Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

We went out one afternoon in September and when we returned two of my tractor tools had been stolen – a big heavy chain mower and a scarifier – winched onto a trailer and taken from right beside our house.  After weeks of waiting the insurers said they wouldn’t pay my claim because the tools were five years old so worth half their cost, and they would put an excess of a thousand euros on my claim, which was €985. This was not in the policy, they made it up and put an annex onto the policy. Because they have in-house lawyers my legal bill and stress to contest it would not make it a worthwhile exercise.

When we discussed the theft everyone said the same, the thieves were waiting for an opportunity and watched us go out. It is someone local. We were upset at the theft but more upset that someone whom we know would betray our trust in them. Eventually their karma will rectify matters.

Janet cutting cucmbersWe have a broker trying (feebly) to get us a better policy with a lower excess but he is dragging his feet, having taken two months so far to provide one quote which was not acceptable.

In the meantime we are reluctant even to go shopping lest another window is smashed and more is stolen, especially with a €1000 excess on a claim. I won’t replace these essential tools until they can be insured, so much of my farm work has ground to a halt.

 

Clive boden, Dominic PlattIn October I had the vine-wiring team from Technicova over to complete the wiring of our vineyard with an additional fourteen forty-metre lines. This gives space for four hundred vines.

Laura and her family have been to stay with us during Dominic’s half-term break from school. He helped me to plant a few dozen vines in the newly-wired section of the vineyard, and Toby had a go too. We racked 350 litres of our wine whilst they were with us. We had a lovely time together.

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine

 

 

Further demotivation came five weeks after the tools were stolen. I started to back up all my main computer files onto a USB stick, when the message “Unable to find files. Format the disc?” came up.  I tried the USB stick on all our computers with the same result, and internet searches said this fault sometimes occurs and there is no solution, either re-format it or bin it. Either way the files are lost. So I formatted it, and resolved to do the backup a day later.

The following day an isolated bolt of lightning struck the ground beside our house. Once the electric company had replaced two main cartridge fuses and Portugal Telecom had repaired the wires and replaced the modem, we found the bolt had burned out our telly, my computer, the new printer, and my lovely stereo amplifier. With no current backups to put onto my laptop I had to fall back on my three-month old secondary backup. All new blogging photos were lost. Disheartened, I lost the motivation to blog.

peppersThe veg garden has given us a large crop of cucumbers and we have nearly half a freezer-full of peppers, orange and brown in addition to the usual red yellow and green. The Bartlett bonnet chillies which Janet sowed in February grew tall (up to Janet’s shoulders) during the summer but only started to ripen in October and are now, in mid-December, still cropping well.

Bartlett bonnet chillies

Bartlett bonnet chillies

 

I met up with Samuel and Kate, her sister Nicola and my third grandson Leo in Lisbon for a long weekend, which was very enjoyable and was another tonic to me. Janet and I are both healthy and happy, and now I’m able to get on with pruning olive trees and vines I’m finding myself again. The claim for lightning damage has just been resolved well and we can now replace the damaged goods. We’re past the negative phase and are getting back to such normality as we previously enjoyed.

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

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P1030719 lettuce 7 january cropWe love the climate here, with one reservation – the arid summer with its eight weeks of over-40° days. The winter is mild enough for us to have lettuce and radish fresh from the garden, and even to have an occasional barbecue. The evenings are cold, though, and we light the wood fire in the living room for warmth and comfort. Because we grow the fuel we are happy to use it!

P1030620 evening december in living room

In January we spent time on the internet finding some interesting heritage plants that would suit our climate and buying their seeds. I prepared a large vegetable plot and Janet sowed peas – hundreds of them. Our aim was to benefit from the rain and mild temperatures in February, so legumes could be harvested very early and the soil improved well before summer.

Janet and peas They all sprouted and now, in early April, the pods are maturing. We will soon have lots of peas in our freezer.

In mid February, whilst I was pruning olive trees, Janet sowed seeds for “sweet chocolate” peppers, early orange peppers, frilly chillies, Basque chillies and black Hungarian chillies into little compost cells, which then went into two heated propagators given to us by her sister Helen a few years ago.

real seeds bartlett chilliShe misted them daily with water, and these warmed seeds lived in the conservatory where, thanks to extra warmth from the plentiful sunshine, they germinated.

When I was in England Janet used some of her time to move the seedlings into pots and to sow more seeds into cells – golden cherry tomatoes, Latah bush tomatoes, purple tomatillos (these are not tomatoes at all), Tamra cucumbers and musk melon seeds. Again the plant incubators worked their magic and by the end of March she had potted nearly two hundred unusual plantlets. J repotting March14

With such an early start these plants should also be ready for harvesting before the heat of summer arrives. It’s exciting to look forward to trying these exotica on our plates ! We are already proud that we always have something home grown or home made with every meal, but goulash made with our Hungarian chillies, our orange peppers,  our Bulgarian yoghourt, our salad with our own olive oil, own bread, own wine . . . has got to be a winner !  We will definitely not be getting a cow for beef though – the water requirement for its fodder is too high, and we couldn’t leave it for even one day.

potted

I visited England for three weeks in March whilst Janet stayed on the farm looking after our hundreds of onion plants, her seedlings, and Harry the Dog. Eighteen months ago doggo nearly died so she decided to change his regime to energise him. He has a high protein diet of meat or fish in the evening and for breakfast a three-egg omelette with meat scraps or bacon in it. He has unexpectedly kept going well, and is nearly fourteen now, the equivalent for a human of almost a hundred years old. He has lost his sight and hearing, and can only walk a few yards from home. He sleeps most of the time (as you see in the second picture, above) and seems happy. In exchange for the immense good he has done us our efforts now seem fair. I’m so glad we have lots of video of him leaping about and looning around when he was younger !

 

Coping with life on the quinta is becoming easier now we are getting used to the growing seasons, how to deal with our water supply, maintenance of agricultural machinery and so on. We are still learning a lot about managing our lives though, and becoming happier through it.

Sowing cereal in November

Sowing cereal in November

However since late February we have had neither UK satellite television nor radio; the broadcasts have been moved onto a new tighter beam satellite. Although the internet has provided a replacement, the quality certainly isn’t high. Thank goodness for YouTube, Top Documentaries and DVD boxed sets of series – Dalziel and Pascoe, Carnivale, Downton Abbey. Like thousands of ex-pats scattered through Iberia and France, we love the internet, as we can keep in contact with our families through voip (almost free phone calls), Skype (videophone on the big screen) and Facetime. We buy a lot of books and stuff from Amazon, who delivered everything to our door  – until 3rd April, when they announced that they would no longer do free delivery, but charge £6.50 postage on a paperback and more for everything else. This is on top of Portugal having no Kindle service and no Amazon music download facility. Apple offer a very stripped-down service without iTunes, and eBay pulled out of Portugal last year, although Spain is still supported. It seems that there is a concerted plan to ensure our country remains very much third-world, marginalised. This is mostly acceptable to us, but it is plain that Portugal is definitely being snubbed by the Eurocrats. Having said that, we are very happy to be living here!

We have wonderful birds on the quinta.  Golden orioles are twelve inches long, JCB-yellow with black wings. A pair sometimes play early in the morning, flying head-to-tail around the pine trees where they live. One of my targets is to photograph them but it’s difficult because they are shy, and they fly very fast aerobatically.

Another target is to clearly photograph the top of a bee-eater. Their size is that of a starling.  They are fast and agile, and they usually fly high. However, two weeks ago I managed to catch these images, taken fifty metres from the birds. In the second picture it caught an insect by flicking its head backwards whilst in vertical flight.

We have a resident colony of perhaps thirty. Their call is like a pea-whistle, so they sound like a school for referees when they come out at dusk to catch their supper, flying high above us in the orange light of the setting sun.

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Yesterday there was a  dead kingfisher on the lawn. The blue feathers on the back are bright turquoise and its beak is as long as my fingers! I thought it may have been a bee-eater which for some reason had no tail, until my bird-watching friend Hugh put me right (thanks!). Puzzling how it came to be there, though . . .

 

The vegetable garden is in full production now. Janet has harvested thirty kilos of tomatoes and sun-dried many of them. We eat a very refreshing gazpacho – a chilled soup of tomato and cucumber – at lunchtime most days, with salad straight from the garden. In this picture the table isn’t blue, that’s the reflection of the sky!

We’ve grown almost 100kg of onions, they are a staple food for us. We use lots of them in curry or with salad so it’s not an excess.

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I wanted to store them in plaits and after reading several articles on the internet I left the onions to dry for a few days then made a plait whilst the stems were green and flexible.

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However as the stems dried they became thinner, more slippery and somewhat brittle, so the plait was not trustworthy to hang and joined the other onions in crates stored in the adega. Really I need the expert tuition of a French onion seller . . . if there are any left.

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.

There are some pleasures in life which require one to endure hardship in order to appreciate them. They are earned. Two of these pleasures follow having to mow tinder-dry grass in the blazing hot sun. The tractor changes colour to light brown. I get covered in dust which sticks to the sweat soaking my skin, my t-shirt and the top of my shorts; even my hair becomes a dense straw-like thatch. I return from the forty-degree heat to the apartment feeling dirty and scratchy, looking much like a man made from dust, overheated and absolutely parched. Then come the pleasures!

Dusty tractor

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After extracting my feet from the dusty farm boots, I empty a whole tray of ice cubes into a half-litre glass and stir in quarter of a litre of apple juice. When it’s chilled, top up with cold water and drink it all. Then do it again, topping up the ice! And again – the pleasure is astounding, when your body is too hot and has lost so much moisture.

Next, the cool shower – I just peel off my rammy clothes and stand under a torrent of tepid water. Then turn it off, shampoo my thatched hair and use shower gel scrub all over. Turn the water on and drench myself, watching all that dirt go swirling down the plughole as I cool down and get clean. Then it’s clean clothes and lunch time – chilled fresh tomato and cucumber soup! These pleasures are called Refreshment and on a hot dusty farm, Refreshment is where it’s at! We eat lunch where we spend most of our free time, under the shade of the new veranda. We’ve hardly been inside the new house yet because it is breezy outdoors.

JJ the JCB man came and removed all the piles of rubble from our building work, leaving just three tons of granite boulders for me to use in building walls next year. Not cheap, but what an improvement it has made to the environment beside the veranda. The Alumínios (aluminium doors and windows) business have now installed all our windows and shutters, made in cream-lacquered aluminium to complement the granite and pointing of the house.

They have enclosed our conservatory with a triple sliding door at one end and all windows can slide to keep it cool in summer yet warm in winter.

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July has seen the departure of the swallows from our study, and a doubling of the number of bee-eaters in the flock which live near the apartment. The flock is now nearly thirty strong, and each morning we are awoken by their lovely calls which sound like muted referee’s whistles.

We have had to learn how to deal with fresh food gluts, as the veg garden is now in full production. Throughout July, Janet harvested over a pound of tomatoes a day and three cucumbers a week. Now (first week of August) she gets half that, but she continues to bring in far more courgettes than we can eat. The sweet peppers are steadily giving us the balance of ingredients we need to have garden-fresh gazpacho (chilled raw veg soup) for lunch most days, and she sun-dries the surplus tomatoes which shrink to a tenth of their original size.

I’ve used our steady supply of aubergines to make Greek moussaka every week, and the surplus became an Indian pickle. Now that the accumulated heat is cooking most plants on the ground, our supplies are smaller. Only the melons, the onions and butternut squash are still going strong. My automatic irrigation is working well, providing the veg with moisture morning and night, but we have to supplement that with a good watering by hand.

It was not easy to obtain butternut squash seedlings, so when we found them we bought ten, not realizing that each plant may give four fruits and ours look set to do just that. So, what can we do with the likely glut? We’ve thought of roasting them, making soup from them, maybe there’s a dessert pie, perhaps chicken in mushroom sauce with mashed butternut topping. We are open to suggestions / recipes / ways to preserve them . . .

Back to our Lands in Portugal. April ’10

The car was fully loaded – a six-inch reflector (astronomical telescope a metre long) with its tripod and equatorial mount, twelve pounds of tea, the same weight of cheese, a large box of assorted tins and bottles of Indian and Chinese food, English shower gel and soaps, a large mirror, a painting on canvas, a Bramley apple tree and 24 plants in trays, our travel bags of clothes and some new ones, and of course Harry the Dog in his new bigger bed in the boot. T complete our eighteen days in our native land we stayed overnight in a lovely hotel at Selsey near Portsmouth which allowed doggo to stay in our room. It was a very windy night with blasts of rain.

We both ate a full fried English breakfast the next morning, ready for our 24-hour ferry trip. The man at the check-in was surprised that Brittany Ferries were allowing this crossing – over the Bay of Biscay, notorious for poor weather – to sail; they cancelled their short crossings. Once out of Portsmouth the slow big waves pitched and rolled the huge car ferry. As the bows of the ship carved into the waves they smashed water up and out, sending dense sheets of rain-like spray sluicing over the viewing windows twenty feet above the waterline. We sat in one of the interior passenger decks to “people-watch” and read for a while – the outside decks were closed off. Walking in a straight line became a trial, resulting in a sloping curved weaving path. The normally busy ambience in the boat became subdued, and appetites evaporated. We went to our cabin mid-afternoon and slept for a few hours before having a snack tea. We slept overnight whilst the ship passed through the storm outside, arriving in the calm waters of Santander in sunny Spain mid-morning.

Arenas de Iguña, snow on the backdrop Picos de Europa .

An hour’s drive on quiet roads took us to lunch at a nice little restaurant in the pretty and mountainous Basque region.  We met an old couple who told us that a tornado passed by their village yesterday, the first they had ever seen or heard. Everywhere we go we hear the same – the weather has certainly changed. The drive back to Portugal was swift and easy, taking ten hours. We stopped overnight to unload our astronomical telescope at the quinta, where Jacinto said that March had been measured by Portugal Meteo Service as the coldest and wettest in this region for thirty years.

We drove on to our house near Lousã, where the land was drying out and the humidity and warmth was causing the grass to grow rapidly. I mowed the lawn, which was as high as my short wellies. In the orchard it was already thigh-high, and I mowed that too, with an ingenious two-wheeled strimmer we originally used at the French house – it took twelve hours spread over three days. The plug lobelias and fuchsias we brought from England needed potting. By now the lawn had grown another two inches and needed mowing again! When we left for the quinta the Bramley apple tree we had also brought over was bursting into leaf whilst still bare-rooted, and the plantlets were bushing out.

At the quinta the sun was bright, 26°C in the shade. The builders, who had not worked on our house during our time in England, had returned and were pointing the external stonework. There was no urgent decision to be made, so we ate a late lunch and started to deal with the overgrown vegetable garden. Had I not removed all the irrigation tubes in March it would now be impossible, as the grass and weeds were dense and knee-high. I had to mow it with the tractor a day before rotovating the central part, then Janet forked the weeds from the borders.

The citrus vineyard was now dry enough to walk in, so I checked on the vines which Ian and I planted two months ago, thirty of the 35 have put out new buds. All four plum trees have established themselves, so I confidently planted a sparse-looking whip of a walnut tree; as so often happens, the potted tree turns out to be bare-rooted, not an established plant.

The old and once-neglected apple and pear trees in the orchard are growing nicely after their second severe pruning in three years. They now have good shapes and very little dead wood. I planted the second Bramley, a Reinette and a Golden Delicious for pollination. The weather is variable, with some days too sunny and hot to work in the afternoon, so most jobs must be done in the morning and the land cleaned of prunings by bonfire in the evening. Other days are wet and on one of those I planted two nectarine (Venus) and two early cherry (Burlat) trees in the Citrus vineyard, to join the plum trees. On the second rainy day we planted twenty Trincadeira vines, four were replacements of vines which didn’t survive the wet winter.

Spring has clearly sprung and the birds are active. A woodpecker has his breakfast as we eat ours, only he is more noisy about it – “drrrrrrrr” every seven seconds for a couple of hours. We have a colony of fifteen or so birds which look similar to jays, about a foot long, with a black head, white throat, salmon pink breast and sky-blue wings and tail (any i/d’s? Roller family, I think). They eat from the ground and fly low collecting materials for their nests. There are hoopoes too, and in the late evening the cuckoo’s call echoes through the woods beside the house.

The builders  rendered and tiled the internal walls they have built, varnished the lovely wooden ceilings and tiled the new floors in what used to be the barn.

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Next came a second run at the other half or the house, making an arch in our new bedroom, chipping the cement off the walls (that’s Mario), rendering the new walls.

They asked if I would use my tractor to clear their rubble into their lorry so they could take it away; I obliged. Meanwhile Janet was telling me every couple of hours that we should not try to repair the original tiled floor in that part of the house, but put down a new floor. José asked if we want a step or a ramp between the two parts of the house, then Jacinto remarked that we have enough tiles to do part of the floor in the old house. He did a quick estimate of the material needed to tile throughout with the same tiles as in the old barn, and after a phone call to the suppliers all was arranged – Janet would get the same rustic tiles throughout. So much for decision-making!

Now is the peak period for olive grove maintenance; all the olives must have been pruned and the pruning cleared. I discovered that we didn’t clear the prunings from the top olival, which means I have an extra six hours work! The olivais have to be scarified to prevent weeds and grasses forming deep roots and establishing themselves, and manure or fertiliser spread around the trees. The weather is variable at present, so I can only do a couple of hours work before rain or a thunderstorm arrives and I have to return to base for a few hours; progress is slow, and the weeds can grow quickly in the wet and warm weather.

Jose tiling the bathroom

A week later it is now the end of April and the birds are nesting everywhere. Even during the night we have birds singing. At two in the morning I heard three birds singing in the woods beside our bedroom, two different kinds of song echoing through the still night. During the builders’ absence last weekend a bird tried to make a nest under the eaves of our new conservatory, and house martins succeeded in making half a nest on top of the central light bulb in our future study! In kindness Janet removed it because we will be using the light!

On Sunday I was working in the veg garden, preparing the irrigation whilst Janet was on the phone to Laura, when a white van arrived and three visitors alighted. They looked vaguely familiar to me, so I gave them a cheery welcome and chatted to them although I couldn’t remember where I’d seen them or who they are. They equally didn’t use my name although they had taken the trouble to come and find our quinta. After over half an hour they made to leave – me still not knowing who they were. I went to get Janet to say ‘bye, as she hadn’t seen them. I hoped she would know who they were! She recognised the couple as people who we’d invited to share our table at lunch in a restaurant nearly three years ago, and met again a year ago at Fundão market. They live about twenty miles away and wanted to find us!

On Monday we went to Fundão and bought five dozen plants and four more fruit trees, together with a quarter of a cubic metre of peat and fifty kilos of fertiliser. We always buy fresh veg from that part of the market where the little old ladies sell their home-grown produce. We have blue eyes (theirs are brown) and look foreign, so we are potential rip-off targets. They don’t note the fact that we speak Portuguese. I wanted to buy a lettuce ; how much? “One euro.” I looked surprised, and asked her to weigh it- half a kilo, It was a little expensive, so I asked her to add another, please. A kilo now. “One euro.” and she put them in a bag. I looked satisfied. She smiled and put in a third,  “One euro.” I smiled and paid.