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.

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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

 

 

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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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwVTpiDmqig 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.

 

The vindima spreads over the country like a benign infection.

The symptoms are the appearance of white steel tanks and huge maroon plastic vats in all agricultural shops, and the sound of parties on Saturday after the harvest.

steel cuba in our favourite shop, Ecocampo

It began here in Estremadura and the Alentejo in early September, slowly spreading into cooler or higher zones. By mid-October the whole country is cleared of its vast cargo of grapes. In the north of the country they make deliciously fresh and lightly sparkling vinho verde (young wine) mostly white but red is made too.

However, most grapes will make full-bodied wine that will go directly into five-litre garrafões, and is so delicious that 95% of it will have been consumed before its first birthday, none will reach its second, whereas Port may reach a hundred years of age.

The last of our white grapes

Almost all rural dwellers make their own wine. Having made our red (see the  previous blog) we harvested and made a second brew of white, about 25 litres.

When our carpenter Zé (short for José) was measuring up for our front door, he asked us if we needed more grapes and at the time we said our dornas (fermenting vats) were full. Once our first hundred litres were out of the dorna we reconsidered and decided to keep the equipment in use whilst grapes are being harvested, so we visited Zé and he arranged for us to buy 350kg from his uncle (another Zé, the father of the young woman who first showed us this quinta). We were concerned that our car wouldn’t carry that many, and he said not to worry, they would deliver it for us, would next Wednesday be OK?

At 3pm on Wednesday a truck arrived and out jumped two Zé’s and a farm worker.  Zé the carpenter, who had previously inspected our adega, set to and within five minutes the esmegador was in action and they were unloading and processing the crates of grapes.

Farmer Zé pushed the fruit through the machine then showed me how to calculate the amount of water (60 litres!) needed to bring the sweetness down to the correct level as it was far too high to ferment out. An hour later we were washing down the esmegador, having 2/3 filled two dornas with 420kg of crushed grapes. The stalks, which make the wine bitter, are thrown out by the esmegador and we put them into our compost heaps.

.                  .                   .                   .                   .                   .                   .                   .        .        On Friday the surface of both dornas was a dense bubbling mass of grapes; the Portuguese use the same word for fermenting and boiling, a ferver, because when it is stirred the must looks and sounds like it is boiling. Janet assumed the rôle of winemaker, pushing down the five-inch thick crust of grapes into the must three times daily, stirring it to get more colour and flavour from the grape skins and raisins, release the carbon dioxide to encourage faster fermenting.  The process is vigorous at the temperatures we have here – over 30°C in the day and around twenty at night. The dorna is warm to touch because the process generates heat too. The adega smells of sweet grape juice, yeast and wine, despite having the air flowing through the shutters and an open door.

Taking the wine off its yeast

I decided it was time to second-rack the first wine (take the wine off the yeast) from one 100 litre plastic barrel to another, which we quickly filled to the brim.

We moved on to first-rack the large-scale brew, which was now eight days into fermentation. On our first batch ten days earlier we were lucky enough to open the tap at the base of the dorna and out came half-done wine with no solids, so we did the same again.  A little dribbled out then it stopped. I poked a stick up the clogged tap-hole and encountered no filter-basket beyond.

first rack

After washing my arms I rummaged in the must, shoulder-deep, and discovered that we/they had forgotten to put the filter on the back of the tap. Twenty minutes later it had proved impossible to do it now. However, during last week I’d made for us a filter-tube similar to that which farmer Zé had used to withdraw a clear sample from the must, and had obtained a pump and tubing, so we could get on with the racking anyway, albeit more slowly.

It took all afternoon until 7pm to do the job, but we filled our 250-litre stainless steel cuba full of wine, belatedly fitted the filters to the taps, and covered the leftover solids to drain overnight.

Janet appreciates the value of wine so the next day she drained every last drop from the solids, extracting another twenty litres plus a bottle for us to drink straight away! Putting an ear to the cuba you can hear all the bubbly fermentation continuing steadily.

Next blog – what we did with the remaining solids – magic !

It’s the most important day of the year on the quinta. The grapes are ripe and it’s time to make wine. It’s a lovely job, handling those luscious heavy bunches of grapes that took three pruning sessions and lots of sunshine and hand-watering to produce.

I wanted to start on the first of September but there was a thunderstorm the night before and the grapes needed to thoroughly dry before we picked them. Also, according to biodynamic methods or phases of the moon (last quarter, when the sap is falling) now is the best time to harvest. Our land is hotter than most of Central Portugal, so we’re the first to have our vindima. In Coimbra they pick in mid-October! We made a good start and by lunchtime had picked two hundred litres of grapes. It was 34°C in the shade but we worked in full sun – hot!

We looked at the chunky bunches of grapes then walked around the un-picked vines to estimate our crop. The 280ℓ dorna looked far too small for it all, and we decided to go and buy another, slightly larger. We drove to Fundão and bought some more crates to place the picked bunches of grapes into, and our friends at Remagril supplied us with a 350ℓ dorna.

Janet with esmegador

Two years ago Janet trod our grapes, and spent many hours removing the stalks and squidging by hand all the grapes that had escaped her toes. This took over ten hours, helped by her mum who was staying with us at the time. When she saw an esmegador she wanted one! It is like an electric mangle for crushing grapes, with a system for separating the stalks out.  Our helpful assistant was rather surprised that both of these very large items would fit into the car.

Back at the quinta we managed to lift the esmegador onto the new dorna and to transfer the grapes through it.  This brilliant piece of kit squidged every grape, letting no stalks through and all 200ℓ were done in an hour including clean-up time.

Why is it that it takes hours to peel and core pears? On 1st September we spent a whole day picking the rest of the pears, preparing them, preserving some in sugar(five hours cooking) and making pear chutney with the remaining three pounds (three hours cooking).

Nearly two years ago in January a two-week-long freeze almost killed our fig trees. Last summer I cut away a large amount of remaining dead wood, which was over half of every tree. In April I pruned each tree a little more, and cleared the ground around eight previously-hidden trees. Now we have a bumper crop of figs – as of 7th Sept it was 58Kg, with well under half harvested.

Unfortunately they coincide with the vindima, and we have decided the wine is more important than fig chutney. Having said that, after several days work related to wine we had two days of making fig, pear and Port wine chutney. In this way we are able to handle some of our surplus, and next year we’ll be better at it.  The problem is, what to do with hundreds of kilos of delicious fresh figs. I did my best, eating them steadily whilst harvesting. We’re now sun-drying our second 25Kg load. Over the weekend I developed toothache and on Wednesday had to go to the dentist. After discussing what could have caused this sudden onset of pain she was certain it was caused by eating too many figs! The sweet juice gets into any slight crack in fillings and causes pain, she said, after showing me the X-ray of where the problem was.

She said the problem is unusual but not unknown, especially if one’s diet is not sweet normally. Then she drilled and filled to cure it. So now it’s less fresh figs for me – I confess, I was on at least forty an hour for two whole mornings! They are not a laxative, either, take it from a reformed fig addict. For that, eat ripe elderberries – intense delicious flavour fresh or cooked, gorgeous as a sauce with ice cream, but more than one bowlful is purgative. We know, we used to take the kids foraging for them in autumn, to make wine. Janet once over-indulged when she couldn’t resist them whilst picking!

I found my limit for grapes too –  only one 1½lb bunch !

We sleep on top of the bedclothes because it’s too hot. In the coolest part of the night, pre-dawn, it’s 25°C. The day quickly heats up. By 2pm it is often over 40° (104°F) in the shade; add 5° to this in the sun.  It is unwise to work in the afternoon, even in the shade. The temperature doesn’t drop below 35° until an hour before sunset, so our working day in August is fairly short.

All our fruit is exposed to the full sun, so it’s hotter than we are when we pick it – tomatoes, melons, sweet peppers, pears, cucumber, all hot.

With our steady supply of tomatoes, peppers and cucumber Janet makes gazpacho (a Spanish soup) and has to add ice cubes in the blender – a bit different from simmering a soup!

We love melon, and have the wonderful privilege of eating it chilled and very fresh, floral aromatic and sooo refreshing in hot dry evenings. They are just coming into their own and we will soon be eating half a melon a day! We have four varieties so we hope to avoid getting bored of them. Janet makes great fruit smoothies so melon juice will probably appear in those for a while.

The first larger-scale crop came from our pear trees. After finding a promising recipe for preserving pears on the internet, I picked twenty “Seckel” and carefully peeled them. Some had a worm in, so I saved what was good and picked a dozen more, peeled and recovered what I could then weighed them – only three pounds and the recipe specified four, no less. So I did twenty more, keeping the peeled pears in brine so they wouldn’t oxidise. It was now lunchtime, and it had taken two hours just to prepare the pears! Cut a long story short, at 9pm (!) I had three 1lb jars of Belgian pears – delicious, but taking a whole day . . . ? !

The next day I started much earlier, with thirty Bartlett pears. They were tastier but less intact, and I needed thirty more. Again, it was after lunch before I could start cooking them. This time I produced four jars of delicious conserve, and under half of our pears used.

Butternut squashes are supposed to be harvested in September but ours looked ready. I tried one, roasted; it was delicious! Janet gathered the ripe ones – thirty of them weighing 22Kg, which are now in the adega (wine cellar), with more to come. If we eat one roasted every week we’ll eat the last ones next May!

A fair proportion of the figs were ready to pick and we spent most of a morning climbing up and down a ladder, gathering twelve kilos.

Janet arranged them to sun-dry on a trestle table made from one of the former metal doors of the house. There are several pleasures in this job, apart from the satisfaction of having lots of “stored sunshine” for the winter. One is munching the live green figs straight from the tree – yummy! The second is known only to fig-pickers.

A few figs, when absolutely ripe, exude a drop of honey-like sap from their base. This evaporates to a glassy droplet of natural mildly fig-like caramel which tastes gorgeous. This droplet dries off in under one day, so it can’t be saved – it has to be savoured when it is found. This slows my harvesting down but I work in a blissed-out leisurely manner in the hot sun. Three days later many more figs were ripe so we harvested another thirteen kilos. There are probably twenty kilos more to ripen and pick, so another day is set aside for them.

Many bunches of grapes look ripe to me, which may mean it’s a vindima (grape harvest) soon. This is one of the highlights of the year. Our tractor mechanic, Sr Antonio, asked us if we would help him with his harvest – he has over four acres of productive vines to do. There will be lots of other folk helping too, working all one weekend. It will be interesting to work in a gang and to learn how the locals do it.