March2010.

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.

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Feb/March 2010

Ian’s departure coincided with the end of good weather; the temperature plummeted and snow arrived as we left the farm on Sunday. In this area it is unusual for snow to settle and we saw the rare sight of countless pruned olive trees plastered with snow as we crossed the mountains.

Clearly the builders could not work outdoors in snow and icy winds on Monday, and Tuesday was a public holiday, Carnaval.  We could relax for a week. However, our “down time” only lasted a short while because on that Friday afternoon Jacinto rang us to ask if we could come back as some decisions needed to be made. We went to bed early that night and started out at dawn the next day, arriving mid-morning on Saturday 20th.

We had a shock – the granite pillars were in place, and they were not what I’d expected. My intention was for rustic 20cm rough-faced square pillars but what I got was modern 30cm deeply chamfered, with 35cm square tops and bottoms, each weighing over half a ton. They had rolled them from the delivery lorry to the extension and lifted just the tops into place, finally levering in the bottoms. Smart! The scaffolding had gone, the roof of the extension was done, the interior of the barn was clear of Acro props and most of the boulders cleared out. They were removing the old patio and levelling it as a new internal floor. What height should the conservatory walls be? On Monday they would open a doorway between the former barn and the tiled half of the house and they needed to know exactly where it should it be.

As promised, on Monday the new doorway was hacked out, leaving Ian’s former abode covered in boulders and dust, with ample fresh air. Rain was being driven across the farm by a cold wind, and with five window holes in three walls, even indoors was cold and windy. Jacinto, who at some time in the past has run a restaurant, lit a fire in the hearth and by lunchtime had used it to cook BBQ beef (marinated in red wine overnight) for his men! They welcomed his attempt to make the place warm too, as they settled beside the blaze for a few minutes before working right through until six in the evening re-pointing the barn walls.

New walls were built in the next two days, to create a kitchen/living room, a bathroom and a large entrance hall. Mário dug out the debris ready for the arrival of the canalisador (electrician cum plumber). He arrived on Friday with two young men, and with Mário labouring they put in all the water pipes and boxes and channels ready to do the wiring on Monday.

And what of farming? The picture above shows the view of our waterlogged west vineyard from the overflowing storage tank beside our house. Rainfall in the last ten days of February was very high reaching a record nine inches (22cm). Over the last ten years the month’s average for February was 7cm so we’ve had three times the normal amount. I have not taken the tractor from its garage because the the tyres would leave deep tracks in the cereal fields, compacting the land. I have stripped out the irrigation from the veg garden ready to rotovate it, and am waiting for a dry spell now.

March. The rain caused the builders to realise that since the back of the house is interred a metre deep it would be wise to separate the earth from the stone wall with a thick plastic sheet and a drainage pipe. Once again JJ the JCB man was summoned. He arrived on the first dry day in three weeks which was sunny and spring-like, everyone on site whistling their own tune whilst the birds did the same.

He started to dig a trench for a gas pipe to connect the gas cylinders beside the barracão to the house. As he took out the third bucketful, the cement mixer stopped, the lights went out, the hammer drill stopped, all went silent. The builders had laid the electricity cable to the house only four inches deep, exactly where JJ was putting the gas pipe and he had cut the earth line and tripped out the power – oops!

JJ’s other excavations were a wide trench around the back and side of the house and a narrow trench for me to install a drainage pipe from the barracão gutter to a soakaway in some trees near to the house.  A good length of drainage tube was required so the next day we bought nine metres (30 feet) in Fundão. However it rained again and contrary to my hopes, the soil became very soggy, very quickly.

The tubing had to be laid and the hole covered over so I donned a “waterproof” (which I discovered was not) and got on with the job. My wellies had been stored in the barn and mice seem to like snacking on Dunlop boots so I had to wear my work boots. The mud in my trench was above ankle depth so I soon had wet feet in addition to a wet back. I looked for a rain hat but found only a cotton peaked cap. When I wore it right way round I was unable to see up to where the piles of earth were so I had to wear it back-to-front after the style of Eminem. It did not keep off the rain for long; my gloves quickly became sodden, then my trouser legs. I used my tractor to cover the tube with earth and had to keep getting on and off to check the tube was in place. The rain collects in the seat so when you sit down again, the cold rainwater soaks in and you get “tractor bum”, which is rather unpleasant.

Just as I finished at 4.30 in the low light and rain, the gas man arrived a day late. Full of energy he greeted us; Janet was definitely frosty and when he saw the moat that was his workplace he asked if I have any wellies. In my wet state I clearly had not. Janet reminded him that, had he arrived yesterday as he said he would, he would have worked in the sunshine. Nevertheless he vigorously drilled through the two-foot stone wall and got on with laying the pipe. Unperturbed by the electrical supply to the house looping over the gas pipe,  he brazed the new pipe to the connection (which he had left available a year ago), finished off in the house and drove away before dark, leaving me to close the trench with my puddle-seated tractor.

The gas line hung like a sad bridge over the moat whose purpose is to keep the house dry.  Three days later the rain cleared and two days after that, the plastic sheet and tubing were laid around half of the house. The old garage still occupies the other half of the plastic-clad wall and it is full of the builders’ materials. When we demolish it the job can be finished but for now there is much to do in the house.

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?



Aug 08-Feb 2009

In June 2008 the builders had excavated some of the site, and put foundations in the wrong place (they said it looked OK). Next they dug out more earth (two feet deeper, as agreed with our architect) and put the foundations in the right place . The original sketch had been for a 5m by 16m structure to include a single bedroom apartment, an adega (a room for making and storing wine) and a garage for the tractor. But when I drew detailed plans it quickly became clear that any apartment needed to be bigger than I’d allowed, so we made the building longer. In discussing the roof structure with José, I pointed out that a pillar inside the car port would not be convenient; he agreed to make the building longer and suggested enclosing the car port, requiring even longer foundations. They started building in late July, then promptly stopped as August is a month’s holiday.

The building method here is different from that in the UK; they make a timber mould of the whole structure, put steel reinforcements in the mould, then fill it with concrete and leave it a few days. After removing the mould, they lay breeze blocks to fill the gaps. If you (the bricklayer) don’t look carefully at the plans, you end up with a concrete pillar where the bedroom window should be, so you make the window where it will fit. Then the boss (me) comes and points out that the built-in wardrobe has to go there, so you have to brick up the hole and make another where he will accept a window. And so on.


We sometimes ate a barbecue lunch on the patio with the builders – in close-up Adelino, José and Mario. Happy days!  They would bring a five-litre carafe of wine made by a friend or relative, and we would all drink some and rate it. On the left is the boss of the business, Jacinto (Hyacinth)! Not really, a jacint is a hard semi-precious stone.


Delivery of polystyrene roof insulation.

What started as a tractor shed became a building with a double-slope roof, double garage, and double-insulated apartment.

The bathroom materials were easy to choose – we went into Spain and in a town called Valverde del Fresno (green vale of the Ash tree) we ordered lovely warm beige kitchen tiles, beige and green for the bathroom, and an ivory bathroom suite; Luís took us out for coffee at a café with a green shaded terrace.  All was tiled by the end of November, but the bath wasn’t delivered until January.

The kitchen corner in mid October, late November, and end of Jan09.

José made beautiful ceilings in all three rooms of the apartment.

Unlike in the UK, water doesn’t just arrive in the house. Ours comes from the dual boreholes system that we installed over a period of six months last year. It is soft water, untreated, straight from the rock. It is stored in a 1000ℓ (220 gallons, one metric ton) tank in the loft. It has to be, as the supply is only 80ℓ per hour. However, when we first tried the bathroom tap the flow rate was too low; the pvc pipes used are less than 1/2” internal diameter, so we had to go and buy a pump to increase the pressure. Off to Fundão where we discovered a shop where a man would come out to advise us.

The choice was a €200 basic pump where the pressure would vary a lot, or a €660 stainless pump with five turbines. In due course the man arrived at the quinta in a brand new BMW. Janet rang the builder (as we arranged) so he could come over and discuss what would be best. The guy made it clear that we needed the expensive pump, and if it were his place he would extend our system with an extra tank in the roof and a split irrigation tank for the garden, and so on. He would do an estimate for us, to include the extra materials and labour. Then the builder arrived to discuss our needs. The water man spent two minutes saying it was all in hand and ten minutes admiring the builders new lorry before zooming away in a cloud of dust. José said “I don’t like him.” and advised us to look around and get other prices. The next day we visited one of our tractor shops and they helped us choose a good system – total price €200 complete, and José’s man installed it.

So there we leave the apartment, lacking windows and doors, unfurnished but looking promising, and bearing little resemblance to the tractor shed and simple bedroom and bathroom that was planned. You’ll see in the next blog how it looks when its done J

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.

June 2008

We arrived at the quinta last week to find that our builders had started working for us; JJ the JCB man had excavated the area where we intend to build a barracão (apartment and garages).  However, the levels were not low enough, and a metre out of position. I rang them, and they came over straight away. They agreed to dig the site a foot deeper and put the foundations where I want the building !

In early January there had been a week of bitterly low temperature, which killed most of the orange trees in our area. It seemed to me a good idea to discover which of ours had survived, then to prune them back hard and reshape them.  The orange is a very rewarding tree, being evergreen, with edible pretty fruits in winter, and having fragrant creamy white flowers in spring. Sometimes the fruits and flowers are on the tree together, a feast for the senses!

First two pics show a “before” and “after” pruning a surviving orange tree.

We spent several days digging and planting the veg garden, including aubergine plants from the market, and giving some olive trees a long-overdue treat.

Pic: manuring olive trees

The farm always sounds lovely, with the noise of frogs all night (many live in our water storage tank and others in our charcas nearby), birdsong all day, and insects chirping all the time. We have visitors -the praying mantis was an unwelcome guest in our kitchen, and a holidaymaking   “wild turtle” (a mystery how it arrived) cruises around on a cork raft in the tank, sunbathing !

We have two beehives, but have yet to contact the local beekeeper . . .

The wildflowers are very pretty at the moment, and they are different every month; in April we had acres of purple wild lavender near the woods, this month the fields and olivals are carpeted in yellow and white flowers, with pink foxgloves in the granite rocks.

As for using the fields for crops, I missed the early growing season because of pruning olive trees – now 150 are done (thanks to our friend Ian for help, encouragement, company and being SO adaptable !). The late growing season starts soon, and I think I’ll be able to catch that. I have to learn to plough. The question is, what to grow? And why are we growing it? Although we have no farm animals yet, we made first enquiries about ducks last week. They need a raft with a house on it, floating in the centre of a charca, so they can sleep in safety from any foxes!

We are back at the villa now the weather is wet, and will stay here for a week before our next wave of visitors arrives.  Showers are forecast all week, most unseasonal but great for our seedlings.

As for the barracão and the veg garden, both are unfinished “work in progress” . . .

Having lined two of the three boreholes, the next stage was to raise the water to the surface, and bring it to a place where it is useful. One borehole would supply the house itself, and the other borehole would fill the south charca (storage pond) nearer to the house for later use in irrigation. It also has connections to the spring, to the orange orchard/vineyard, and to the tank near the house. We had two estimates for the project of bringing power and water to the house, and decided on a flexible system in which both boreholes can supply domestic water, and the lower (irrigation) borehole is pumped by a solar photovoltaic system. This means that on sunny days when water is most needed, the sun would pump it out of the ground.

Paulo the engineer and I got on well together, and he quickly understood what was needed.  In April 08, as soon as the weather was dry they started work on the 4feet-deep trench linking the lower furo (borehole) and the electric connection board to the house over 200 metres away.

On the satellite photo the red line denotes the limits of our land, green lines are the perimeter of olive grove (olival) areas, and orange is a vineyard with orange trees.  The dark yellow line is for electricity, and blue for the water pipe.

At the same time he put a mains electricity water-pump into the domestic borehole, and linked both lines in the garage via an H- system. This should allow us to choose either of the boreholes to supply the house.  Every day, he brought a big bag of bread rolls, some beers and meat to barbecue; Janet made salad and I cooked the sausages and steaks for lunch, which we all ate together on the patio in the sunshine.

On the second day of work (Friday), they arrived before 8am and asked if they could use my tractor to fill in the trench and level the ground as the tubing was laid. They clearly enjoyed working for us, carrying on into the dark, and finishing at 9pm – so much for the week-end starting on Friday lunchtime!

Lowering the pump, its water-level sensors and electrical supply line into the 100metres deep well.

They worked all day Saturday and two hours on Sunday morning too. In return for the loan of my tractor, they wired lights and a power point into the house. The end of an era; until now, lighting was by candles, storm lamp and an Aladdin No23 paraffin lamp -a luxury to read by, but so much work . . .

View northwards to the house, all the tubes buried and trench filled.

By Tuesday the guys had connected both the water and electrical systems, and we now have our own granite-filtered water from the house furo, supplied to a tap in the garage. The granite house has no plumbing so we have to go to the garage for water, which is an improvement on trailing into the village with two ten-litre containers and filling them at the village hand pump.  At this stage (May08) the lower furo still has no pump.