In January 2016 I realised that there was far too much olive pruning for me to tackle alone when there’s so much other work to do, so I hired a team of three men for a few days to do two of my groves, about two hundred and fifty trees. I left them to make a good start and went to check them after four hours. I was very concerned that their version of pruning involved the use of a chainsaw and no ladder, but didn’t want to tell them how to do their job. By lunchtime I could stay away no longer. Their boss told me that there was much dead wood in the trees because of drought over the last two years, and removing it is much faster with a chain saw.  P1020297But my pride-and-joy West Olival has been skeletised and reduced from trees over four metres high and five wide to small 2½ metre trees. I found this very discouraging, as it will take many years for the trees to regain their form and to yield olives in harvestable quantities. I did take one of the workers aside and have him conventionally prune twenty trees with a hand saw as I do, at the normal rate of over an hour per tree. The South olival remains pruned only by me! IMG_1652

It was last May whilst clearing and burning the debris – a bonfire six feet tall onto which I continuously drag and throw branches for several hours- from this “service” that I had a second heart attack brought on by strenuous work in strong sunshine, hot protective clothing and great heat from the fire. Long story short, four months recovery with the help of Janet and without the help of doctors, and I’m back on form now weighing thirteen kilos less. I had to put the quinta onto maintenance mode and only did what was absolutely necessary (hence the lack of blogging).

With no Harry Dog depending on us now, we began to go on holidays, Madrid and Barcelona in June,  then holidays with our family and lots of trips out. During the early summer I could work only slowly, tying the vines to wires and pruning them. It took weeks longer than before, because with my now underpowered body thermostat I could not work in the heat for very long.P1010376

From early July to late September there was no rain at all and half of the local vineyards had no grape harvest. We had to throw away over half the crop as it was dried out. But because my vineyards are irrigated we did have some usable bunches of grapes, about 450kg, which contained less juice than usual but more concentrated and in some cases, sweeter.P1010380

Pictured left – dried-out grapes, the effect of drought.  Pictured right, the saccharometer reading for red grape juice in the vineyard, September 2016.  IMG_1237 high sacc readingThe usual initial Specific Gravity of the grape juice at the start of fermentation should be about 1.085 in order to ferment out all the fruit sugars, so our grape juice with 27% sugar needed diluting a fair bit! It eventually yielded 150ℓ red wine and 35ℓ of white. After the wine was made my sister and her husband came to stay for a week – we cruised up the Douro over the weekend – and once the wine was racked in early October we went on holiday to Madeira, a sunshine holiday with Laura and our grandsons.

So now that I am feeling well it’s back to blogging and to working the quinta !

12 January, Janet picking oranges

We have enjoyed the warmest January of our lives, full sun almost every day and only three days when it rained a little. Nice enough for me to sunbathe after lunch several times!

Six of the seven orange trees which I resurrected two years ago are bearing good fruit now, so we have the privilege of squeezing fresh orange juice in midwinter again.

When we bought the quinta four years ago, one of the first jobs I did was to start pruning the olive trees. They are naughty trees. They try to become a bush by putting out shoots at their base and under the branches, and grow vertically strongly.

 However none of this is fruiting wood so it has to be removed before the tree becomes very messy, tall and unproductive. To me, a really good, easily harvested tree is doughnut-shaped. The lower limit is the height a goat can reach when standing on its hind legs, and the highest point is my reach from seven feet up a ladder.

 Once the olive harvest is over and the oil is pressed it is time to begin pruning them. It takes me over an hour to prune one tree. I work for five hours a day in January, which means it takes more than the whole month to do one-third of the 340 trees on the farm.

Over the last three years all the trees on the quinta have been thoroughly pruned once and trimmed later whenever time became available. The once-neglected lanky sixteen-foot plants are now somewhat shorter, wider and more sparse.

It is said that a bird can fly straight through a well-pruned olive tree. As this has happened whilst I’ve been pruning I assume my trees are fine now; my newly-pruned trees are nine feet tall with an open centre. A year later the evergreen olive will have bushed out to form a doughnut shape and will fruit on the new growth.

Three times in the past week different locals – unconnected – have said my pruning is nearly professional or that I really know how to prune well, so I’m very happy to have passed the local street-cred test!

Janet picking peppers, 11th Nov.

 

This month the weather has been ideal for clearing the veg garden and gathering the olives. The sun has shone all day every day, with temperatures rising from eight degrees at 8am to twenty from noon until 5pm, sunset. There were only three days of rain.

 

 

 

Rained off, looking from the kitchen window across to the next tree to work on at the far left.

We generally take the tractor to the olive trees around 8.30 and are sawing out branches and combing the olives from the tree shortly thereafter. It is unhurried work and, with birdsong in the morning sun, very pleasant. We lay a green woven groundsheet on the earth to catch the olives as we strip them from the tree with a small hand rake, then we gather up the sheet and pour the olives into a plastic crate. Every three days we aim to prune seven trees and harvest seven crates of fruit, which clean up at about 100 kilos.

 During pruning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the fourth day I slowly pour the olives into a winnowing machine whilst Janet turns the handle. This shakes them through a wire mesh at the front where the leaves are blown off the mesh by wind created from four rotating blades inside the drum of the machine. The olives roll down a chute into the red barrow placed below it.

We thought we were working at a reasonable rate until we learned that a local team of four gathers that much in one afternoon. They use a machine which resembles a mechanised pair of clapping hands on a pole.

 

 

 

Commercially a tractor is used which shakes the tree and catches the falling olives in a large net which it spreads around the tree trunk. It strips a tree every five minutes, yielding about 150 kilos in an hour although no pruning is done.

We have visited our local olive press which has been closed for several years and is due to reopen next week. They require a minimum of 350 kilos for a single quinta pressing (olives from just one farm) so we are storing our olives in spring water until we have collected enough to produce our own oil straight from the press.

The veg garden has been stripped of its drip irrigation, the vines have shed most of their leaves so are now ready for pruning, and the cooling breeze from the Serra da Estrela is now a less welcome chilly wind. Winter is here.

It would be nice to sit in our lovely granite house, shut the doors and light the fire, and settle in. But this will not be yet. To cut a very long story short, it took from May to October, six months, of pushing carpenters to get two external oak doors made and fitted.

Pic: the front door and its frame in hallway prior to fitting,  Zé discussing the hinges with Clive.

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In order to fit security shutters as the French do I had to make the brackets myself, as we were unable to find them in any shop – my dad, who worked with metal all his life, would have been proud of me!

The finished doors with their secure shutters look lovely and we’re very pleased with them. Next we need internal doors.  The cost of buying them ready-made from a supplier and finishing them ourselves is not far off the cost of having Zé the carpenter make tham, so we will take the easy (?) route and have now asked  him to estimate the cost of making and fitting five internal doors; we called in to his workshop and he said he will start on them “next year”!

Pic: 140 kilos of olives for winnowing with the hand-powered machine. I tip the olives into the top and Janet cranks the handle round. In the cylinder are eight blades which whirl to blow the olive leaves off the fruit, which is shaken through a moving riddle onto the sloping chute and into the red collector on the floor.

We harvested the olives from 23 trees in five days at the end of November, and after cleaning them in our winnowing machine we took 222 kilos of olives to the lagar (place where the olives are crushed with big millstones to extract the oil) on Friday afternoon. Once they were delivered and weighed we were given a receipt and told that we should return in a week when our olives had been assayed for their oil content and enough of the new oil would be pressed for distribution. Rain started that evening and we had to wait a week until the rain cleared before it was safe to recommence the harvest.

Pic: rained off, leaving the prunings in lines ready for chopping into a mulch with the brushcutter on the back of my tractor.

Late November’s week of snow in the UK was a belt of rain in Portugal, and when it passed the clear skies, high light levels and sunny weather returned. We picked olives while the sun shone, and after five days picking from nine in the morning until dusk we had harvested another 200 kilos.

We winnowed them as the sun set, and the next day loaded them into the car and drove twenty miles to the lagar. 

Central and southern Portugal are clad in olive trees. Formerly there was a lagar in every village (ours had one, and the next was three miles away) and the olives were taken there in donkey-drawn carts to be pressed. Nowadays most have had to close because of EEC regulations (although the oil was always of top quality as it is a staple food, produced without chemical treatments). Consequently most home producers arrange for a friend with a pickup truck to take their olives to one of the few remaining lagars up to twenty five miles away. Since the catchment areas have increased from maybe ten square miles to six hundred, the pressure on them has also increased at least fifty-fold. Furthermore, it is uneconomical for these large lagars to press small loads so they set a guideline minimum of 200 kilos delivered. The little old ladies who are subsistence farming therefore have to use the service of some local farmer who will aggregate their crops into one load and deal with it.

Pic: our washed olives conveyed for weighing, see blog from Dec 08.

The queue for pressing was long, so we went food shopping and had an early lunch before returning and joining the line of lorries, pickup trucks and tractors with trailers. After several hours we learned that the lagar was overwhelmed with olives and was struggling to deal with the tonnages arriving. The sun set and the temperature began to drop. We were twenty-third in the line on arrival and could only move with it. We were cold and hungry (early lunch!) and slowly the line advanced. At 7.30 we passed through the yard gates where there were still eight vehicles in front of us.

The lagar had devised a method of simply washing and weighing half the clients’ loads whilst processing the other clients’ olives. Ours were not processed, and we were given a second receipt to reclaim in oil in a week. We left the lagar shortly before 10pm, chilled to the marrow and beyond hunger.

The UK was paralysed with snow in the first half of January, while Portugal had lots of rain. Our quinta occupies fourteen hectares on the south-facing slope of a hillside, and the lower half of the quinta was waterlogged, so when our friend Ian arrived in late January for an extended working holiday we began pruning the olive trees in the upper olival, which is set in a shallow valley near the top of our land.  I have not pruned this olival until now because it is well out of sight therefore of low priority and there is an uphill walk along a winding path to get there. It has over eighty trees in it which have been neglected for at least seven years. It takes an hour to prune a tree, so it is a big undertaking when there are two hundred other olive trees to maintain and five hundred vines to clip.

Ian in tree, Clive on ground.

We made a flying start and the weather improved every day, with plenty of sunshine. The work is time-consuming but satisfying, and that little valley is a lovely environment, secluded and pretty, surrounded by scrubby broom, pine trees and short mountain oaks. Its upper sunlit boundary has large granite boulders, which lend a semblance of wilderness to the place. It is home to tens of songbirds, rabbits and a family of wild boar, who leave prints all over the ground but are timid; they can smell a human from 400yards. Hunting is legal on all farmland and hunters seem to love ours, judging from the tens of spent cartridges I find around. Every Sunday we are woken by the sound of shotguns, which are the modern blunderbuss. Sadly, a shotgun sprays out a cloud of hundreds of small lead balls and even a hunter’s bad aim may well include the unlucky target. Ian reckons it would be much fairer if the birds had guns too.

Ian under olive tree, January 2010

On Friday 22nd January our builders arrived with a revised lower estimate for making window holes and a conservatory roof on our granite farmhouse; we asked them to go ahead with the work. They started on the following Monday, which was very sunny and warm, and cooked a barbecue at lunchtime for us all. They were clearly glad to be back!

Ian, Jacinto, José, Jorge, Mário, Adelino, Janet.

For the next week Ian needed no alarm clock because the builders started at 8am, hammering into the stone walls, removing huge boulders and shoring up the holes with planks and Acro props.

Adelino making a window

The window opening half-done. The stone in the centre runs the full 60cm (2 feet) thickness of the wall. The boulders securing the roof are held up with Acro props. Some of these stones were too heavy for three men to support, and had to be broken in order to take them out of the house.

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Meanwhile, we were able to work for most of every day in warm sunshine, enjoying the spring birdsong.

Top olival after pruning, looking south.

After five days we had completely deep-pruned the entire upper olival. There were big piles of prunings between each group of three or four trees, containing our harvest of poles and stakes for transplanting trees and thick sticks for row markers in the vegetable garden. Pics:  The windowless barn (composite pic) with its earth floor and manger across the back; the black hoses are for irrigation, they fit onto a pump and were stored in the barn. The house  changed as the builders altered the sheep barn, casting a concrete beam to support a new ceiling, making a reinforced ring-beam for the new conservatory and covered dining area, and opening five new window holes. Eventually it will become a kitchen/sitting room, a bathroom and an entrance hall. Then the builders moved off to another job in the village, leaving us in peace whilst their concrete set.

Janet & Clive in front of the veranda

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