April 2010

Back to our Lands in Portugal. April ’10

The car was fully loaded – a six-inch reflector (astronomical telescope a metre long) with its tripod and equatorial mount, twelve pounds of tea, the same weight of cheese, a large box of assorted tins and bottles of Indian and Chinese food, English shower gel and soaps, a large mirror, a painting on canvas, a Bramley apple tree and 24 plants in trays, our travel bags of clothes and some new ones, and of course Harry the Dog in his new bigger bed in the boot. T complete our eighteen days in our native land we stayed overnight in a lovely hotel at Selsey near Portsmouth which allowed doggo to stay in our room. It was a very windy night with blasts of rain.

We both ate a full fried English breakfast the next morning, ready for our 24-hour ferry trip. The man at the check-in was surprised that Brittany Ferries were allowing this crossing – over the Bay of Biscay, notorious for poor weather – to sail; they cancelled their short crossings. Once out of Portsmouth the slow big waves pitched and rolled the huge car ferry. As the bows of the ship carved into the waves they smashed water up and out, sending dense sheets of rain-like spray sluicing over the viewing windows twenty feet above the waterline. We sat in one of the interior passenger decks to “people-watch” and read for a while – the outside decks were closed off. Walking in a straight line became a trial, resulting in a sloping curved weaving path. The normally busy ambience in the boat became subdued, and appetites evaporated. We went to our cabin mid-afternoon and slept for a few hours before having a snack tea. We slept overnight whilst the ship passed through the storm outside, arriving in the calm waters of Santander in sunny Spain mid-morning.

Arenas de Iguña, snow on the backdrop Picos de Europa .

An hour’s drive on quiet roads took us to lunch at a nice little restaurant in the pretty and mountainous Basque region.  We met an old couple who told us that a tornado passed by their village yesterday, the first they had ever seen or heard. Everywhere we go we hear the same – the weather has certainly changed. The drive back to Portugal was swift and easy, taking ten hours. We stopped overnight to unload our astronomical telescope at the quinta, where Jacinto said that March had been measured by Portugal Meteo Service as the coldest and wettest in this region for thirty years.

We drove on to our house near Lousã, where the land was drying out and the humidity and warmth was causing the grass to grow rapidly. I mowed the lawn, which was as high as my short wellies. In the orchard it was already thigh-high, and I mowed that too, with an ingenious two-wheeled strimmer we originally used at the French house – it took twelve hours spread over three days. The plug lobelias and fuchsias we brought from England needed potting. By now the lawn had grown another two inches and needed mowing again! When we left for the quinta the Bramley apple tree we had also brought over was bursting into leaf whilst still bare-rooted, and the plantlets were bushing out.

At the quinta the sun was bright, 26°C in the shade. The builders, who had not worked on our house during our time in England, had returned and were pointing the external stonework. There was no urgent decision to be made, so we ate a late lunch and started to deal with the overgrown vegetable garden. Had I not removed all the irrigation tubes in March it would now be impossible, as the grass and weeds were dense and knee-high. I had to mow it with the tractor a day before rotovating the central part, then Janet forked the weeds from the borders.

The citrus vineyard was now dry enough to walk in, so I checked on the vines which Ian and I planted two months ago, thirty of the 35 have put out new buds. All four plum trees have established themselves, so I confidently planted a sparse-looking whip of a walnut tree; as so often happens, the potted tree turns out to be bare-rooted, not an established plant.

The old and once-neglected apple and pear trees in the orchard are growing nicely after their second severe pruning in three years. They now have good shapes and very little dead wood. I planted the second Bramley, a Reinette and a Golden Delicious for pollination. The weather is variable, with some days too sunny and hot to work in the afternoon, so most jobs must be done in the morning and the land cleaned of prunings by bonfire in the evening. Other days are wet and on one of those I planted two nectarine (Venus) and two early cherry (Burlat) trees in the Citrus vineyard, to join the plum trees. On the second rainy day we planted twenty Trincadeira vines, four were replacements of vines which didn’t survive the wet winter.

Spring has clearly sprung and the birds are active. A woodpecker has his breakfast as we eat ours, only he is more noisy about it – “drrrrrrrr” every seven seconds for a couple of hours. We have a colony of fifteen or so birds which look similar to jays, about a foot long, with a black head, white throat, salmon pink breast and sky-blue wings and tail (any i/d’s? Roller family, I think). They eat from the ground and fly low collecting materials for their nests. There are hoopoes too, and in the late evening the cuckoo’s call echoes through the woods beside the house.

The builders  rendered and tiled the internal walls they have built, varnished the lovely wooden ceilings and tiled the new floors in what used to be the barn.



Next came a second run at the other half or the house, making an arch in our new bedroom, chipping the cement off the walls (that’s Mario), rendering the new walls.

They asked if I would use my tractor to clear their rubble into their lorry so they could take it away; I obliged. Meanwhile Janet was telling me every couple of hours that we should not try to repair the original tiled floor in that part of the house, but put down a new floor. José asked if we want a step or a ramp between the two parts of the house, then Jacinto remarked that we have enough tiles to do part of the floor in the old house. He did a quick estimate of the material needed to tile throughout with the same tiles as in the old barn, and after a phone call to the suppliers all was arranged – Janet would get the same rustic tiles throughout. So much for decision-making!

Now is the peak period for olive grove maintenance; all the olives must have been pruned and the pruning cleared. I discovered that we didn’t clear the prunings from the top olival, which means I have an extra six hours work! The olivais have to be scarified to prevent weeds and grasses forming deep roots and establishing themselves, and manure or fertiliser spread around the trees. The weather is variable at present, so I can only do a couple of hours work before rain or a thunderstorm arrives and I have to return to base for a few hours; progress is slow, and the weeds can grow quickly in the wet and warm weather.

Jose tiling the bathroom

A week later it is now the end of April and the birds are nesting everywhere. Even during the night we have birds singing. At two in the morning I heard three birds singing in the woods beside our bedroom, two different kinds of song echoing through the still night. During the builders’ absence last weekend a bird tried to make a nest under the eaves of our new conservatory, and house martins succeeded in making half a nest on top of the central light bulb in our future study! In kindness Janet removed it because we will be using the light!

On Sunday I was working in the veg garden, preparing the irrigation whilst Janet was on the phone to Laura, when a white van arrived and three visitors alighted. They looked vaguely familiar to me, so I gave them a cheery welcome and chatted to them although I couldn’t remember where I’d seen them or who they are. They equally didn’t use my name although they had taken the trouble to come and find our quinta. After over half an hour they made to leave – me still not knowing who they were. I went to get Janet to say ‘bye, as she hadn’t seen them. I hoped she would know who they were! She recognised the couple as people who we’d invited to share our table at lunch in a restaurant nearly three years ago, and met again a year ago at Fundão market. They live about twenty miles away and wanted to find us!

On Monday we went to Fundão and bought five dozen plants and four more fruit trees, together with a quarter of a cubic metre of peat and fifty kilos of fertiliser. We always buy fresh veg from that part of the market where the little old ladies sell their home-grown produce. We have blue eyes (theirs are brown) and look foreign, so we are potential rip-off targets. They don’t note the fact that we speak Portuguese. I wanted to buy a lettuce ; how much? “One euro.” I looked surprised, and asked her to weigh it- half a kilo, It was a little expensive, so I asked her to add another, please. A kilo now. “One euro.” and she put them in a bag. I looked satisfied. She smiled and put in a third,  “One euro.” I smiled and paid.


We dined with the builders. Mário barbecued two big spicy chouriço sausages, made by one of his in-laws. The strong savoury smell wafted throughout the gutted half of our granite house which was covered with rubble and dust. We all drank deep fruity dry red wine provided by Américo the plumber /electrician. This was our breakfast on Friday before we went to Castelo Branco to buy a depósito (water tank) for the new house. We were soon hungry again so we ate at a café in a supermarket. Our meal of the day was really delicious, grelos soup (resprouted cabbage) followed by arroz de polvo (a wet octopus risotto).  On the way home we met up with JJ to pay him for digging the trenches at our quinta two days previously. He was receiving half a dozen banqueting tables made for D by our carpenter. After a warm greeting and a chat we made to leave but he said “Do you have to go? Stay for dinner – we’ve killed a pig.” We had to talk with our builders but returned to D’s quinta an hour later as darkness fell.

In a barn were a group of local ladies, friends and relatives, arm-deep in thick pancake batter and stuffing it into sausage skins.

I asked what they were making and was told they are farinheiras. Pig fat is cut into small pieces and mixed with flour and a little water. This is squeezed into cows’ intestines which were tied off into eighteen-inch lengths and the strings left long so they can be hung up. After washing the sausages, they are dried with flour and smoked for a week. These sausages provide meals from the fat and smoking preserves and flavours them. They made two olive-crates of these meatless sausages, about forty kilos.

More sausages (alheiras) are similarly made from chopped fat mixed with a stuffing made from breadcrumbs, herbs, clean meat and boiled chickens with their stock. The ladies’ team made twenty kilos of these. Alheiras originated with the Jews during pogroms. In order to appear to eat pork they made these sausages without pork products but they look the same when made from poultry.

Narcisa (wearing a green pullover in the pictures) is acknowledged and valued as Queen of Cookery by all in our village. She and her husband João worked in France for thirty years. She wanted to run restaurant but he didn’t. She is D’s cook and is magnificent in leading the cooks of the community meals (for 150 or so people) which are held three times a year. She explained that when a pig is killed almost nothing is wasted. The pig’s blood has to be drained and it is kept in buckets. The prime cuts of meat (chops, legs, ribs) are just frozen but in the past they were stored in salt. The fat is carefully trimmed off because it is important for sausage-making. Then the “clean meat” is trimmed from the bones, cut into small pieces, mixed with some fat and stuffed into cows’ intestines. These are smoked and hung in a cool shed to make chouriço.

Meat which has been in contact with blood, eg heart and kidneys, is used to make morcela (black pudding) in which the blood is mixed with dried wheat or other grain to make the filling. The tail and ears are a delicacy either fried or for a stew like oxtail stew. The head is used in a stew; all three of these can be bought in a supermarket, as the Portuguese like them.

We ate a late dinner because the ladies were hard at work on the pig. A fifteen month old pig provides enough meat and fat to give six women three days’ work to preserve it and a butcher half a day’s chopping. The meat is the easy bit! Our starter was crispy fried pig’s stomach, surprisingly good to eat, similar to pork scratching but more tasty. The main course was pork cutlets and chips with delicious grelos washed down with wine from the quinta which is served by the mugful.

He was a happy pig, chestnut brown and handsome as pigs go, with bright eyes and a solid build. He’d had a good life fed on farm slops and pumpkins with occasional days out eating acorns in the shade of cork oaks. He lived in a comfy big sty with a donkey for company and frequent visits from the regulars at the farm. It is a sad thing to die nameless but most of the animals in this country have no name. We always ask and the answer is the same, “donkey” or “dog”, not “Swee’ pea” (Sue’s donkey) or “Lucky”; it’s the foreigners or city dwellers who name animals. He was killed humanely at home, not stressed or even aware that his end had come. He would be enough meat and fat for a family of four for a year if pork was on the menu twice a week.

The whole experience feels somewhat mediaeval. This event, the matança or killing (of the pig) is lost as smallholdings and hamlets disappear and in England had virtually vanished by the early 20th century. It is a happy ceremony, a special small-community experience. In a hamlet each family would keep a pig for a year and share in the preparation of all these comestibles every three months as in turn their pigs were killed. Then the fruit of their labour was shared out so all had fresh meat. After this experience I have more respect and compassion for the pig, but less tolerance of supermarkets and battery pork.