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.

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November 2008.

The traditional hand-picking method requires a ripador, a small hand-held rake to comb the olives from the branches of the tree onto a net spread on the ground. After I returned from a visit to England in mid-November, we sought one each. None were available at the market, one shop had sold out, a second was out of stock, a third hadn’t had any for ages and as they are hand-made by oldsters they didn’t have a source. We abandoned the search and looked instead into pneumatic palmetas, mechanical clappers to shake the olives (drupes) from the twigs. We bought a good-sized net (Ecocampo recommended eight metres by eight) to spread under the tree, for catching the olives, and crates to carry them in. A week later we were “mooching” in the old town and found two little shops which merit the appellation of Emporium or Aladdin’s Cave; we bought sacks and when we asked about ripadores, they had them! The first time we opened out the net it was obviously far too big, so we swapped it for a 6x6m (20ft square), which was manageable for two of us.

Although it was cold in the morning, the sun always came out and warmed the day to a comfortable 13°-20°C. We were in the olival just after 9am, stripping the drupes then lifting the net to pour them into a crate. At the end of the day we put the olives through a winnowing machine to clean the leaves from the fruit – when we bought the quinta we paid an extra €500 for farm equipment; the only piece that was of any use or value turns out to be the winnowing machine. The Portuguese have no word for this important machine; to them all machines are “maquina”, which covers anything with moving parts. A hand drill, electric drill, pneumatic drill, cement sprayer, car engine, JCB digger, all are “maquina”. To name each, you have to say what the maquina is for.

selecting and cleaning olives for preserving.

Now, once the olives are cleaned and bagged, you take them to a lagar to be pressed for the oil. Our nearest mill, Orca, is closed again this year, and JJ the JCB man suggested one in Vale de Prazeres (Valley of Pleasures). We visited, and found a grim-looking old warehouse mounded six feet deep in tons of bagged olives, lying sullen and forlorn in a thin river of black juice which trickled into the ground outside. No sound of action. A bored bloke shuffled out to “greet” us, fag in mouth and wearing a beret and boiler suit, waiting for us to speak first. Disheartened, it wasn’t worth the effort so we hardly bothered, deciding that any other lagar would probably be better.

Our first sacks of olives

We  were told that 200kg is the minimum acceptable weight for pressing,  so we needed to gather more olives and weigh them;  back to Ecocampo for more sacks and crates. They had sold out of our size and the rest would not stack on ours – typical. However, they did have a weighing machine on sale, so we bought that. And in a typical serendipitous conversation we met Julio the olive farmer, who suggested a lagar called Loca, beyond Fundão, 40mins drive from the quinta.

Two days later, on the way back to our villa, we went to find Loca. There was a queue of fifteen trucks and tractors with trailers right along the access road and onto the main road. Good news though, we stopped to look round the place and met Julio again, a mutual pleasure.

Working most of each day, we harvested 201kg in one week. We took our olives to lagar Loca where we were sixth in line, and only had to wait two hours for our turn – we felt sorry for the farmers who were in the long queue a few days ago!

There we emptied them through what looked like a cattle grid in the floor. They were washed, weighed as 201kg (yeah!), and pressed; we were looking forward to having our own oil but discovered that we were in fact adding to this year’s stocks of “Português” oil and would get one tenth of the weight of our olives as communal oil !


This was a blow, as we had taken over the 200kg  minimum, and their own lab had assayed our olives  as 8.3kg of olives to give a litre of oil.  At least the “extra virgin cold pressed” is VERY fresh and delicious, full flavoured with a hint of lemon.

Sept08

The sun is beating down and the grape vines are loaded full with ripe fruit. The adega is where they are taken to be fermented into wine; the alcohol preserves the fruit flavours, vitamins and minerals for medicinal consumption during the long hard winter (yeah, yeah . . .). However, the builders are still on holiday and we have neither an adega nor equipment. We decide that we will have to forego this year’s harvest. But half the point of owning a Quinta is to make single-estate wine, and the thought of wasting this opportunity is unbearable, so although we are late in starting, we have to go out and buy a 280 litre dorna (60 gallon fermenting tank) – it is the biggest that we can fit in the car with the back seats removed. Friday is hot and sunny (like the previous hundred days) so we get out there with a couple of borrowed builders buckets and polythene bags, harvesting and enthusiastically showing each other what massive fruits / long bunches / lovely colour grapes we have, happily munching samples from our vines as we go.

We  reverse the car onto the land so we can put the full bags in ready for sorting back at home – yes, we did take the whole lot over the mountains and back to the villa, where we have clean dry space and indoor taps.  In the hallway at our villa, Janet trod the grapes in the traditional way. With slightly-warm grapes and fruit-mush squidging between her toes, she trampled them for over an hour before we could simply cover the tank with a table-cloth to keep out the fruit flies and leave it to ferment on natural yeast (one of our local ones rejoices in the Latin name for bee-anus mould, nice!). The sugar content, as it tasted very sweet, was high – 15%!!  That will give a medium wine, full-bodied, with maximum alcohol!

The next day, we visited the Agricultural Co-op in Lousã and bought a 120 litre barrel with a tap, and asked about buying wine yeast – nobody uses it, but the man said we should visit the chemist’s shop for tartaric acid and bisulphite. We did, and I asked the helpful girl at the counter for a hundred grams of tartaric acid. She went off to the back of the shop and then I realised that although I am used to cheap lab reagents, she may charge us a small fortune! She came back with a neat hand-cream container and the acid (powder) weighed out into it, sorry about the cost of the container – it is half of the £1.50 total – relief!

A few days later back we went over the mountains, on the way buying a 250 litre stainless steel tank for storing the wine in, and a couple of cestas (40 litre tubs) to harvest grapes into. A week later, after another treading we needed more fermenting vessels, so we bought a 65 litre and a 30 litre barrel, and transferred the first brew into the 120-litre barrel. Well, I thought, that should be easy, just siphon it off to rack it, but no, too many pips in the mash. OK, open the tap – no, it blocks up with the solids. Ah, blow them back up the pipe away from the tap – no, in come more solids when the tap is re-opened. So I eventually use a litre jug, carefully filling it to avoid collecting grape stalks and flesh, then pouring the liquid into the barrel through a filter in a funnel. Next year we will consider investing in an electric esmegadora, which squeezes the grapes and separates out most of the stalks and pips.

Whilst I went to see Samuel in Athens for six days, Janet and her mum went over for a third harvest, armed with new little secateurs just for harvesting bunches of grapes. When I returned there was wine fermenting in the two big barrels, in a swing-top bin and even in the mop bucket, a fridge full of concentrated grape juice, and Janet telling me that we have only gathered in one third of the crop! Goodness, whatever shall we do next year?!

Pic: nightfall, bunches of grapes hang over the patio.

Another week passes by and it is now October, back we go to the quinta – just look at all those grapes!! So we harvest more, bring them back over the mountains, buy another 65 barrel, tread them, and move all the brews into new vessels. The hall smells like a brewery. The remaining grapes on the vines are starting to turn into delicious sultanas and raisins now; it’s the end of the vendima. At last.