Moving in . . .   May/June 2009

. . . to the apartment.

One takes it for granted that a dwelling will have windows and doors, but when you are having a “new build” they are one of the jobs which have to be arranged. We chose sliding windows and hinged shutters in white aluminium as it is the most resistant to changes in humidity and temperature; we learned that wood is susceptible to contraction and scorching, and uPVC to warping from the heat.

our kitchen assembled at the carpenter's

In the UK, if you want a new kitchen, you go to IKEA or a DiY store. However, ready made kitchen units are a rarity in central Portugal, so we visited two carpenters’ workshops last November whilst we were on the olive harvest runs around the lagars. It turns out that a bespoke kitchen costs little more than an MFI installation.

Granite is used for worktops here rather than laminates because the humidity drops so low that we are told there is a risk of delamination. Both our carpenter and the builders recommended the same stonemason opposite Gonçalo’s tractor shop in Fundão. We went to look at samples and concluded that most granite has black granules in it and looks dark. We wanted a light colour and decided on a rock from India.

two slabs of the worktop

The huge block is imported via Spain where it is cut to a “manageable” 3x2x1 metres hunk, weighing around forty tons. Our man then cuts it into 3cm slabs for making gravestones, tombs and worktops. On his way over to fit our worktops he rang to ask if we have a tape measure – not inspiring confidence after our difficulties with builders making the foundations of the barracão ! Nevertheless when he fitted them they were absolutely right – well done to him!

I constructed pine beds to match the wall-mounted headboard that José made for us, in the same chevron style as the pine panelling on the ceiling. They fit together to make one king-size bed which seems huge in the bedroom. The mattresses were delivered by the salesman from the supermarket; he sells and delivers.

The rural electric supply is of low power, typically only 15amps per house; in England the supply is 45-80 amps. To have a thirty amp supply the standing charge and cost per unit is higher. For any more than a 30Amp supply we would have to have a three-phase supply, like an English farm or factory unit. Because an electric immersion would use about twelve amps, we heat our hot water with an instant gas heater. The gas is delivered in three-foot-high cylinders and are housed in a little lean-to at the back of the barracão. We have a system that detects when a cylinder is empty, and switches to the second cylinder automatically. We just ring the gas man who brings a new one and swaps them over.  We can now cook and eat, take a shower and sleep, all in comfort!

. . . to the farm.

We bought twenty five grafted vines (Toureiga Nacional variety) in early May, which is late to be planting. The guy on the market said that the twelve-inch-long roots needed trimming, so we asked him to do it for us. He cut off all but two inches! Apparently this stimulates them to seng out new roots in abundance. Needless to say, a few days after planting them, they looked pretty dead. Two weeks of hot sun was unhelpful to them and with diligent watering they may survive.  However only thirteen have grown new leaves.

We were in the UK in April (ploughing time) and, as the land was too hard to plough in early May, I only rotavated one field near to the house and scattered maize and sunflower seeds in it, burying them with the scarifier. We hoped for some unseasonal rain to soften the ground, leaving it moist enough for the seeds and a planned green mulch of black-eyed beans to germinate. Surprisingly, in mid May, it rained for three days so I was able to plough a additional half an acre of neglected rocky land. This was the first time I’d really farmed and, trying to sit in the tractor at 20° slope with one wheel in the furrow, it felt as though the tractor would overturn at any moment if it encountered another big rock buried in the way.

Once ploughed, the field had to be rotovated before JJ could demonstrate how to scatter beans as a crop. Well under half a bucket was needed, really only enough for a French family’s Sunday cassoulet. He said the soil was too dry for germination so I should go over the whole area twice with the rotovator to bring up any moisture. This is a very dusty job, with the tractor and its driver embedded in a slow-moving dust cloud, ending with the driver matching the soil, parched and brown. Consequently, taking a shower in the barracão is an absolute pleasure . . . as are several pints of iced shandy! After the planting we have had rain on three consecutive Sundays and all seems to be growing as it should.

. . . to the garden. I rotavated the veg garden (12’x80’) for the second time ready to start planting, having studied drip-tape irrigation on the internet before buying all the components.  It took over twenty hours to choose, buy and assemble the automatic control (27 joints, each needing over a metre of ptfe tape) and distribution system. It took a further twenty hours digging in full sun (30-36°C in the shade) to connect and bury 110 metres of drip tape to water our veg patch.

burying the perforated tubes

Fundão is an agricultural town with very few tourists. It has a huge Monday market where the locals sell their produce and buy seeds and plants. You can buy a walnut tree, a chainsaw, clothes, shoes, a box of live ducklings, a chicken feeder, a beaten copper still (used to make aguardente or moonshine) a mattress, fruit, veg, sheep’s cheese, cooked food,  . . .

In May we intended to buy seedling tomatoes, sweet peppers and aubergines, all of which grow in the open.  In early June we established that the irrigation system worked properly in automatic mode which is important because we leave the quinta for several days whilst we return to the villa and do our emails etc. Then we went crazy buying plantlets on the next three Mondays.

Aubergine flowers with marigolds,  bean and tomato plants,   and lettuces with vines.

We spent many hours putting in: 18 tomato plants, 5 cucumber, 5 courgette, 10 aubergine, over 100 onions, 10 bean, 5 broccoli, 6 Brussels sprouts, 20 sweet peppers, 5 chilli, 5 spinach, lots of lettuce, 2 dozen carrots, 2 dozen beetroots, 2 dozen caulis (rabbits have eaten most of these), 6 white and 12 red cabbages, 12 melon, 5 pumpkin, and 12 oca (an Inca crop, rather like a high-protein potato). The sweet corn, Jerusalem artichokes, peas and bean seeds failed to germinate because we sowed them far too late.

To support the climbers, I cut down some of the jungle bordering the orchard at the villa. Beside the stream which borders our land we have loads of bamboos growing at a rate of about three metres a year. Ours were all between four and six metres high before trimming them to get the straightest canes. Next year they will be younger and straighter (ie more useful).

Looking north along the veg garden, barracão on far right.

Looking to the south.

So now we have a real chance of achieving another goal; becoming more self sufficient in vegetables. The garden looks set to do well !