Autumn is my favourite season of the whole year. It is when all the hard work of the previous months is realised and the harvest gives up its treasures. It is when we start to slow down, enjoy cosy evenings beside the fire and sit and reflect on the victories we have achieved during the year.
Our little Quinta is looking especially lovely in the warm autumnal sun. The brown grass, scorched by the ferocious heat of the summer sun is now once again lush green and the dew glistens and shimmers as we take our morning walks around the plot. The trees and vines have changed from green to yellow and the leaves have started to fall. The intense heat of the sun, which in the summer months sapped our energy and concentration has been replaced by a gentle warmth and we love getting our daily dose of vitamin D while working outdoors.
At night, the feeling as we look up into the heavens into the pitch black sky with its blanket of stars is un-describable. We stand in awe, conscious of just how small we are, searching the skies for the different constellations above us. Often we sit outside the annexe at the end of long day gazing at the moon shining through the olive trees. It puts things into perception. There is hardly any light pollution so it is easy to pick things out with the naked eye. We have brought some binoculars with us which used to belong to my Dad, so it will be even better when we finally get our belongings unpacked and are able to use them.
I was asked a while ago what my mum and dad would think of the farm and what we have been doing. I’m sure they would absolutely love it and would encourage us every step of the way. I think I get my determination to achieve and “get the job done” from them. They were both keen gardeners and would be amazed that the tomato plants are still flowering and producing fruit in November, that the the quince are ginormous and that the courgettes grow as large as marrows! On chilly evenings I like to wear a cardigan that used to belong to my mum – it still has her name on the tag and by having this and my dad’s binoculars, I feel that there is a little bit of them here – cheering us on from the side-lines.
Nature never ceases to amaze me with it’s carefully planned schedule, making sure that we are always kept busy but never overloaded with things to do. There is a time for everything and everything in its own time.
Having now been here for 11 months, we have experienced almost a full calendar year of when to plant and when to pick (and all the bits in the middle!).
In January we found ourselves busy collecting and juicing the oranges and finding new and unusual ways to use every bit of the fruit, either baking, marmalading, drying for kindling or making orange solvent and candles. February and March was our time for sowing seeds for the vegetable plot and in April we planted them in the lovely new vegetable garden that Mark had built using the old beams that had been removed from the long house.
April also gave us the giant purple figs, sticky and sweet and our breakfast as we took our morning walks around the Quinta.
We have always said that our first year on the farm was going to be one of discovery and learning and in May we found little orange fruits growing on four of our trees which looked similar to an apricot. Turning to Google we learnt that it is known by a number of alias’, nêspera in Portugal, loquat in America, pipa in China, naspli in Malta, and níspero in Spain to name a few.
Whatever they are called, they were delicious fresh from the tree, juiced, jammed or baked.
The bright red cherries were next up, giving us several buckets for eating, baking and jamming and we now have cherry pie filling safely stored away in the freezer. The hand-held little cherry pitter came in handy but we will certainly need to be investing in something a little less labour intensive next year.
Throughout the summer months, the vegetable garden has (and still is) been the source of a seemingly endless supply of salads and vegetables … lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, aubergines, courgettes, chillies, peas, beans, sweetcorn, peppers, onions and garlic as well as several varieties of herbs. It is so rewarding to be able to pick our food fresh from the land and great when meal planning isn’t a strong point!!
October came and so did the quince. An old fashioned, in fact ancient fruit, that was even used by the Romans. We have three quince trees which are quite small, but the fruit is huge and covered by a fuzzy coat if picked when under-ripe. The quince fruit isn’t nice to eat raw, but when cooked gave off an amazing aroma which filled the annexe and made the perfect filling for crumbles and pies, as well as wonderful jams, jellies and membrilla.
At the start of November, we noticed that our neighbours had started to pick their olives, so after a chat with the Hipwells headed over to Lourical to help with their harvest. Five days later we had picked a ton of olives and needed to get them to the press to make into oil. After loading both our trucks we set off to Montforte da Beira, about an hours drive away. Arriving at the village it seemed that lots of other people had also been picking and we joined a queue to unload the fruit. Six hours later we finally deposited the olives into huge crates ready for pressing.
It is not necessarily the case that more olives create more oil. In fact, many things can affect the quality and quantity of olive oil such as the weather, the type of soil, the way in which the fruit is picked and the variety of olive.
The way in which the olive oil is processed can also affect the quality of the final product. Cold pressed olive oil is one of the best ways for the oil to hold onto its top nutrients, including healthy fats and antioxidants and the press at Montforte da Beira uses the cold-press method.
Cold pressed olive oil is produced when the olives are pressed to produce oil without heat or additional chemicals. The olives are kept below 50 C which means that the properties of the oil doesn’t get damaged and most of the olive’s nutritional value remains after the fruit has been made into oil. Cold-pressing the oil is also more environmentally friendly as well due to the absence of chemicals and high temperatures used to make refined oils.
We were able to see the oil being made through the various stages. First the olives were washed before being taken into the press on a conveyor belt and then crushed into a paste. A mechanical press then separates the oil from the pulp and collects the oil. The smell in the yard was amazing. An earthy, fruity aroma filled the air and it may seem a strange thing to say but it smelt really healthy.
Extra-virgin olive oil is made completely from pure, cold-pressed olives as opposed to regular olive oil which consists of a blend of both cold-pressed and processed oils.
After unloading, we were told that the oil would be ready for collection in 2 days and we heard later that Linda and Andy’s olives had produced 126 litres of extra virgin olive oil. It was the best yield they’d had in the 7 years of living in Portugal and this made us even more keen to pick our “Vinha das Almas” olives.
Albeit at a much slower pace due to the harvest, work in the Longhouse has been edging forward. Mark had decided to move into the next area and create the dining room. Not keen on the rectangular opening into the kitchen, we decided to add an arch as a feature between the two areas. Sounds quite straight-forward, although in reality it was far from this.
Creating the arch meant that we had to think outside the box. After trying one method of slowly bending the plasterboard with weights and moisture, the plasterboard failed to achieve the required arch and then cracked. So it was back to the drawing board.
Mark cut lots of strips of plasterboard and attached these to the wooden batoning. Multiple layers of plaster were then applied to create a curve. It will take a bit of sanding down, but we do think that we will be able to achieve the result we want.
The dining room is part of the granite built part of the house so nothing in it is straight. The window, which has now been dropped to a floor to ceiling opening had been widened (at the cost of burning out two angle grinders) and it took a much beefed-up tool to complete the task. The external walls have been batoned and insulated and the internal walls dot and dabbed.
Once the joins in the plasterboards have been filled and sanded and the room painted, we will be able to get in touch with our electrician to ask him to come back and second fix the electrics. The concrete ceiling does need to be skimmed to a smooth finish, although this is a task that Mark is not looking forward to as his previous encounters with the Portuguese skimming material has not been successful.
We are planning on boarding this part of the building so that the work on the kitchen can be completed at a later date without affecting us living in the completed part on the longhouse.
We have always been aware that November is the rainy season in Portugal. We have also been very aware that the gable end of the building was cracked and a possible reason why the inside of the bathroom and bedroom was showing signs of damp. With this in mind, we decided to apply a coat of render.
Part of the process was to cut a series of slots in the wall for the render to key in to and as the work progressed there was a need to use our recently acquired Portuguese scaffolding. Fortunately all the years spent climbing monkey frames in junior school came into fruition as Portuguese scaffolding is somewhat basic. Mark said that he was sure David Attenborough would have likened his antics of climbing the scaffolding to an orangutan swinging from the canopy of some tropical rainforest. By Mark’s own admission, he is no longer built for this agile activity and has a new respect for the Ecositana team when they nimbly traversed the scaffolding when erecting the new build.
The job was was completed -but Mark being the perfectionist that he is feels that it needs a second visit. Watch this space!