Our son Samuel left a cold wet England and landed in hot sunny Lisbon on 1st February to work with us for a week. We drove to meet him, a round trip of 360 miles. His first act was to remove his jacket and shirt, walking around in a sleeveless t-shirt and sunglasses!

Ian, me and Samuel

The next day I showed him how to lightly prune olive trees and he helped Ian and me giving the west olival a light maintenance pruning, two years after their initial deep pruning. The work went quickly because of mutual encouragement and camaraderie, and we completed all ninety in only three days – now 170 olive trees were done this spring.

We went out for dinner that evening, a 30-mile drive to a small town on the Spanish border, where Maria-Alice runs her restaurant. It is open every lunchtime and every evening; she hasn’t had a day off for years. She is a good hostess and an excellent cook. We started with bread, olives and a litre of local red wine. She brought us a large tureen of herby vegetable soup, then a few minutes later a tureen of Sopa de Pedra (veg and beans with chunks of pork) – we each had at least three bowlfuls! Although by now we had eaten well, she brought another litre of wine and the main course, a large platter of roast beef in gravy and chips with a light salad. We ate it all so she brought half as much again for Samuel and Janet, who were able to eat more. Then came dessert (home-made egg pudding), two glasses of aguardente and coffee for all. The bill for all this was €32, about £28. We drove home full and happy.

It rained all the next day, which gave us  a break before Ian and I pruned the apple and pear trees whilst Samuel and Janet spent two days pruning vines – Samuel working topless in the lovely spring sunshine.  A neighbour drove by in his little car and couldn’t resist stopping to check their work – he approved, although it is difficult to understand what he is saying, and the consensus in our village is that he speaks some kind of dialect. Also he has too few teeth to pronounce words properly, so most people rely on sounds and his gestures. His utterances are brief and sporadic, usually followed with a broad smile or a quick “não é ?” (isn’t it?). A nodded agreement “é, é ” usually moves the “conversation” on. If it was the wrong reply his swift turn of the head and bewildered look indicate a “certainly not!” must follow, then he’s off again. Afterwards, an analysis of the interaction sometimes reveals the subject that was discussed, but usually you are left with no idea of what he said.  The fact that neither Ian nor João the shepherd speak anything other than their mother tongue did not impede their exchange of pleasantries when they met on several days in the top olival. 

Joao and his flock in our main vineyard

On the morning of his return to England, Samuel met João with his flock in the west olival; the sheep love fresh olive leaves and can smell them from quite a distance! Much to João’s amazement Samuel talked to him in Portuguese! Then the flock of over a hundred sheep caught a whiff of pruned olives in the top olival. It was too tempting, and they scuttled off up the hill with João in pursuit.

Shopping in Fundao market

The next day, Monday, we went to Fundão market and bought a bunch of 25 vines (variety Trincadeira) and four plum trees. These were all re-homed into the main vineyard which we are gradually replanting. Now that we were in planting mode, we spent a day transplanting twenty pine seedlings from the wooded parts of the farm to the eastern perimeter where they will eventually populate our east boundary.  The stakes for marking each spindly treelet were trimmed spear-like vertical branches from the prunings of the previously untended olive trees.

Ian was due to return to the UK in mid-February, so the last few days were spent in cutting the thickest pruned wood into logs for the fire, transporting and stacking it in the woodshed, as well as finding and dealing with the last olive trees which had escaped getting pruned since we bought the farm. By now our pruning saws, new a month ago, were worn out; we had to use a third saw.

On Sunday afternoon we awaited a tree seller from Fundão market who had promised to come to our farm to see the land and offer advice. He was due at 4pm so we had decided to leave for the villa at 5.30 after his visit. The car was packed and everything put away. However, life at the quinta doesn’t always run to plan. Firstly, our good friend and neighbour “D” drove round to us and insisted we come for dinner at seven, asserting we should not cross the mountains at night but travel fresh in the morning. We could not refuse such a forceful offer. Secondly, the tree-man arrived late at 5.30 and stayed for an hour. He advised us, much to our consternation, to have a bulldozer to clear the rough land we have designated as a new vineyard and for trees. Ian was definitely unenthusiastic about this – he prefers to work with nature rather than bulldozing, and I agree. Nevertheless, he offered other encouraging advice about decorative broadleaf trees and conifers, so his visit was worthwhile.

D’s party began with a meal (for his extended family and the three of us, about twenty in total) of home-produced olives, bread and wine, then Arroz de miúdos de borrego. This is made from fried minced lamb’s lungs with bits of its liver and other internals, with cooked rice and a hint of herbs added. This brown and white soggy porridge is actually quite tasty. It is a variant on the more common cabidela, made from rice and chicken innards using its blood as a stock. The main course was brought to table in a cooking pan well over two feet in diameter; a stew made from the same lamb which, until yesterday, was enjoying the springtime at J-J’s mum’s farm. For sobremesa were both chocolate and coffee mousse, very scrummy, and three tasty sheep’s cheeses of differing maturity. We adjourned to the huge double-height stone walled living room, where chunks of tree-trunk burned in its two-metre wide fireplace. Baronial or what?

This party took place two days before Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival in Portugal, a public holiday that is more important than Christmas. In the shops are more fancy dress costumes than can be imagined. [We had a McDonalds in Castelo Branco on the previous Friday and saw two crusaders, three jesters, Batman, Zorro . . . – thank goodness they haven’t heard of Lady Godiva!] Anyway, you can easily buy all the props you could ever want for home-made plays, which is what D had done. He immensely enjoys drama and had written three short plays to involved three of his grandchildren who were staying with them at his house. One granddaughter, like him, adores play-acting. These plays were made all the more hilarious as we had imbibed plenty of wine. Then he chose a CD of Portuguese dancing music, rolled up the carpet and we had an impromptu dance. Out came the fancy-dress wigs and hats – more hilarity – and the family dance continued until we were all exhausted. For Ian this was the first time he had been in such a wonderful environment, a brilliant way to say farewell to another life he’d shared with us for a month – a life of hard work, good food and wine, sunshine, tranquillity and close friendships.