Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

We went out one afternoon in September and when we returned two of my tractor tools had been stolen – a big heavy chain mower and a scarifier – winched onto a trailer and taken from right beside our house.  After weeks of waiting the insurers said they wouldn’t pay my claim because the tools were five years old so worth half their cost, and they would put an excess of a thousand euros on my claim, which was €985. This was not in the policy, they made it up and put an annex onto the policy. Because they have in-house lawyers my legal bill and stress to contest it would not make it a worthwhile exercise.

When we discussed the theft everyone said the same, the thieves were waiting for an opportunity and watched us go out. It is someone local. We were upset at the theft but more upset that someone whom we know would betray our trust in them. Eventually their karma will rectify matters.

Janet cutting cucmbersWe have a broker trying (feebly) to get us a better policy with a lower excess but he is dragging his feet, having taken two months so far to provide one quote which was not acceptable.

In the meantime we are reluctant even to go shopping lest another window is smashed and more is stolen, especially with a €1000 excess on a claim. I won’t replace these essential tools until they can be insured, so much of my farm work has ground to a halt.


Clive boden, Dominic PlattIn October I had the vine-wiring team from Technicova over to complete the wiring of our vineyard with an additional fourteen forty-metre lines. This gives space for four hundred vines.

Laura and her family have been to stay with us during Dominic’s half-term break from school. He helped me to plant a few dozen vines in the newly-wired section of the vineyard, and Toby had a go too. We racked 350 litres of our wine whilst they were with us. We had a lovely time together.

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine



Further demotivation came five weeks after the tools were stolen. I started to back up all my main computer files onto a USB stick, when the message “Unable to find files. Format the disc?” came up.  I tried the USB stick on all our computers with the same result, and internet searches said this fault sometimes occurs and there is no solution, either re-format it or bin it. Either way the files are lost. So I formatted it, and resolved to do the backup a day later.

The following day an isolated bolt of lightning struck the ground beside our house. Once the electric company had replaced two main cartridge fuses and Portugal Telecom had repaired the wires and replaced the modem, we found the bolt had burned out our telly, my computer, the new printer, and my lovely stereo amplifier. With no current backups to put onto my laptop I had to fall back on my three-month old secondary backup. All new blogging photos were lost. Disheartened, I lost the motivation to blog.

peppersThe veg garden has given us a large crop of cucumbers and we have nearly half a freezer-full of peppers, orange and brown in addition to the usual red yellow and green. The Bartlett bonnet chillies which Janet sowed in February grew tall (up to Janet’s shoulders) during the summer but only started to ripen in October and are now, in mid-December, still cropping well.

Bartlett bonnet chillies

Bartlett bonnet chillies


I met up with Samuel and Kate, her sister Nicola and my third grandson Leo in Lisbon for a long weekend, which was very enjoyable and was another tonic to me. Janet and I are both healthy and happy, and now I’m able to get on with pruning olive trees and vines I’m finding myself again. The claim for lightning damage has just been resolved well and we can now replace the damaged goods. We’re past the negative phase and are getting back to such normality as we previously enjoyed.

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

a grapes by tractor In late August we walk through the vineyards twice a week, sampling the fruit to see whether it is time for the vindima (grape harvest) yet. We spend twelve hours cleaning the adega, washing crates, rinsing the dornas (fermentation vats) and cubas (stainless steel storage tanks), ready to make wine.

c rose

When the grapes are plump, smell fruity and taste sweet it’s time to pick them. In the unwired parts of the vineyards, despite careful pruning to make the vines taller they trail on the ground and bunches are hidden, harder to find and uncomfortable to pick. With no air movement the grapes get damp and start to rot. Alternatively if there is a tree nearby they will climb into that, and the vines have to be cut free.

d cut from tree

This year the vindima was far easier than in the past because now there are fourteen lines where I have pruned and trained the vines along wires. This gives easy access to the fruit which grows at a comfortable height, is clean and has good exposure to sun and air.

e ready to start

September is usually sunny but this year there was rain forecast, which meant a lack of the sunshine needed to make sugars. Also rain washes the natural yeast off the grapes so fermentation takes a long time to start, increasing the risk of spoilage. The day before we intended to start it rained so we had to hold off for two days to allow some yeasts to re-colonise the grape skins. A lower risk of rain was predicted for four days up to the 15th, when a week of heavy rain would start.

g esmeg 1

We started picking on Thursday 11th and by Friday lunchtime we had 23 crates of red grapes. After lunch we were mentally ready to use the esmegador (crusher), a heavy fearsome machine which we have to manhandle into position on top of a dorna. It comprises a trough to receive bunches of grapes which are pushed by a rotating screw into a large pair of 9” long serrated rollers. Everything is crushed through and the pulp splatters into the dorna. The stalks, which would make the fermenting grape juice bitter, are pushed along a sharp steel perforated trough by spiral paddles and fall out of the end of the machine into a large bucket.


It roars, bumps and grinds whilst I’m tipping the loads of bunches in to the exposed screw then feeding them evenly to the mangle. Such a dangerous machine would not be available to the public in England ! We really don’t like the machine at all but it does in minutes a far better job than we could do in hours either with a hand-powered crusher (where you have to take out the stalks from the wet pulp afterwards) or by treading (which is very slow, cold, inefficient and hard work).

We crushed 23 crates of grapes then added some Montrachet yeast to get the Red1 fermentation off to a clean start.

k white grapes in sunshineOn Saturday we picked and crushed three hundred kilos of grapes to make Red2, and as we still had two hours of daylight we started to pick the white grapes. On Sunday 14th we finished picking the white grapes, which after crushing gave us 150 litres of must. For the fourth time in a week we washed the equipment, this time storing it when it was dry, the crates ready for the colheita in November and the esmegador until next year.

m stir wine   n washed eqpt

For the next few days Janet will stir the must three times a day, pushing the thick layer of crushed grapes into the liquid so the juice all ferments. Then whilst Janet is in England, comes the dreaded racking. We met the weather forecast deadline, all our grapes harvested in four days. Just as well, as this picture was taken from our verandah this morning (15th Sept).

p  rain on 15th



1 grain sowing Nov13
Chickens need food and bedding. Planning for this, I ploughed some of our land last November and sowed cereal – wheat and triticale – to provide seed food and straw bedding for them.

Growing it is dead easy – after a month chuck fertiliser onto the young grass, and let nature take its course until the following summer when it is tall and golden, with big ears of corn drooping down.  My problem (through having no experience) is what next? Obviously the wheat has to be cut, the grain threshed from it and stored, and the straw stacked. A combine harvester is the usual big farm answer but is impractical on a remote farm with small curvy fields. I’ve never seen one in this area.

2 wheat fields b May14

JJ has a side-cutter for his tractor but last year some bolts sheared on it and I don’t know if he could repair it, it was old. João had a walk-behind wide blade mower but in May that too broke down irreparably.

3  wheat with chicken fort in background

I looked into buying a scythe a couple of years ago but the shop has now closed down. Eventually I used a three-lobed brush cutter blade on my strimmer, which worked well but slowly. What I really need is a top-mounted scoop for the end of the strimmer, so that with each pass of the cutter the wheat is scooped and at the end of the stroke it falls into a neat bundle, all stalks together. This is how the scoop is used in India or South Asia They can be bought in India but the rural makers and vendors have no English and my written Gujarati / Urdu etc. just isn’t up to scratch 😉4 wheat strimming 2

Cut wheat is then gathered together in big bunch with the ears at one end and tied into a sheaf using a few of the straws twisted into a cord. You will not have tried this. I have, and can tell you that without being shown how it is, for me, an embarrassing waste of effort. You can imagine. Then the sheaves are assembled into stooks and one eventually threshes them.

5 trac & wheat stackIn the end I co-opted Janet and we raked it up, straws parallel, and shifted it into the stack you see here, with grain still attached. Threshing is at present beyond our ken. In theory I need a flail, a threshing floor, a winnowing basket and the knowledge of how to do it. The locals just buy sacks of grain for chickens on the market. One of our neighbours has a very old baler which makes rectangular straw bales, wheat ears included, but at harvest time he seems to make himself scarce. So much for self-sufficiency. I’m told it was all done by hand and donkey in the 1980’s.


Our friend Celia offered me a few good words of advice and, by her attitude to her chickens, is an encouragement to anyone to keep them.

dorkingNeighbours Brenda and Stuart kindly talked and showed me through the routine maintainance for these most basic of self-sufficient domestic animals.  They also lent me a good book.

I know it’s unlikely that we will find for sale in our part of Portugal  Dorkings,  Plymouth Rocks or Sussex chickens, but the pretty Wyandotte with its pencil edged feathers and excellent homely disposition should be available – but is not.

Wyandotte _Silver_Laced
We were shopping for stone (as one does) a few miles from home when we passed a chicken suppliers farm, the gateposts with stone cockerels on were its advert. We asked the owner if we could see his stock and surprisingly he had hundreds of chickens all the same. What race were they? “Good layers”. Were they of mixed race or did they have a name? No, no, not of mixed race, but he’d forgotten – “Oh yes, very good breed, named Hybrid”. Hmmm. This is a man who makes a living from selling chickens and ducks. There are two poultry suppliers on the market in Fundão. He is one of them.

I asked if he could supply ducks to lay eggs, he would know what breed would do best here (maybe). He said he could, and I asked if they quack. No, he said, they are “patos mudos”, mute ducks. I know those are bred for meat not for laying. I asked if he could supply two female ducks which go “quack” and lay eggs. He said that would be complicated and hasn’t replied yet.

campbell duck 2All I want is a couple of Campbells or, second best, Indian Runners.  Obviously I’ve searched the internet and apart from mute ducks I can get “patos Esmeralda” (green ducks i.e.mallards) or “patos reais” which seem to be mallards too. Here, ducks are only bred for meat, the occasional eggs are simply where more duck chicks come from. Stuart tell me the patos mudos just eat and eat and get bigger until at ten weeks they can’t walk, they fall over and die. Bred for meat. Not what I want. I want a waddle and a quack, pet ducks, duck eggs.

Our builder João contacted his friend and arranged for us to go together and get half a dozen chickens from his friend, who happens to be the son of the previously-mentioned “expert”.  I drove out to meet him and we went together to the chicken farm in a lovely location with a mountain view. His friend was not there, had forgotten us and was busy an hour’s drive away. He told us on the phone that he had no ducks other than mute ones.

Janet and I decided that in view of these delays maybe we should put our fowl plan on hold for the moment, so we still have no chickens nor ducks.

Perhaps we will take a trip to France and get some Maran chickens which are friendly to humans and good layers of dark brown eggs. Maybe we will go to Spain to get Andalusians which have grey feathers with black pencilled edges.

Maybe even we’ll find someone who lives in central Portugal and has already done this seeking and by natural means, and now has spare thoroughbred chickens . . . anyone?

We eat over four dozen eggs a week. I have maybe six of them, Doggo always has an omelette for breakfast so that’s 1½ dozen more. Janet is the glutton, averaging half a dozen a day (raw, liquidised with cream and honey). Two years ago we decided to keep chickens to get our own fresh wholesome free-range eggs. They have to be far from where we live so any smell from them, and noise in the early morning, will not reach us. They have to be cool in summer and sheltered from the cold in winter. a trench for manilhas P1020480

a2 laying pipes P1020474 In August 2012 we chose a spot on the quinta which would be good. JJ brought his JCB and dug a trench for land drainage. Our builders installed big drainage pipes then I filled and levelled the land.

a3 drainage for chicken land P1020488 Following my visit to England this year we had the builders round to discuss constructing a fox-proof enclosure for a dozen chickens and a pair of ducks. They started to make the chicken shack in late April, in our chosen spot about fifty metres from the house, in a south-facing hollow.


c2 first quarter of Janet's chicken shack P1030829  The first delivery comprised 4 cubic metres of sand and (28 bags) of cement, half of which Luis converted into concrete for the foundations. d make concrete P1030839 By the end of their first day of work the size of the capoeiro (chicken house) and their yard was fixed. The deep foundations are needed because a fox will try to dig under a wall to get at chickens. It then kills them all and takes only one.

e concrete foundations P1030847. end of work day1

f P1030856 second quarter of shack On the second day part two of three deliveries arrived – 450 agglomerate  blocks and five more bags of cement. All these were unloaded by hand, there was no crane to help.

first course P1030864 Unlike all our previous builders, João had (and used) a tape measure and a spirit level. He laid out level strings to mark the working perimeter. They enjoyed working here, in a partly shaded quiet corner of the farm, allowed to just get on.

fP1030867They set out a nice little picnic area on site to have lunch, and each day when they finished work we all had a cold beer.

h P1030875  The blocks with a groove in them are used around the perimeter. When the wire mesh is fixed it is put into the groove which is then filled with mortar to give a fox-proof joint.

The final delivery included concrete posts, a large roll of 2m high heavy-duty mesh, steel bars, fifty more blocks (for another job), more cement and more sand. The afternoon temperature was around 30°C so we usually took them iced water mid-afternoon, which was greatly appreciated.

l P1030893We already had on the quinta some long steel roof supports, roofing and metal doors from the garage we removed from beside the granite house four years ago, and metal doors we had saved from the old cowshed which we converted into our kitchen / living room.  João cut the metal and made roof beams from it, before fitting the corrugated cement roofing.j  welding door frameP1030935

He made new frames for the metal doors and fitted them. My design incorporates storage space at the back of the shack, for feed, and a space for storing gardening materials, of which we seem to have a lot. They put double doors on that too.

Finally they fitted the tough wire netting, which we hope will keep out the sacarrabos (Egyptian mongoose) too. It is the size of a large rat over two feet long, and bites chickens to drink their blood. It eats chicks, and can get through a flock in one night.

k fix wire  P1030906After two weeks, the shed (more of an hotel for chickens, really) was ready. The poultry can go to roost, go out, eat and lay eggs all in safety within the compound, without us needing to be there every day; the plan, though, is for them to be free-range.  However, chickens really like green vegetables – and there’s another job to follow  . . .

The chicken house

The chicken house

P1030719 lettuce 7 january cropWe love the climate here, with one reservation – the arid summer with its eight weeks of over-40° days. The winter is mild enough for us to have lettuce and radish fresh from the garden, and even to have an occasional barbecue. The evenings are cold, though, and we light the wood fire in the living room for warmth and comfort. Because we grow the fuel we are happy to use it!

P1030620 evening december in living room

In January we spent time on the internet finding some interesting heritage plants that would suit our climate and buying their seeds. I prepared a large vegetable plot and Janet sowed peas – hundreds of them. Our aim was to benefit from the rain and mild temperatures in February, so legumes could be harvested very early and the soil improved well before summer.

Janet and peas They all sprouted and now, in early April, the pods are maturing. We will soon have lots of peas in our freezer.

In mid February, whilst I was pruning olive trees, Janet sowed seeds for “sweet chocolate” peppers, early orange peppers, frilly chillies, Basque chillies and black Hungarian chillies into little compost cells, which then went into two heated propagators given to us by her sister Helen a few years ago.

real seeds bartlett chilliShe misted them daily with water, and these warmed seeds lived in the conservatory where, thanks to extra warmth from the plentiful sunshine, they germinated.

When I was in England Janet used some of her time to move the seedlings into pots and to sow more seeds into cells – golden cherry tomatoes, Latah bush tomatoes, purple tomatillos (these are not tomatoes at all), Tamra cucumbers and musk melon seeds. Again the plant incubators worked their magic and by the end of March she had potted nearly two hundred unusual plantlets. J repotting March14

With such an early start these plants should also be ready for harvesting before the heat of summer arrives. It’s exciting to look forward to trying these exotica on our plates ! We are already proud that we always have something home grown or home made with every meal, but goulash made with our Hungarian chillies, our orange peppers,  our Bulgarian yoghourt, our salad with our own olive oil, own bread, own wine . . . has got to be a winner !  We will definitely not be getting a cow for beef though – the water requirement for its fodder is too high, and we couldn’t leave it for even one day.


I visited England for three weeks in March whilst Janet stayed on the farm looking after our hundreds of onion plants, her seedlings, and Harry the Dog. Eighteen months ago doggo nearly died so she decided to change his regime to energise him. He has a high protein diet of meat or fish in the evening and for breakfast a three-egg omelette with meat scraps or bacon in it. He has unexpectedly kept going well, and is nearly fourteen now, the equivalent for a human of almost a hundred years old. He has lost his sight and hearing, and can only walk a few yards from home. He sleeps most of the time (as you see in the second picture, above) and seems happy. In exchange for the immense good he has done us our efforts now seem fair. I’m so glad we have lots of video of him leaping about and looning around when he was younger !


Coping with life on the quinta is becoming easier now we are getting used to the growing seasons, how to deal with our water supply, maintenance of agricultural machinery and so on. We are still learning a lot about managing our lives though, and becoming happier through it.

Sowing cereal in November

Sowing cereal in November

However since late February we have had neither UK satellite television nor radio; the broadcasts have been moved onto a new tighter beam satellite. Although the internet has provided a replacement, the quality certainly isn’t high. Thank goodness for YouTube, Top Documentaries and DVD boxed sets of series – Dalziel and Pascoe, Carnivale, Downton Abbey. Like thousands of ex-pats scattered through Iberia and France, we love the internet, as we can keep in contact with our families through voip (almost free phone calls), Skype (videophone on the big screen) and Facetime. We buy a lot of books and stuff from Amazon, who delivered everything to our door  – until 3rd April, when they announced that they would no longer do free delivery, but charge £6.50 postage on a paperback and more for everything else. This is on top of Portugal having no Kindle service and no Amazon music download facility. Apple offer a very stripped-down service without iTunes, and eBay pulled out of Portugal last year, although Spain is still supported. It seems that there is a concerted plan to ensure our country remains very much third-world, marginalised. This is mostly acceptable to us, but it is plain that Portugal is definitely being snubbed by the Eurocrats. Having said that, we are very happy to be living here!