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!

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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 !

Sunk tractor 7

Over Easter Janet and I spent a couple of weeks in England having some great family and friends time. On our drive back home to our quinta through Spain we stopped to look at a waterfall we hadn’t seen before. A Spanish man stopped a minute later to look too, and he told Janet there was a lot of rain over the previous three days. The next five days were rainy with only short dry spells and in total we had five inches of rain; this has been a record wet month. In one interval I was able to mow the 12”high weed patch at the front of the house so it would look a bit like a lawn – it took two hours! The rain stopped on Wednesday morning and the sun came out. Janet was out with a friend so I decided to mow the vineyard before the rain returned.

I attached the corta-mato (topper) and mowed the weedy veg gardens as a mulch then in the sunny dry afternoon headed off to the vineyard. There was surface water all over which was to be expected. The job went smoothly and by 4pm I was on the last line of mowing, feeling very pleased with myself. The tractor suddenly slowed moving forward so I shifted it into neutral and looked down to see that the left back wheel had sunk into a patch of mud. I reversed out of it but the wheel just turned and sank. I tried forwards more slowly and the wheels just turned and sank some more, and the mud now covered the depth of the tyre and water oozed over the wheel rSunk tractor 2im.

I looked away from the wheel to see that the tractor was now tilted sideways at quite an angle -this was looking serious- and the tilt was quickly getting worse. I shoved the mower hydraulics downwards to try and take weight off the wheel but nothing improved. In fact it was sinking quickly and was now in almost to the axle. The right front wheel was off the ground and abandoning the tractor was a balancing act at that slope.

Sunk tractor 1Janet arrived home and, after a cup of tea, we went down to put a pine pole and planks under the wheel; with a dose of optimism, four wheel drive and diff lock it should be out.

“Oh,” we thought when we saw it. “No. Not looking good at all”.

Janet said, “You can’t get that out. We need help”.

“No, we’ll give it a go”. And we did, and it dug itself into the very deep mud. It was a fluidised mudhole. We needed help.

I rang the garage where I get my agricultural diesel fuel. He was sympathetic and said he’d send his mechanic round at 8am tomorrow. It began to rain again. I reluctantly left the tractor embedded in the mud as night drew in.

Sunk tractor 3Sunrise, tractor sunk deeper now, then 8am, then 9am and still no mechanic.

I rang again, “You need a light bulb?” he asked.

“What? No, my tractor is sunk in mud and I need it pulling out”

“My lad hasn’t turned up to work. Isn’t there anyone near you with a tractor?”

“No, one neighbour’s at work and the other isn’t there today. Wasn’t yesterday either.”

“Ring me after lunch and I’ll see what I can do.”

Well that was less hopeful than yesterday. Janet suggested we ask our friend N for the phone number of the builders he used who have a JCB. He rang us and said they were round at his place this morning but to go soon as they would leave at lunchtime. I was off like a shot. It was raining when I arrived and the guys had already loaded their small JCB and were packed up for the day as it was too wet for them to continue. They looked at the photographs I’d taken and doubted that their small digger would be able to do the job. Their large digger was in a village an hour’s drive away. I convinced them to come and look anyway.

Sunk tractor 4Sunk tractor 5They followed me to our quinta and did the same as Janet and I the previous day. Then they dug a ramp for the tractor to climb out but had to disconnect the corta-mato to make the tractor lighter. They unloaded the digger off the lorry, I brought a chain and they attached their towing strap. Running in low gear, with a pine pole levering against the sunken wheel and the little JCB tugging hard, they were able to pull the tractor out. Yaaaay!Sunk tractor 7

Sunk tractor 10Then they dragged the corta-mato out (oops! I hadn’t realised that to put it away I’d have to reverse up to it, back into the mud). The pine pole near the centre of the picture is over seven feet long. The fact that less than three feet of it is visible shows the mudhole is liquified to at least four feet depth, enough to submerge the whole tractor wheel. It isn’t wide enough to take the tractor, though, I think. They told me (afterwards, thankfully) that they had attempted to do another like this previously but this one was buried to the same depth with both back wheels stuck – ours had only one. They had tried by hand and failed, then brought in a JCB a month later when the ground was less sodden but the JCB sank in the same place. They had to leave both vehicles for another month until the ground was dry before trying again with another JCB which also sank (!!!) and finally a third JCB which was able to extract the other two and the tractor.

Sunk tractor 11The saving grace for us was the fact that the mud pool was on the very edge of the vineyard, and N’s quick response was so helpful. For the workmen (Nelson, Paulo and Jaime) the whole procedure including transit time was just over an hour which was an impressive achievement –thanks, guys!

 

As the grapes near ripeness it is not easy to decide when to harvest them. The best wine comes from the ripe grapes; too late and the grapes shrink to raisins and the rabbits, birds, wasps and ants would take more of the crop. Also there is always a risk of a surprise storm in September, which washes the natural yeasts off the grapes, so increasing the chance of spoilage when the wine is made. We can estimate the sweetness of the fruit but this year we have bought a saccharometer, a specialized refractometer.saccharometer
To use it I simply squeeze a drop of grape juice onto a glass window at the end of the device, flick over the cover slip to spread a film of grape juice over the window, then look through the eyepiece. I see a scale backlit with blue and white, the boundary shows the scale reading in percent sugar in the juice.

Janet and I went sampling lots of grapes with it for two evenings before deciding it was time to pick them.

The next morning at 8am we heard a diesel car pulling up between our farm buildings, then the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. I ran out and greeted “our” shepherdess Manuela and her son Bruno (who was ten years old when we bought the quinta and is now a strong young man of eighteen). “We are helping you with your vindima (grape harvest) !” she declared with a broad smile. “When is it?”

“Lovely ! That would be really great!” we said, “How about Friday?”

“Decided. Friday morning at seven. We’ll be there in the vineyard,” and after a short chat they left. Bruno came round again a couple of hours later to say he forgot he had another job on Friday so would tomorrow Thursday be good? “Yes, fine,” we agreed, “See you at seven.”

ManuelaP1040661 BrunoTo cut the story short, with all the vines on wires and crates already out, four of us on the job and a lovely morning, we had the entire crop stacked in the adega by 11:30.

Bruno and I hoisted the nasty esmegador (crusher) onto the big 320 litre fermenting vat and as a team we had all the grapes crushed into three vats before noon. P1040663 dornas 2015a tilt

They declined our offer of lunch, insisting their family eat together at home, so we had a quick meal before spending a couple of hours cleaning up. Once washed, everything dries quickly in the hot sunshine and we had the crusher and crates put away by afternoon tea on 3rd September, ten days earlier than our average date.

eating grapesWe racked the wine ten days later and it’s now fermenting out in three plastic barrels, 250ℓ of red and 60ℓ of white wine. Although this is less than last year after such a dry summer the new irrigation of the vines has served us well, and we still have eighty litres of red and fifty of white wine in the cubas (it tastes very good too). We’re really pleased about this because we never add sulphites to preserve the wine, it is totally organic, so it is food and medicine to us. The downside to this is that it doesn’t travel well – sorry, folks!

 

 

 

charca full

Charcas (storage pools) are on most farms in this country. They are spring-fed but they almost dry out during the arid summer. Willows tend to grow in the moist soil and can survive having their roots in water during the winter. Now is the easiest time to cut them. To get rid of this brushwood the trees have to be cut into pieces which Janet and I can drag out, then I recover the thickest pieces for firewood in winter.

empty charca

Inside the dry charca

Inside the dry charca