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.

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?