. Laura pointed out that if I could afford to pay a €150 fine I could afford the pen, so just go ahead and buy it when I got home. Sensible.

Well, when we got back to our rented apartment Janet rang the owner to ask for help how to pay the fine and he said the €150 was accumulated parking fines on the car; ours was €6. Laura said, “There you are, dad.”

Then my mind turned over the idea, why spend so much on a pen to write letters that no-one would reply to? Janet said that’s not the point, you are not writing to get a reply, just to enjoy the experience of writing and sending the letter.

Parker steel Falcon

Also I don’t need a silver pen just to write a diary, the steel Falcon I have with a beautiful hi-tech integrated nib has been great for decades.

But still that soul issue lurked. Long story short, I treated myself. The pen sits in a little pool of light on top of the diary on my desk, so I see it many times every day as I walk past, it’s part of my environment. I use it daily and refill it with brown ink every two weeks; doing so makes me content and gives my writing time more richness. I savour using my Sonnet.

You have to be mindful of the things that make you happy and make an extra effort to do things that make you happier each day.

 For me it also means making good dinners and sitting down for a proper family meal. Having log fires in winter. Spending quality time with friends and family. Tending our trees and vines. I could do these things an easier way, but done carefully they make life richer and therefore I’m caring for my soul. Others benefit too, of course.

I could just chuck meat under the grill, but eating outdoors (a barbecue) with all the trimmings and the homemade wines is all care for our souls.

I commend this to you too. What parts of your routine give depth and meaning to your life at the moment? How would you show yourself that you care about how you spend your life, your time that you will only have this once?

In January 2016 I realised that there was far too much olive pruning for me to tackle alone when there’s so much other work to do, so I hired a team of three men for a few days to do two of my groves, about two hundred and fifty trees. I left them to make a good start and went to check them after four hours. I was very concerned that their version of pruning involved the use of a chainsaw and no ladder, but didn’t want to tell them how to do their job. By lunchtime I could stay away no longer. Their boss told me that there was much dead wood in the trees because of drought over the last two years, and removing it is much faster with a chain saw.  P1020297But my pride-and-joy West Olival has been skeletised and reduced from trees over four metres high and five wide to small 2½ metre trees. I found this very discouraging, as it will take many years for the trees to regain their form and to yield olives in harvestable quantities. I did take one of the workers aside and have him conventionally prune twenty trees with a hand saw as I do, at the normal rate of over an hour per tree. The South olival remains pruned only by me! IMG_1652

It was last May whilst clearing and burning the debris – a bonfire six feet tall onto which I continuously drag and throw branches for several hours- from this “service” that I had a second heart attack brought on by strenuous work in strong sunshine, hot protective clothing and great heat from the fire. Long story short, four months recovery with the help of Janet and without the help of doctors, and I’m back on form now weighing thirteen kilos less. I had to put the quinta onto maintenance mode and only did what was absolutely necessary (hence the lack of blogging).

With no Harry Dog depending on us now, we began to go on holidays, Madrid and Barcelona in June,  then holidays with our family and lots of trips out. During the early summer I could work only slowly, tying the vines to wires and pruning them. It took weeks longer than before, because with my now underpowered body thermostat I could not work in the heat for very long.P1010376

From early July to late September there was no rain at all and half of the local vineyards had no grape harvest. We had to throw away over half the crop as it was dried out. But because my vineyards are irrigated we did have some usable bunches of grapes, about 450kg, which contained less juice than usual but more concentrated and in some cases, sweeter.P1010380

Pictured left – dried-out grapes, the effect of drought.  Pictured right, the saccharometer reading for red grape juice in the vineyard, September 2016.  IMG_1237 high sacc readingThe usual initial Specific Gravity of the grape juice at the start of fermentation should be about 1.085 in order to ferment out all the fruit sugars, so our grape juice with 27% sugar needed diluting a fair bit! It eventually yielded 150ℓ red wine and 35ℓ of white. After the wine was made my sister and her husband came to stay for a week – we cruised up the Douro over the weekend – and once the wine was racked in early October we went on holiday to Madeira, a sunshine holiday with Laura and our grandsons.

So now that I am feeling well it’s back to blogging and to working the quinta !