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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19July09

We have made friends with João who works in Regacentro where we buy our irrigation parts. That’s him in the red t-shirt. One day he mentioned that he has eight Lusitano horses on his quinta. I told him I used to ride every week during my late teens, and he wants us to go and ride together sometime. Well, in early July we were buying more watery bits and he invited us to a meeting he organised for 19th July, “A Ride through the Watermelon Fields”.

We arose at 6.15 that Sunday morning and drove to Idanha a Nova for the appointed hour to find that as usual in Portugal, registration at 7.30a.m. was only a guideline. Nothing really happened until 9am. Forty or so horses had been brought from quintas in Guimarães, Northern Portugal and were assembled in a large walled field near the old town centre. Most of the owners had brought their modern carriages the like of which I had never seen – grey pneumatic tyres on alloy wheels, disc brakes all round, lightweight tube frames with ball race bearings for the shaft to couple the horses, all beautifully polished.

The horses were groomed, pedicured, and then harnessed to the carriages ready for the parade through the old town scheduled for 9am. João arranged for us to ride in a friend’s carriage. It was great, riding in procession through the old cobbled streets, clattering hooves, jingling bells on the tack of some proud horses, people waving and taking pictures. Less fun for the horses was the occasional steep cobbled hill, where the passengers had to dismount and the driver cracked his whip to “encourage” the teams to canter up – sparks from their horseshoes and the smell of singed hooves upon stone.

Then a leisurely trot into the sun-baked granite countryside; it seemed just like being in a scene from a western. The guys riding horses alone were dressed for the part, with boots, full leather chaps and cowboy hats. One even galloped into a field and rounded up two frightened calves with their bemused and unenthusiastic bovine mums. Were we all impressed?  Erm . . .

Shortly before noon we halted for breakfast at a large disused quinta. The support wagons (sadly unlike those from the westerns, covered and drawn by four big steeds, more like a council water lorry and a 4×4) arrived and laid up two big tables with tablecloths, thick chunks of bread, cheese and chourição (big version of chouriço), water and cold lager, sponge cake and fruit but NO WATERMELON! But hey, it did taste good.

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The horses and the passengers were hot, it was now nearly 40°C (100°F in old money) as we moved on through parched fields; we felt like  pioneers in our thirty-carriage long wagon train.

Eventually we arrived in Ladoeiro at the height of the watermelon festival. It was a little less exciting than you would imagine. Really. But the good bit was there were fifteen producers all selling watermelons. Just melons. The first ones we had seen all day, on our trek through the melon fields. Janet and I munched and slurped a four kilo (that is big!) specimen between us – we were hungry and very thirsty.

We decided to take home another smaller watermelon. The stallholder’s electronic scales didn’t work, so she weighed it on a balance just like the one we use for olives – 150kilos in 1kg divisions. Well, no surprise, the scales didn’t register one melon so she added a second one. Aha! They weigh a kilo now, so here you are, 25cents (20p the two)!! At home we weighed them, just under 5kg (5lb each one). Isn’t modern technology a blessing?