Spring is in the air!

Nature, in all its majesty and splendour has been very busy on our little Quinta doing what it does best. Before moving to Portugal I guess I was one of the many who didn’t really give the importance of nature the consideration it deserved and I definitely did not appreciate just how much we rely on it.

We love spending time outdoors whether it is working on the land or taking Wanda for a walk up the mountainsides and along the little tracks near our farm. In fact, we have noticed that when we are out in the fresh air, something quite magical happens.

We find that we stop for a moment, relax and take a good look around us!

We notice the birdsong, the wind in the trees, the church bells, the smell of the earth, the warmth of the suns rays on our skin, the occasional sound of a donkey braying in the distance and we breathe it all in.

We’re experiencing first hand the peace and tranquillity that is found in the simple things of life.

As well sunshine helping the body to absorb vitamin D, research shows that being amongst nature makes people feel better emotionally. Blood pressure is lowered, stress hormones are reduced and muscle tension is relaxed. There’s definitely a lot to be said for being in the great outdoors.

We realise that our part in the story is to treat it with respect and nurture the land we are blessed to call ours. Without any doubt, we still have a huge amount of lessons to learn but we can also look back on our journey so far and see how far we have come.

We were fortunate to bump into a couple of guys that live in our village while having coffee one afternoon in the little pastelaria. We soon realised just how knowledgeable they are in all things relating to the plant world and when they offered to pop round to visit us and see if we needed any top tips or pointers, we almost bit their hands off.

Last year, before pruning our vines we searched Google and watched a few You Tube videos to find out the best techniques to adopt. It was a bit tricky to find the information we needed as our vines are dotted randomly about the Quinta and the information talked about tying vines to support structures or wires. Although it is much more difficult to keep the land clear around our layout of vines, it seems to be the way the local Portuguese farmers do it – and to be honest we like it.

Unfortunately, after all our hard work of putting our research into practice we still had a poor yield of grapes. The vines had definitely produced lots of foliage and looked healthy enough – just produced very little fruit.

Billy and Rogerio arrived one sunny afternoon and we walked around our terraces checking out what we had and what we had already done. We looked at our fruit trees, shrubs, vegetables and vines and it soon became apparent that we had been nowhere near as harsh as we needed to be with our initial pruning. It would seem that we were not on our own and the most common mistake people make is not pruning hard enough. Heavy pruning provides the greatest quantity and quality of grapes and together we spent the next hour or so having a very enjoyable tutorial on cutting back the vines, when to prune and how to identify wild vines. Such a lot to take in but extremely interesting.

Our lesson had come in perfect time and we quickly got started pruning and cutting. The trouble was, so early in the year it was difficult to decide if any of the side-shoots were already dead but we took care to look for green wood and put our training into practice.

A week or two later we had a visit from two of our friends living in Portugal and to our delight, they asked if we had appointed a professional to do our pruning. The vines are now starting to produce their greenery and all that is needed now is for us to wait for the harvest and see if our new skills have paid off.

Knowing that the land will soon be demanding lots of care and attention we decided to book a trip back to the UK to catch up with family and friends. We also took the opportunity to pop into Castle Park Dental Care https://www.castleparkdental.co.uk/ for our check ups and I guess we get the prize for being the patients who travel the furthest for an appointment. I met up with my friend Hannah and her son for a coffee. Hannah has taken on the role of practice manager since I left and it was great to hear all her news and how well everything is going. It’s crazy how things have changed since Covid in the dental profession and it looks very unlikely that it will ever go back to the old ways of doing things. Chatting to Hannah, I realised just how distanced Mark and I have become from the hustle and bustle of life and felt grateful that our daily uncertainties consisted of how to prune, when to water or when to plant our vegetables.

One of the hardest things about living here is not being able to pop round to see family as often as we like.  Of course we have our regular video calls but nothing beats the feeling of being able to hug someone in person so it was lovely to be able to see Mark’s mum and dad.  Ray is my go-to person when I’ve got a question about gardening and I do miss his annual contribution of marigolds and bedding plants to my flower borders.  This year though, he surprised me with amongst others, a packet of marigold seeds instead of the actual plants.  I’ve now planted these and am waiting to see if they are as successful as the one he grows.

While we were in the UK, it was one very special little boy’s birthday and we had a great time celebrating.  It was also his very first birthday bake and although he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the candle, he did very much enjoy eating the icing off Duggies’ feet!  In case anyone is wondering, “Birthday bakes” in our family replace the traditional birthday cake. Not everyone likes cake, so we have replaced cake with bake and the birthday boy or girl can choose whether to have sweet or savoury.  We have seen scotch eggs, sausage rolls,  jalousies, cakes, cup cakes, bakewell tarts, pavlovas, brownies and cookies to name but a few.  Rupert, though, it was decided, should start his birthday bake off with a cake and had Hey Duggie with one very large candle in the middle.  

The trip back was over far too quick and once back on the Quinta we were keen to crack on with our renovations. Mark for a while has been working on rendering the gable end.  As this was his first attempt and working with materials he wasn’t familiar with, there were three attempts at coating the wall. It was difficult to get the required finish with a plastering trowel so after being told about using a damp sponge to smooth it off, Mark gave it a go.  Although not entirely happy, Mark decided that enough was enough and to stick with the rustic look.  Three coats of paint later and we now have our first finished wall.  Bright, white and our first glimpse of things to come.

Next up was to tackle a rather large tree that was growing out of one of the wells.  We would like to cap the well off for obvious safety reason, but as is the case with many wells here, we’ve got a tree growing out of ours.  For months we have quandered over how to remove it and for months it has kept on growing.   Our neighbour, Dave, offered to make a bracket to fix a ladder to, and another friend (who incidentally is really not keen on water) offered to climb down, cut the tree and apply a substance to stop it growing back.

What seems an age, but in reality was perhaps only half an hour later, the tree was out.  We were so grateful for the help and now need to clean up some of the concrete beams left behind from the renovations to the long house so that these can be used to cover it over.  For now, the bracket and the ladder remains in situ …. just in case.

I remember once reading a quote that said something along the lines of a little progress every day adds up to big results. Looking back on what we have accomplished so far, we feel we are indeed edging forwards.  Now ready and able to welcome visitors, we look forward to introducing our little piece of paradise to our friends and family.

Try before you buy!

When we first set our sights on owning this beautiful little piece of Portugal and breathing new life into our tired little fruit farm, we knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy task. Nor was it going to happen overnight. We dreamt of learning how to look after the trees and vines and producing our own olive oil. Mark seems particularly keen on being self-sufficient and producing our own wine as well although this isn’t really the self-sufficient produce I was think of. We wanted to be as self sufficient as possible, growing our own fruit and vegetables and looked into what types of flowering shrubs, trees and flowers would grow well here. We did lots of research and even enlisted the help of our friendly RHS Wisley Curator, Matthew Pottage.

But never once did it enter our heads that we would enjoy looking after animals. Until recently that is.

A while back when visiting our neighbours at their quinta, we were interested to see their sheep and talk about the work that was involved in being a sheep farmer. A few weeks later, we called round again and found that they had increased their livestock to include goats. Again we chatted about keeping goats and generally about the benefits and pitfalls of keeping animals.

On the plus side there is the opportunity to breed and increase the flock size, to have meat for eating and selling and fresh milk for drinking and making yoghurt and cheeses. There is also the lovely feel-good factor knowing that the animals are happy, healthy, well looked-after and enjoying life. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case and we have seen some quite bedraggled animals on our travels. Dave and Julie’s goat are certainly characters and it is therapeutic watching their antics.

The downside includes the demands made on their time, the need to fence off trees and shrubs so they are not eaten by the animals and the ever increasing cost of animal bedding, feed and vets bills.

Not put off and keen to find out if this is something that we would like to invest in, we offered to help out on a weekend. I guess it’s like “trying before we buy”. The weekends have passed and we are enjoying our new responsibilities. Wanda walks around the corner with us and waits on the veranda while we check on the sheep and goats.

I think we must have been doing a good job as we now have our own gate onto the Handscombe’s quinta and I was touched to see it had even been given a special name.

Little did we know how quickly the herd of goats would expand when Dave and Julie invested in some more female goats who were already pregnant. The gestation period of a goat is five months, so it wasn’t long before we were trainee midwives!  Considerately, the goats chose to give birth during daylight hours and we were able to be on hand in case they had any difficulties.  Before long, 18 new kids had been added to the herd.  some mums had single births, some had twins and we even saw triplets being born.  They are up on their little wobbly legs within an hour and the mums set to cleaning and feeding their babies.

Nature does a pretty good job all by itself, so we weren’t really needed, although sometimes the babies can get separated from their mums so have to be reunited and Dave did need to help one of the kids into the world when it had decided to come out breeched.  We helped out with bottle feeding for a little while as one of the mums wasn’t managing to produce enough milk but it wasn’t long before the kid was running and jumping and feeding naturally from his mum.   It was so lovely to be able to experience this new life and we were a bit emotional at times although Mark and Dave swore blind they had something in their eyes!

Back to the benefits. Some of the mums are producing more milk than they need for their babies so there has been plenty for us to drink. It is not unusual to see a couple of litres left outside our gate, preceded with a text from Dave saying that two ton Ted from Teddington has been with his delivery. For those who are too young to remember who he was …… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rwa0vaR7slQ

Goats milk is the single most consumed dairy in the world with around 65% of the world’s population drinking it. This is possibly due to the ease of keeping goats compared to cows and also because of its nutritional value. It is packed full of minerals and vitamins and it much gentler on the stomach making it easier to digest. We found the biggest difference to us was how thick and creamy it is.

Turning to good old Google, I checked if it was safe to give to dogs and found that not only was it safe for Wanda to drink, it is also very healthy and highly recommended as it has tons of probiotics to increase the healthy bacteria in her digestive tract and support her digestion. Not only that, she absolutely loves it.

Meanwhile, back on our Quinta we are now living in the longhouse and enjoying spending in the rooms we have completed.  What a massive difference.  It is light, spacious, comfortable and has a bathroom that we don’t have to go outside to visit.

We still haven’t managed to install the log burner in the snug so imagine that our electricity bill will be significantly  this higher month.  We’ve been promised on a number of occasions that a Portuguese installer would come but unfortunately have been let down.  I know that at this time of the year demand is much higher and understand that.  I’ve also heard that some tradesmen are reluctant to work with foreigners as they have not always had a good experience in this area.  Whatever the reason, Mark is now planning to fit it himself with the help of another English guy who did this for a living when working in the UK and hopefully it will all be completed in a few weeks.

The oranges are in full fruit and have been for some time.  After so many were wasted last year we have made a conscious effort to make use of as many as we can so as not to waste any.  We have oranges for breakfast as we walk around the plot and often with yoghurt and honey as a snack.  I’ve made industrial quantities of both orange and lemon marmalade  which has been shared with friends and neighbours and have also had a go at canning.  We added to our stock of frozen juice which will be lovely in the hot summer months.  

My daughter sent me a link to some recipes which I tried my hand at.  The marmalade cake and tangy orange wheel was a hit.  But what to do with the rest?  I think there is just a little more room in the cupboard and freezer for preserves ….. 

For almost a week our little quinta with its bright blue skies and fresh air was transformed into a something resembling a scene from some strange sci-fi movie. The skies were orange, the birds stopped singing and everything seemed eerie and quiet. The white window frames and doors were covered in a fine yellow dust, the white clothes hanging on the line succumbed to a similar fate and the cars too had a yellow shimmer to them.

Apparently, there was a huge Saharan dust storm swirling over many parts of Europe including Portugal. The air quality was rated as “extremely unfavourable” and in Spain people were even advised to avoid outdoor exercise. We are all still wearing masks outdoors which perhaps helped a little but I can’t help but remember the benefit of having the air purification units around the building when working at Castle Park Dental Care.

On a plus note, we were relieved to hear that the storm front that pulled in the African dust was also predicted to bring rain shortly afterwards. As we don’t have mains water on our quinta, this was welcome news. There has been little rain this year and already people are worrying about water levels so the promise of rain to fill our water mine and wells was definitely good to hear.

As predicted, the rains came, the duststorm went and we set about cleaning up everything yellow. As we worked, we noticed the buds appearing on the vines and the trees. Nature was bursting into life (as it seems Mark’s beard is doing) and Spring has arrived.

Lessons Learnt

As the excitement of our first olive harvest took its place in our ever growing list of Portuguese memories, we quickly found ourselves settling back into our daily lives, sometime predictable but never boring.

I was lucky enough to manage a quick trip back to the UK to spend time with family. Unfortunately, the coronavirus had produced a new variant, Omicron, days before my trip so I was unable to venture very far. On the plus side, I did manage to spend a lot of time with my grandson, Rupert which was an absolute delight and reminded me so much of when his Mum was a baby.

The rains came whilst I was away and Mark was determined not to experience the leaky lifeboat situation we had last year when we constantly had buckets dotted around the annexe to catch the drips. He invested in a rather large raincoat (aka tarpaulin) and fastened this completely over the annexe roof and around the chimney. Not a pretty sight but certainly effective. Another reason why we are looking forward to the day when we move into the longhouse and enjoy a few home comforts including a brand new lovely and dry roof.

Christmas came un-heralded and went again just as quickly. We enjoyed our traditional wreath making, cutting pine and olive branches from around the Quinta, adding fir cones and sliced oranges as decorations and just a little ribbon to finish them off.

We hung ours on the gate and made a couple of extras to give to friends and family.

Christmas day was spent catching up with family and friends on video calls along with a hearty dinner and a walk with Wanda to wake us up. We gave ourselves a day off on Boxing Day and then it was back to business.

Our mornings start around 7am with an obligatory coffee to wake us up closely followed by the now familiar procession of orange buckets being carried from the boiler in the longhouse down to the bathroom outside the annexe.

Wanda has always loved her morning walks around the plot – even more so these days as she has decided that she is partial to a bit of orange. We carry a couple of empty buckets down to the orange grove while Wanda trots along beside us enjoying a bit of ball throwing as we go. When we get to the orange trees, we put the buckets down on the ground and start collecting the windfalls. One bucket for spoilt fruit and one for the oranges to be juiced. After the amount of wasted fruit last year we are keen to use as much as possible and now have a freezer full of frozen juice stockpiled for the summer months that we will be able to share with friends and family when the trees are bare. Seeing us put the buckets underneath the trees is Wanda’s signal to spit out her balls and wait for her breakfast.

At this early hour, it is so peaceful standing and listening to the countryside around us as it starts to wake up. The morning birdsong, the sheep bleating in the field opposite as the farmer arrives to feed them and the church bells in the nearby villages chiming out every half hour. I’m not sure if it is because we are in the valley, or if it is because the church steeples are so tall but the sound of the bells can be heard for miles around. We can actually hear three different bells on our little Quinta so you would be excused for thinking that we have no reason for always being late!!

By 7.30am the sun already has some warmth in its rays. We stand beside the little brook with our buckets at our feet, peeling our breakfast and sharing it out between the three of us.

I can’t think of a better way to get our daily supplement of vitamin C.

Mark is still busy with the long house renovations and the bathroom in particular seems to be causing him some problems. He calls it his Nemesis!

The bathroom was originally done as a fake bathroom to obtain the habitation documentation. It was all set up but needed to be taken out and re-configured so that it could be functional. The waste pipes needed some careful consideration regarding siting as we wanted to save the grey water and re-purpose it for irrigation. There is a large well near to the bathroom so Mark created a channel from the outside wall to the well and installed the pipe. The number of roots growing across the driveway were a problem and took some digging out but eventually we got there.

Moving in to the bathroom itself and tiling the floor, walls and sides of the bath was in Mark’s words a nightmare as none of the walls were straight or level. In fact, the level of adhesive needed ranged from very minimal to extremely significant. The shower and bath were sited ok, but as the boiler is quite some distance away it takes some time to get the hot water through to that end of the building. The plan is to relocate the gas boiler to speed this up. On the plus side, once the hot water has come through, we can have a lovely piping hot bath with not a bucket in sight.

Despite the challenges the bathroom was eventually signed off and we now have completed 5 areas of the long house.

Unpacking our furniture and memories from out of storage was like being re-united with a long-lost friends. It was great being able to experiment where we wanted things to be and well worth the wait.

We still need the log burner installing in the snug so for now, as the nights are chilly, we are still living in the annexe, but our rooms are ready and waiting for us.

My days generally start out the same way – cleaning the annexe and the bathroom, setting the fire ready for the evening, prepping the evening meal and often making bread. I love baking, usually making old-fashioned cakes and pastries. The smell of freshly made bread reminds me of my childhood growing up in the butchers shop. We had a bakery attached to the shop which had coal fired ovens and huge mixers sporting enormous dough hooks. I loved helping out and can clearly remember amongst others the long lines of apples pies, Bakewell tarts, meat pies and sausage rolls cooling on the worktops.

Learning to bake with my Mum was a great experience and I still use the techniques and recipes that I learnt way back then. She was well known for her take on the humble pork pie, adding toppings such as cranberries, apples and caramelised onion, my only regret being that I never wrote her recipes down.

Once I’ve finished with the indoor stuff, I can turn my attention to outdoors, to the land and in particular at the moment, the vegetable garden.

It was so lovely last year to be able to pick our own food, so I’m keen to crack on with choosing which seeds to sow and taking the first step this year in growing our own fruit and vegetables. We always said that the first year was going to be one of learning, and I have been given lots of lessons over the course of the past 12 months courtesy of Mother Nature, Matthew Pottage (RHS Wisley), Mark’s Dad and good old Google.

In fact, Mark’s Dad has been my biggest source of encouragement. I always appreciated beautiful gardens and the work that went into growing vegetables, but it was Ray who inspired me to have a go myself …. and now here I am growing our own food.

We’ve had some amazing results with harvests lasting over many months. There was a seemingly endless supply of aubergines, courgettes, salads, beans, onions, peas, and chillies to name a few and I was so surprised when we were still picking tomatoes into January. Nothing is packed as full of nutrients and vitamins, or tastes better, than being able to walk outside and pick fruit and fresh vegetables straight from the land. Growing our own food was not only extremely rewarding but also cost effective.

One of the most important things we have learnt related to the quality of our soil. The soil on our quinta is very sandy which doesn’t hold the moisture very well, so we were spending a lot of time watering, often twice a day. Not wanting to use chemicals in the soil, I started reading up on other options and found that one of the most beneficial ways to improve the quality of soil is horse manure.

It is safer than cow, sheep and chicken manure as these can burn plants due to their high heat levels and nitrogen rich elements. Although horse manure does contain nitrogen, it is safe to use as it is mixed in with undigested plant material. This gives the soil the nutrients it needs for healthy plants.

Fortunately, our neighbours, Dave and Julie keep horses and we were over the moon when we were given a ton of horse manure. That’s quite a sizeable amount and we could only just fit it all on the back of our truck. I was surprised at how dry it was and how little it smelt and found out later that it had been left to compost for around 6 months before being mechanically processed to prevent the weeds and seeds from growing in it.

I decided that before doing any planting I would dig the manure into the veggie plot and then leave it for a few weeks to do its job.

There were a couple of areas that still had plants producing fruits so I saved some manure and covered it over with a tarpaulin to use later. After only two months the difference between the soil which has been left untreated and that which has the manure added is so noticeable. The manure has helped bind the other soil particles together and will help support the roots of the plants and hold the moisture during the hotter months. Hopefully, with a bit of thought on where different crops are planted, we should have another successful year.

Although we had plenty of success stories in 2021, there were also some valuable lessons to be learnt.

I discovered just how much sweetcorn loves to be in the direct sunshine realising that half of the crop last year spent the afternoons in the shade. As a result the plants grew in increments, so much so that they didn’t look dis-similar to the Von Trap family. My plan for 2022 is to find a spot where they can grow in full sun and keep them well irrigated.

Another valuable lesson is the need to plant sweetcorn in squares of at least a dozen, instead of long lines so that the pollination is as effective as possible. The male flowers are at the top of the plant and these need to shed their pollen onto the female tassels below. If this isn’t achieved, the results will be a poor crop.

As well as eating plenty of beans and peas last year, we managed to freeze quite a lot to eat in the winter and will try and do the same with the sweetcorn this year.

There’s still so much to try our hand at but for me the thing I have loved the most so far is the pride and satisfaction that we get growing our own food. When we walk in to the veggie plot and pick our fruit and vegetables, when we can feed ourselves with the produce we have grown and still have some to give to friends. It feels good.

The saying goes: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. It’s safe to say, the same goes for growing our own food.

The early bird ….

Olive trees have been cultivated for thousands of years and are even mentioned in the bible and in ancient scriptures. Today, their fruits and oil are consumed all over the world with many reported health benefits both topically and ingested.

Portuguese olive trees have been farmed for many years, dating as far back as the 4th century under the reign of the Visigoths and later by the Arabs. In the Middle Ages, the health benefits and qualities of olive oil was realised and over the years, man has adapted and transformed the trees to try and improve the oil and grow large quantities of fruit in drought conditions.

There are a number of different varieties of olives which produce oils varying in colours, taste and aroma. On our little quinta we have Galegos (the small black, pointed olives) and Cordovils (the larger round olives).

Olives can be picked by hand, or where there are larger olive groves, by using machinery. Most of the old equipment used on our Quinta was included in the sale but as we are new to managing a farm, it was a case of identifying what bits of kit went with what fruit. Mark checked out our collection in the store to see what we had and what condition it was in. We found a large net which had obviously been nibbled by mice, a leaf blower, a couple of small plastic wide toothed rakes and a large sieve. There were also a number of plastic sacks and some fairly large black tubs.

Fortunately, when we’ve moved here from the UK, Mark had acquired half a dozen large stepladders which he brought with us. These were going to prove to be invaluable when doing our picking (thanks James).

The net was for spreading out under the trees so that the olives could be dropped down on to it ready for gathering into the tubs. The plastic rakes could be used to rake the branches encouraging the olives to fall and the sieve and leaf blower formed part of the cleaning process. We figured that we would need more that one net so popped off to Ecocampo and then we were ready to pick.

A couple of weeks earlier we had picked some galegos and cordovils for preserving. I found a small barrel in one of the outbuildings which was perfect for the job. It’s quite a straight forward process where un-blemished olives are covered with a mixture of salt water and then literally just left for a few months to pickle. If you have ever eaten an olive that you have picked straight from the tree you will have noticed that it is extremely bitter and inedible. That is because raw olives are full of oleuropein, a bitter tasting compound which needs to be removed, in our case by salt water, before the fruit becomes edible. Hopefully we will be able to enjoy eating ours in a few months time.

After the bumper olive harvest at Linda and Andy’s in Lourical, we were keen to get on with picking our own olives in the hope that we too would see a high yield of oil for our efforts. The daylight was always going to be a limiting factor, not the physical picking, so after scratching our heads we came up with action plan. Where we live, it is dark until 7am when a glow appears as the sun begins to rise and then all of a sudden, as if someone has switched on daytime we have a glorious bright morning. The November sunshine and long shadows allowed us to work outdoors in just t-shirts until around 5.15pm, when we have the reverse of the morning with lights out at 5.30pm prompt.

With around 96 olive trees and only 10 hours of daylight each day, we knew we had to work quickly. The olives ideally should be taken off to the press within three to four days of picking to avoid any of the fruit from oxidising and becoming mouldy. The maths meant that we would need to pick 24 trees a day or around 2.5 trees per hour. We had averaged around ten a day at the Hipwell’s although there were more people doing the picking, so we were under no illusion that we would not get them all done.

Over the past few weeks I’d made lots of meals that could be easily reheated at the end of a picking day and stashed these away in our little freezer so that as much time as possible could be spent outdoors harvesting. We set the alarm for 6.30am and by 7am we were working on the trees. The days were sunny and warm and it felt so good to be gathering in our first crop. Mark had been given a wi-fi speaker as a present so we were able to sing along to Radio 2 as we picked. We even had a shout out from Steve Wright which was lovely.

When picking olives by hand, there is also a lot of leaves mixed in with the crop and these have to be removed before bagging and taking to the press. To maximise our daylight hours we decided that this was a job that could be done at the end of the day, in the courtyard using a couple of spotlights that we’d brought with us from the UK. This is were the sieve and the leaf blower came into their own. we switched the blower onto suck and the leaves were sucked up and separated from the olives before being jettisoned from the back. Positioning was key as Mark found out on a number of occasions when he strayed into my jet-stream and found himself spitting out olive leaves.

Hand-picking was definitely very time consuming and we were very grateful when Steve and Angela came over to give us a hand for a day. They were professional pickers for a number of years and have certainly not lost any of their skills. It was great to spend time with them laughing and joking and also picking their brains about not only the olives but also the other fruit trees we have on the farm.

Many of the local farmers hand-pick in exactly the same way although we have noticed a few growers using a long handled, vibrating tong to shake the olives from the branches and onto nets spread out under the trees. These seems much less labour intensive and definitely a consideration for next year.

By the end of the fourth day, it was time to pack the truck so that we could have an early start the following day heading off to the olive press. Mark strategically placed our bags and crates on the back of the truck and carefully covered them over with a tarpaulin. Not sure what weight we had loaded, we knew we would have to drive slowly and fastened the tarp down with ropes and ratchets to keep it all secure. In an attempt to avoid the long queue that we’d joined when taking the Hipwell’s olives to press, we decided to set our alarm for 5am.

By 6am we were on our way, figuring that the early bird catches the worm. It was an hours drive to the press which opened at 7am so we thought that if we were one of the first in the line, all being well we should be unloaded and back home by lunch.

At 7am we arrived at the press in Montforte de Beira and couldn’t believe our eyes. There were 28 vehicles all loaded with varying quantities of olives in front of us. Dismayed, we joined the line thankful that we had packed some lunch just in case. Other vehicles seeing the length of the queue slowly drove past us, down the line and then drove off obviously not wanting to wait.

by 11.30am we hadn’t moved! People were walking up and down the road stopping and chatting and some were reading a scribbled note that had been stuck on the van in front of us. Eventually, from time to time we edged slowly forwards inching closer to the prized press. We had brought Wanda with us so I walked her up the country lanes around the villages several times. She also had a packed lunch which she enjoyed as well as sleeping on the back seat in-between her hikes.

By 4pm we were still some way from the entrance to the olive press and there were now half a dozen or so vehicles behind us. Concerned that we would not get in before the press closed at 7pm we went in search of one of the olive press operatives who we knew spoke good English.

He apologised and explained that we would not be getting our olives unloaded that day. He went on to tell us that the handwritten scribbled note on the van in front said that it would be the last vehicle of the day and suggested that we camped out for the night so that we would be first in when they re-opened the following day. Gutted, and feeling very deflated we could do nothing but plead with him to let us in explaining that we had been waiting since 7am and that we had travelled over an hour to get there. We had not read the note and as it was written in Portuguese we would have struggled with our limited knowledge to understand it. We’d noticed some people reading it and had thought that perhaps the vehicle was for sale. How wrong could we be!

The operative and Mark went of to see the foreman who then went off to see the owner who then thankfully agreed that we could be the last vehicle and so we settled ourselves to wait even longer.

The yard in the press smelt lovely, there was a continuous processing of olives going up the conveyor belt into the machinery and the air around smelt earthy, like green freshly cut grass mixed with a nutty aroma. We noticed a group of people gathered at the back of the yard and we were invited over to join them. There was a huge granite open fireplace with large logs spitting and burning and it gave off a lovely warm glow as the night began to close in. We were made to feel welcome and we chatted in a mixture of basic Portuguese and a bit of English. The chatting and laughing went on into the night with beer and wine being shared around. Some people even came just for the social aspect and didn’t actually have any olives of their own. By midnight most of the crowd had dispersed, our truck was in the yard waiting to be unloaded and the gates had been closed behind us.

We waited for our crates and tipped in our fruit. Over to the weighbridge and we were really happy to see that we had picked almost three quarters of a ton. By 1.30 am were were on our way home, somewhat bewildered, extremely tired and so thankful for the kindness of the people in the press. We were told that the operatives would continue working until 3am to clear some off the backlog before grabbing a couple of hours sleep and then back to work at 7am.

Two days later we returned to collect our oil, this time winding our way through the narrow streets to the back of the press. These little streets were definitely not designed for trucks and a couple of times we almost scratched the sides. Arriving at the rear entrance we handed over our ticket and asked how much we needed to pay. We were told 17 Euros which we queried as this seemed unbelievable cheap. The clerk explained how it has been calculated and assured us this was correct so we paid and loaded our containers on to the back of the truck. We had a yield of 115 litres and learned that it had a ph reading of 0.6 which we were told was a very good quality extra virgin olive oil.

With our 23 containers firmly secured we set off back home very pleased with the results of our first harvest.

We had only been driving about 20 minutes when we decided to turn around and go back. There was something not right about the amount we had paid and we couldn’t understand how it could possibly be so little. Re-negotiating the narrow streets once again was not quite as successful and when we finally pulled up outside the back door of the press we had two scratches to the paintwork and a big scuff on the bumper.

Catching the attention of the clerk he hurried over to see us looking extremely relieved. He had thought we had already paid for the pressing and only needed to pay for the containers. As we had left the press so early in the morning we hadn’t written our telephone number on the slip so he had no way of contacting us. We paid the outstanding balance and then keen to sample our oil headed home once again.

Definitely an experience to remember.

Autumn ….

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!

Slowly but Surely!

Who would have thought back in January 2020 when we first heard of a new virus, the devastating effect it would have.  The speed at which the coronavirus has spread around the world has shocked us all, with almost everyone being affected in some way or another. 

With the uncertainty around Brexit back in December 2020 and the ever-changing travel restrictions we were fortunate to be able to make the move without any real challenges along the way. 

Now here, we feel really safe living on our remote little Quinta, leaving only when we need to shop for essential things and even then, making sure we stock up on supplies so that we minimise the number of times we needed to venture off reservation.

We are working hard on our renovations, with Mark now doing much of the work himself to save on labour costs.  He’s one man, with one pair of hands and at times we feel that we are not progressing as quickly as we would like – but slowly but surely we can see the changes that are taking place. I suppose it’s only when we take a step back to remember what the longhouse was like when we first arrived that we can really appreciate what has been achieved.

Google translate has become our new best friend when ordering materials and finding out what is available – but the problem is that not all materials are available.

We were aware that post-Brexit the cost of raw materials was expected to dramatically rise and in some cases this has exceeded 35%.  This increase has had a knock-on effect with construction companies in-turn increasing the cost of the services they provide.  The demand for materials is high, but there is a shortage of supply, which causes an inflationary effect.  Some companies pre-empted the situation and stocked up on their essential raw materials but this is not the case for every business.

There is now a shortage of wood for carpentry, steel for building works and PVC, glass and aluminium for doors and windows. This problem seems to be world-wide and something that we have heard to be extremely challenging for Portuguese companies.

We ordered the first batch of our windows and doors for the longhouse back in February only to be repeatedly told that there was a shortage in the glass that was needed to finish our order.   There was then the problem of most people taking their holidays during August, causing firms to close for much of the month again delaying the manufacturing of necessary raw materials and then the production of the windows.  All very frustrating.  Not for one minute did I think that we would still be living in the annexe 10 months down the line!

Finally, at the start of September phase 2 of our windows and doors were fitted meaning that we are now water-tight.  It feels good not having to perform the daily ritual of removing or re-fixing the boards where the windows should be and we can get a better idea of how the longhouse will look at completion.

To a lot of people, the concept of spending the majority of our time on the farm sounds like an ideal situation, and in many ways it is.  On the farm we can we can walk around, without the need to wear a mask,  we’re not forever being reminded about hand-washing (although we do, because you should anyway!) and as we live in a very rural part of Portugal, we don’t really mix with anyone, other than during our trips to the shops or when catching up with the Hipwells or the Handscombes. 

This being said, for the past 10 months we have often felt as though we have been stood on the perimeter of a world disaster, watching the news with a feeling of helplessness, wondering if our family and friends back in the UK are safe.  We love our farm, we love living here and we look forward to the time when we can have visitors to stay.  With regards to the virus, it is quite obvious that it won’t be going away.  Focussing on the positives, truly appreciating just what we have and learning to how to live with the coronavirus is the way forward. 

Apart from the problems obtaining materials, our biggest challenge has always been our inability to speak Portuguese.  We had been looking to sign up for a course since we arrived and only now have we been able to do this.  We’ve had a couple of chuckles over the past months when we have got things totally wrong and always knew we needed to learn sooner rather that later.  One glaring example of this was Mark’s attempt to communicate via a Whatsapp message in Portuguese with a builders merchant.  The translation obviously didn’t cut it and the reply was What??  Goodness knows what he nearly bought.

I noticed a posting on a local Facebook page advertising a government language course in Alpedrinha, about 15 minutes drive from where we live.  We completed the necessary paperwork and to our delight (well mine anyway!) were both accepted on to the course.  We’d heard that these courses were often intense, focussing on being grammatically correct instead of purely conversational Portuguese, but after being assured that it was not essential to have a large Portuguese vocabulary we went along.  There are two lessons each week on a Thursday and Friday evening between 7pm and 10pm.  The lessons are split into 6 modules with a test after each one and an exam at the end, sometime during March.

It has been a long time since either of us have studied and if I thought getting my head around the physics of my radiography qualification was difficult, this is something else.  Our teacher, Professora Isabella is lovely and very patient, but by her own admission her English is limited and she hopes to learn English as she teaches us Portuguese.  There are 13 other students on the course, some have a good command of the language already and all seem to have more knowledge than us. 

We have bought a children’s educational book and do Duolingo to supplement the workbooks we are given in class.  We’re finding it extremely difficult, but to help I have written out post-its and crib-sheets which I have stuck on the wall wherever Mark is working so that anytime he lifts his head up from what he is doing he can practice his numbers and phrases.  Anyone peeping in the window when he is in mid-flow,  will find a spectacle to behold. 

Last month we managed a mad dash back to the UK to visit friends and family – which was long overdue and thoroughly enjoyed.  It was lovely to be able to hug our families without having to wear masks even though it did seem a bit strange as Portugal still requires the wearing of face coverings. It also seemed strange to drive on the left of the road and live in a street with neighbours all around – just shows how we have become used to our new life.

We knew that while we were in the UK, our vegetable plot would take a beating due to the lack of water, there was nothing we could do about it as we are yet to install automatic irrigation.  It is on our “list” but way down in the priority stakes at the moment. Our neighbour, Dave, offered to take us to and from the train station and while we were away he very kindly watered our vegetables. Having invited him to help himself to anything while we were in the UK, he said there was so much growing he just couldn’t let it go to waste so brought his pump and used the water from the well to keep everything watered. 

Today I harvested yard long beans, aubergines, quince, yellow plum and black Russian tomatoes with still the promise of much more to come. It seems unreal that at the end of September the courgettes and aubergines are still flowering and there are tomatoes growing outdoors.  Apart from some potatoes and carrots, we haven’t bought fruit and vegetables since April and we now have a bountiful supply of jams, chutneys and pickles as well as fruit pie fillings, moussakas and roasted vegetables in the freezer. We’ve even been able to share some of our crops and produce.

Mark convinced me during one of our shopping trips that a a rather industrial sized breaker gun was classified as an essential purchase. It is huge and makes him look like something out of the Terminator. There is a need to totally remove the kitchen floor to lower the level but also as we are frequently finding a circle of moisture appearing in the middle of the floor, we are keen to find out what is causing it. There are a number of theories … it may be simply moisture penetrating through the cement, it may be that the floor was built on granite boulders so only a thin layer of gravel an concrete has been used, or as it is a circular shape, there could even be a well underneath. Whatever it is, Mark and Beasty Bertha, the Breaker Gun are going to find out. Watch this space!!

Obrigado por ler nosso blog

Mark and Gill

Once bitten, twice shy!!

Portugal is a country well used to forest fires but in 2017 it suffered a new type of fire that the WWF have classed as being a sixth-generation mega fire, clearly linked to global change. WWF’s report.

The fires were uncontrollable and were repeated again later that year in both Portugal and Spain. In fact, the fires are now so common that Portugal has introduced extra preventative measures to help manage the outbreaks.

The typical wildfire season traditionally runs from June right through into September although we have heard that at times when there has been low rainfall, there have also been fires in April showing just how the change in climate is actually extending the fire period.

With dried out forests, untended rural land and strong and often unpredictable winds to fan the flames, the resulting fires can take days to put out. It is very un-nerving when a fire comes close with it’s acrid smell, thick black smoke and being able to see the wind spread the flames across and down the mountainside. Very scary to say the least.

The majority of firefighters, the Corpos de Bombeiros exist in most communities are are made up of volunteer firemen who do an absolutely amazing job. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen the fire engines racing off on several occasions to tackle the reported outbreaks. However, due to the often very rocky terrain, it is not always possible to access fires by land and it becomes necessary to attempt to put them out from the air.

A couple of weeks ago, when Mark was working in the longhouse and I was tidying the veggie plot we suddenly smelt smoke. Looking up to the mountains we could see that there were trees alight about a mile and a half from our Quinta. The wind was very strong, possibly because we live in a basin, and although we couldn’t see any flames the smoke was certainly moving very quickly toward us.

Within minutes two helicopters carrying huge bags of water and two bright yellow water planes were on the scene. They flew back and forth to the nearby Barragem to refill with water and it took about an hour for the smoke to subside. Although it looked at though the fire was out, we learnt that due to the deep roots of eucalyptus trees, they can remain on fire for days threatening to reignite the nearby trees at any point.

The next day, on our trip to the fountain to collect our drinking water, we drove past dozens of charred trees and blackened vegetation on the mountain side and we could see first hand the extent of the damage from the fire and over the next couple of days it was reassuring to see the helicopters checking the area out. I’m not sure exactly what started this particular fire, but as I’ve already mentioned, all very scary stuff re-enforcing the need to keep rural land cleared and follow the fire prevention advice.

On average each year fires destroy around 110,000 hectares, mostly due to negligence and despite the laws and hefty fines relating to land clearing, the fires continue. We try very hard to keep our farm tidy and as much as possible free from combustible materials such as dried grass, cuttings and general rubbish. Up until May, we were allowed to have bonfires on the farm to burn our waste but from June, it has been considered too hot and too dry for fires.

Although we’d cleared as much as we could before the deadline, we do still have some vegetation such as suckers from the olive trees and the long rambling vines that we need to dispose of on a regular basis but don’t want to start creating a huge pile of waste.

Fortunately we were gifted a shredder in the UK which has come in really useful shredding weeds, brambles and cuttings. It is a fantastic bit of equipment that turns a decent size bonfire into a small pile of shredded stuff which can then be burnt once the fires are allowed again. We have also learnt that our neighbours, Julie and Dave have several goats who just happen to love eating vines and olive trees.

We try to arrange our pruning days for when they are at their farm and pop our bags of cuttings round to Billy and his pals who soon get stuck in helping themselves from the bags and from the back of the truck.

After a couple of weeks working hard in the longhouse and on the land, we decided to take a well earned day off and head up the Gardunhas for a picnic with the Handscombes. With the temperature almost reaching 40, we were glad of the aircon in the truck although the narrow roads and steep drops left Mark feeling more than a bit hot under the collar.

Turning off towards Alcongosta we wound our way up the narrow mountainside, along the even narrower roads, through a couple of villages and up on past several families gathering together with apparently the same idea of having a picnic. After about 15 minutes the narrow road turned into an even narrower track and we found we had left the cars and people far behind us. Eventually, we reached the top of the mountain and parked up. The spectacular 360 views and the feeling of complete peace and solitude were breath-taking.

We pulled up next to a watchtower and apart from one solitary person acting as an early warning system for the fires we were the only people around for miles. Conveniently, there was a granite table and benches for us to use for our picnic, although there was the option of putting a picnic table on the hand-gliding platform had we wanted to. Nobody did.

We spent a lovely couple of hours chilling, chatting and enjoying our day off but the next day it was back to work as usual.  We had let Jose the electrician know that we had boarded and painted the walls in the first part of the long house so he came back and spent a day connecting the sockets, switches and lights. 

There was still no sign of our floor tiles being delivered and we were told that there was a problem with the manufacturing so it could be weeks if not months before we could get the ones we had chosen.  We decided that the best thing would be to go back to the store and choose some different ones so one Saturday morning headed back to Tortosendo. 

There really is a vast selection to choose from with tiles to suit all tastes, styles and budgets.  However, we couldn’t find anything we liked so decided to have the same design throughout the first five rooms choosing a design that looked aged.  The longhouse is over 120 years old so we have tried to be sympathetic to its history.  There are plain and patterned tiles and the plan is that by carefully choosing the layout, the rooms will look similar, but not quite the same.  When it come to tiling the new build, we will contrast this by choosing a very modern design, but this is way down the line.

A week later our tiles were delivered by a very friendly and talkative delivery driver who didn’t speak a word of English.  Mark’s fundamental lack of Portuguese led to a very confused and disjointed conversation with finally some breakthrough when he recognised that our extension had been done by Ecositana.  We learnt that he lived in the next village but that was about all we learnt after approximately half an hour of conversation  –  once again highlighting the need for us to take Portuguese language lessons.

It took quite a few days for Mark to lay the bathroom tiles, mostly due to the uneven floor.  At one end of the room he used 3 millimetres of adhesive, whilst at the other end, to level everything up it was more like a centimetre.  What would be quite straightforward in a room with a level floor and straight walls became very complicated and time consuming.  However, with the bathroom floor complete and grouting done, the next room to tackle was the snug.  If we thought the bathroom was uneven, the snug was something else! 

The Snug floor slopes off in different directions, has a hump in the middle and an even larger slope into the next room.

We are learning  that unorthodox methods have to be applied to get the jobs done and only by adapting can we achieve the results we want.  This results in the whole process being more protracted but we get there in the end. 

While Mark was busy in the longhouse, I was busy out on the land.  I’m usually quite disciplined in packing everything away at the end of the day but on one particular occasion I’d left my gardening gloves out on the table.  I went to put them on the following day and woke up a rather angry spider which had decided to make its home in one of the fingers.  It let me know it wasn’t happy by delivering a nasty bite leaving two red bite marks. For about twenty minutes my finger was numb before getting pins and needles and finally returning to normal.

Fortunately, all my years of working at a dental practice and the training on managing sharps injuries held me in good stead and so no harm was done.  The big lesson of the day though was to be mindful where I leave my gloves and now when they are not in use, can be seen hung upside down on the washing line.

It’s a Dog’s Life!

With the temperatures in the late 30’s most days now, Wanda is finding it all a bit too hot. She loves her early morning and evening walks around the farm when it is much cooler – chasing her ball and catching up on all the sniffing she has to do, but during the day she is choosing to spend most of her time indoors out of the heat.  Despite having regular haircuts, she (and us), were finding that the temperature was quite uncomfortable at times.  We’d bought a table top fan when we were here during the summer of 2019 and although this does help a little bit, it is only really fanning around the already hot air.

After one particular hot and very restless night with hardly any sleep, we decided that we needed to buy an aircon unit.  But which one?  There are so many about these days.  As the portable ones can be moved around from room to room, with no need for a box on the outside wall, we decided to go for this type. 

Back in the UK, I had a portable aircon in my office at Castle Park Dental Care which was not only really effective, it had the added bonus of being able to heat as well as cool.  With the knowledge that Chris Branfield is the master of all things “research”,  I called the practice and asked for photos of my old unit along with the information label on the back. I wanted something to compare the ones in the shops to and with this in hand we set off for Castelo Branco with the dream of a cool and peaceful nights sleep.

The main issue seems to be noise – they can be quite noisy.  We want to be able to leave it running while we sleep, so needed to invest in one that is as quiet as possible. My old office aircon was 51 dB(A) and I could manage with that so anything around this mark we figured would be a good starting point. We hadn’t been looking very long when I spotted the exact same model as my old one on display in the store. Rushing over to it like a long lost friend, I quickly read over the stats to double check everything was still the same. It was. In fact, it was slightly quieter …… so 10 minutes later it was fastened securely on the back of our truck and we were on our way home to try it out.

It needed a hole making in the wall for the vent and a bit of making good before we were ready to give it a go. I set it at 16 degrees and let it do it’s stuff. The room was very hot so it had to work hard to get the temperature down, but before long it was lovely and cool. We can now sleep very well and although Wanda does still spend most of her days indoors, she is now as cool as a cucumber. It’s such a dogs life!!

We love eating outdoors and I think that one of the things we are enjoying the most is being able to decide that we are going to have a BBQ without having to check the weather forecast first.   It had been a while since we had caught up with the Hipwell’s and even longer since we had met up with Steve and Angela – so we decided we would get the charcoal out and invite them over for a lazy Sunday afternoon.   

Home grown salad with everything fresh from the veggie patch was a treat. I’ve never come across Sorrel before but I received a packet of sorrel seeds in a Christmas present and decided to give them a go. For anyone who hasn’t tasted sorrel (I hadn’t) it is a tangy herb, often used as a salad green with a slightly sour taste, a bit like lemon zest, and I found it a delicious “something special” to add to a bowl of salad. I’ve read that it can also be served with fish and rice and will certainly be experimenting with that.

There was also home grown minted potatoes and such a huge selection of different meats from the BBQ I’m surprised people didn’t get meat-sweats!!.  Desert was “double pud” home made strawberry cheesecake and cream (I can’t take the credit for growing the strawberries but they were especially bought in celebration of Wimbledon) and lemon sorbet with lemon shortbread. We’d been given some lemons on a recent visit to see our neighbours Dave and Julie and these were put to good use.

I’ve mentioned before the goody bag of pressies that Mark’s dad gives out at Christmas and though not knowing exactly when they will be used, being confident that at some point in time everything will come in handy.  This was one of those times.  There seemed to be a lot of irritating flies buzzing around and these little lacey net covers from out of my 2018 goody bag were just the thing for covering the food.  They popped out in the same way an umbrella does and were absolutely perfect for the job!! 

The pace of work on the longhouse has slowed down slightly as we’ve had to leave the farm to go into Fundao and Castelo Branco on a number of occasions – sometimes our working day was less than 4 hours. 

Marks initial apprehension of not skimming the walls and painting directly on to plasterboard was unfounded as he has done a great job painting and the walls look fabulous.  My daughter Amy, on one of our Facetime calls commented that they were actually starting to look like real rooms!   However, not skimming did have its downside as each joint and gap had to be filled and then sanded down by hand until it was smooth to remove all the bumps and excess material.  Only then,  could a priming coat be applied to the plasterboard before painting.  This was extremely time consuming but one of those jobs which had to be done properly without cutting corners.  Mark has commented several times how repetitive the whole process seems to be and that he feels he is doing the same job over and over.  

It really does look lovely though and I’m starting to daydream where I’m going to put the Christmas Tree !!

One of the trips off the farm was to visit the Ecositana workshop to meet up with Raphael and Laura.  We wanted to talk to them about internal doors and find out what options they can offer.  To our delight there were actually quite a lot to choose from so we took the catalogue home to decide what we wanted.  Raphael sent us a link to the different types of door handles we could have and after making our choice we returned back to the workshop a few days later.  We are always impressed by the attention to detail afforded by Ecositana, and the personal touch.  Antonio contacted the suppliers whilst we were still in the office and we are now looking forward to them coming and measuring up for our new doors.     

The new windows continue to be a bit of a no-show and with the pending Portuguese holiday season approaching, where it would seem that nobody works in August, we are bracing ourselves for a September installation at best.

While much of Portugal has access to mains water, we are in the 50% of rural Portugal that still uses water mines, bore holes or wells for drinking and irrigation.

Although the spring water from our mine has been tested, and considered safe to drink, we are still collecting our drinking water from the communal fountain in Alpedrinha, using the mine for washing and cooking. We do have tap water as Mark and Andy did a great job back in 2019 installing pipework and a pump from the mine up to the long house. The pressure is a little unreliable and the pump wouldn’t work if we had a power-cut so mains water would be the preferred choice. Mains water would also be filtered so kinder to our new boiler.

We realise our first 12 months on the farm is a year of learning and one of the things we need to know is how plentiful our water supply is. We have been to Aqualia to find out if it is possible to be connected to the municipal pipework. It is, but not without a considerable cost, so for now we need to be careful with the natural resources we already have and not waste any.

With the absence of mains water and no prospect of getting this in the foreseeable future, we need to take stock and make note of what we have at different times of the year.  We have two wells, a small pond which is heavily overgrown with trees, bushes, brambles and long grasses as well as a water mine with fresh spring water.  One of our wells bizarrely has a tree growing out of it, but then we are told that almost every well in Portugal has one! The open well and the water mine feed the little brook that runs across the bottom terraces and the flow of the water in the brook is always a good indication of how much water we have. 

We have 2 septic tanks for our sewage and have come up with a couple of ways of recycling our grey water. As in many Portuguese homes, our washing machine is in the bathroom, which as luck would have it is within 2 metres of our veggie plot. Mark has directed the waste water pipe on to the veggie plot and the cabbages and chard are definitely benefitting from it.

For now, the pond complete with its overgrowth will have to be a battle for next year although we can see that the water level has significantly dropped.

We found a large red tub which has previously been used for wine making and have relocated it to the terrace outside of the annexe. Each day we can be seen carrying our buckets of waste water from the bath, kitchen and cleaning across to the tub to save it for using later on. It will hold approximately 400 litres and we manage to fill in in 5 days. This water is used to irrigate the land – either the vegetable plot, the vines or the olive trees. We figured it’s not a massive amount, but we’re not ones for waste and every little drop helps. Having invested in a submersible pump and some irrigation sprinklers, we can leave it to get on with doing the watering while we get on with something else. 

We’ve had the inevitable wobbles and hiccups along the way which are usually managed by sitting down over a coffee (or a cerveja) and working out what we would do differently if we had the opportunity to go back and do it all again.  Our latest hiccups didn’t need a post-mortem…..   we need to get on with learning the Portuguese language “rapido”.

Our morning routine is pretty predictable – watering the veggie plot and trees, fetching the water from the long house for a bath, plot walk with Wanda, prepping the evening meal and a board meeting to plan our day while sat on the bench that Mark has made from recycled timber and tree trunks found on the farm.


We’ve picked up quite a few words in Portuguese along the way and the supermarkets generally have a picture on the packaging as a bit of a fail safe. On one of our recent shopping trips, seeing a picture of a chicken on the carton and recognising the word frango, we had spotted some very reasonably priced diced chicken which we had popped into our trolley.

One particular day was especially lovely and our extra early start had paid dividends as we were all done and dusted with our chores by 8.30am. We’d decided to have casserole and home grown vegetables for dinner so had made a trip up to the chest freezer in the long house to get the diced chicken out to defrost.

Tipping the frozen contents into a terracotta pot I added mushrooms, garlic, onions, peppers and spices, covered it with water and tinfoil and left it to thaw out while we got on with our day. Mark decided to do a bit more to the bridge and I worked on the veggie patch – weeding and harvesting the sweetcorn, courgettes and radishes.

By four o’clock we were tired, hot and hungry so I switched on the oven and started to clear away the gardening equipment and water the now very tidy vegetable plot.

There’s something about the smell of onions cooking that is so lovely and homely and we were both looking forward to dinner and chatting about out day. The vegetables were almost ready so I lifted out the casserole to do a taste check. Despite the lovely aroma it was horrible – all gristle and rubbery. I took a closer look and even though I was brought up in a butchers shop, I couldn’t recognise what I was looking at – such strange shapes now that it had been defrosted and not a bit like diced chicken.

Quite alarmed, I retrieved the packaging from the bin.  The picture was still a chicken, it still said Frango, but there was another word as well, Moelas, that I typed into my trusted google translate.  Moelas literally translated mean gizzards. 

I would definitely not recommend gizzard casserole for Sunday Dinner – we had crackers and cheese and resolved to sign up to the next Portuguese available language course that we saw advertised !!

The Bird’s Share!

The frustration with the skimming saga continued as the new product proved problematic to apply to the ceilings and it was almost unworkable at times.  Not sure whether the heat was a major factor but the challenge was such to the extent that the plastering rule book had to be thrown out of the window.  Mark, in a very unorthodox method, instead of fully coating the ceiling from beginning to end, found it had to be plastered in strips of approximately 3 feet wide trying to feather in all the seams as he went along to avoid cracking.  This appears to have been successful but the jury is out until it is fully dried.

Mark tells me that he has never sweated so much in all of his life and that attempting this while leaping up and down stepladders during a Portuguese summer is definitely a young mans game, not someone who is 58 years of age.

The bathroom was revisited once the filling of the joints had been completed to make some recesses in the wall.  Once the shower has been sited these will create a simple but effective way of creating space for shower gels and shampoos.  This was a relatively simple process removing some of the block wall and relining the openings with waterproof plasterboard, which in turn will then be tiled and grouted.

With the plaster-boarding, filling and skimming all done, it was time for us to head off and pick up some paint. 

We have brought a number of tins of matt white with us from the UK, courtesy of Mark’s sister, so we are pretty much stocked up in that quarter.  However, we have found out that it is usual to add a coat of primer to the plasterboard instead of skimming the walls as we have mentioned in our earlier blogs. 

We’re yet to ascertain whether there is anything special about this type of paint other that it being pretty expensive and  that it creates a base to put surface coats onto.   Mark got to work applying this to the walls in the cupboard and the hallway to try it out.  Initial impressions are that it does what it says it does on the tin, but the proof is in the pudding once the top coats have been applied.

Down on the veggie plot and around the farm we have been seeing the fruits of our labour (do please excuse the pun – I couldn’t resist!!). Our year of learning is certainly becoming just that and the land is teaching us new things every day. At times we feel quite humbled at how little we do actually know but at the same time we are really enjoying our lessons.

Time and time again we are in awe of nature and how it provides for our every need. This past year with the pandemic dictating almost every move we all make, we’ve definitely learnt that the most peaceful and rewarding times have been those spent outdoors working on our little quinta. We’ve also discovered that as we are learning to slow down from the busy and hectic life we had back in the UK, we now notice the plants and trees that we have on the plot and how they change throughout the different seasons. We were once too busy to heed the beauty of nature and are now seeing and enjoying even the very smallest change on a daily basis.

Keen to be the star pupil Mark is writing in his diary the developments on the land so that we know the different growth stages, when to expect a harvest and the best times for us to plan when to do our pruning and cutting back. We feel that this will be extremely helpful developing the farm over the coming years.

With the cherry season passed, on came the season for picking our purple figs. I’ve never seen figs so large and so scrumptious. Our morning walks around the farm have involved eating two or three figs for breakfast as we checked out the plot. We soon found that one of the greatest pleasures is to bite into a juicy fig fresh picked straight off the tree. It took a while for us to work out exactly when they were ready for eating as they often looked ripe before they actually were.

Our figs are ripe when they feel soft when pressed and when we start to see white cracks appear on the outside. They are absolutely delicious – full of sticky loveliness, a kind of cross between molasses and caramel. There were hundreds of them – and just like we were with the oranges, we didn’t want to waste any. Lots of experimenting in the kitchen has produced figgy crumble, sweet fig pie, fiery fig chutney, roasted fig and root vegetables and fig and feta parcels. The purple figs have finished now but we have plenty tucked away in the freezer to savour another day.

As it was with the cherries, the birds seem to be our partners in the harvest. The cherry and fig trees are way too tall so we can’t reach the topmost branches to pick the fruit. They are desperately in need of a haircut, but for now, we have more than enough to go round and we are happy for the birds to have their share.

On a well-balanced quinta the farmers, plants, trees, animals and birds are all connected with each other and we all have our own individual parts to play.

Since moving here in December we have had regular visits from the sheep belonging to the shepherd over the road.  They would climb up to bank and peep in through our fence to see what we were up to, constantly nibbling at the grass and in the process playing their part in keeping it all neat and tidy.  I think as they eyed up Wanda, they may well have though that she was a long lost cousin with her curly hair.

Early last week we noticed that the shepherd (we have affectionately given him the name “Shep”) arrived one morning with another man and a very large truck.  The sheep were rounded up into the truck and then taken away.  It was all very sad and I found that my mind was straying off to them throughout the day.  A couple of the larger ones used to wear bells around their necks which clanged as they grazed and the silence that followed in the wake of their absence was almost deafening. 

I know it’s the food chain and the circle of life and all that stuff but I could remember their lovely little faces and their nosiness.   A couple of days ago Shep and his truck was back again with a whole new flock complete with a couple of them wearing bells.  It’s good to see animals in the fields, roaming freely, happily grazing and looking quite content and settled.

When we first came to see the farm back in January 2019, the land was extremely overgrown and it was almost impossible to make out where one terrace started and another one finished. We did notice though a band of very dark green grass running through the lower terraces and on looking closer saw that it was a brook fed by the water mine and the open well. We loved the idea of having running water across the land and it was always our intention to make this into something special.

Mark has made a series of “locks” or “dams” to help regulate the flow along with a rustic bridge (although it is not quite finished on this photo) made from the reclaimed timbers removed from the old roof when Ecositana were here doing the construction work.

This means we can take the ride on tractor across the brook to cut the grass on the other side. Wanda has got really apt at jumping across it and we seem to be equally as apt at throwing Wanda’s balls smack into the middle of it.

It is really hot at the moment, around mid to late 30’s and most of the grass has turned brown. The brook is still feeding the grass and plants on its bank and we can still see the dark green band of lovely smelling mint along the full length. We are looking forward to working on this next year and making it into something more of a feature.

Our vision is to create a habitat which helps the birds, insects and wildlife to thrive.  We are all increasingly more aware about global warming and the destruction of ponds, hedgerows and pastures to make way for roads, houses and industrial buildings.  Although we do not expect to turn our quinta into a sanctuary for endangered species, we can do our bit in helping plants, birds and wildlife right outside our back door. We have little fieldmice, water voles, rabbits, various type of birds and insects all sharing our farm with us. Hopefully next year we will create a wildflower trail in our little wooded copse and encourage water-loving plants such as watercress, mint, lillies and marsh marigolds to grow along side our brook.

It’s the little things in our new life that we have come to value and appreciate. Our morning routine is pretty much set in stone with Mark still fetching the buckets of water, I set about watering the vegetables and trees and we both clean, sweep and mop our annexe and bathroom.

I think we both used to see this kind of stuff as a chore, or a hindrance to getting on with something we really wanted to do. Here on the farm we appreciate the simple things in life so much more – and this week our well-worn mop head was replaced with a brand new one. It made such a difference – like I said – it’s the little things!!

The Age of Aquarius!

My three weeks of Nanna heaven passed way too quickly.  I’d heard many times that being a grandparent was great because you could always pass the baby back.  The trouble was, I didn’t want to – we were having so much fun together! We went to the baby group and learnt baby massage and baby yoga, we went to the baby sensory group and learnt about using music and song in baby development, we went lots of times for a walk in the park and one day when we were having Nanna and Rupert tickles, he did his first giggle.  Priceless!! But all good things come to an end (for a short while at least) and with one last hug we said a tearful farewell.

Before setting off for home I’d decided to stock up on a few things we find difficult to buy in Portugal such as Bisto, anti-histamine tablets and a very large tub of my favourite Options white chocolate drink. I also took the opportunity to treat myself to a haircut and a bit of a pamper.  I didn’t think that I would be able get an appointment but after a long chat with Steve at “The Hairdressers” in Droitwich I went off to my appointment with the lovely Ella. She really had her work cut out as for the past 6 months I have been cutting Mark’s hair, Mark has been cutting my hair and we have both been cutting Wanda’s!

I’d forgotten just how lovely it felt to have a bit of a pamper and thoroughly enjoyed my head massage and re-style. I’ve never really been one for experimenting with hairdo’s but having decided that I would embrace my natural colour (which is definitely not blonde) I gave Ella a free reign. Delighted with the results, although unsure if I would ever be able to re-create this myself, I headed off with my little bag off hair product goodies! For anyone in the Droitwich area, I would definitely recommend https://www.thehairdressersdroitwich.co.uk/

The journey back to Portugal felt like a very long day. As well as having a repeat performance of getting all the paperwork, tests, checks and boarding pass sorted out, there was also a 3am start ready for my flight at 6am. Despite a 4 hour wait in Lisbon for my train, everything went like clockwork and by 4.30pm I was in the truck with Mark heading back to the farm and a very warm welcome from Wanda.

I was keen to have a good look round to see what had changed since I’d been in the UK. I was amazed at our veggie patch – it was as though everything had suddenly had a massive growth spurt and we had right in front of our little annex a bountiful supply of salad and vegetables all ready for the picking. There is something pretty special about stepping outside to pick your own dinner although it wasn’t only the produce that had been busy growing. It took two full days of weeding and trimming to get everything back in order.

The cherries, that at one time we were worried would not grow, were really big and juicy. While we were picking them from a tree on the top terrace, we were excited to see one of the “unknown” trees next to it had several tiny pears on it. I know I’ve said it before, but this first year really is one huge journey of discovery and appreciation of what we have.

Mark had made great progress in the longhouse although it had not been without it’s challenges. The old windows have now been removed and the openings made good ready to receive the next batch of windows, which we’re hoping won’t take quite as long to manufacture as the first batch did.

The metal batons are almost all done and the boarding out in the bathroom, bedroom and snug are completely finished. It’s not usual practice to skim over plasterboard in Portugal, and it seems that the normal way of doing things is to fill in the joints, sand everything back and then paint on top, something that Mark feels a bit apprehensive about at the moment as its totally alien to him working in this way. We’re learning to do things the Portuguese way, overcoming obstacles as we go along although the biggest problem that we are finding is that neither the walls nor the ceiling are in any way square. In fact, as can be seen in the photos above, the walls in some places are out by about 2 inches, even after some adjustments have been made so we have decided to accept that we have a quirky, rustic house that will always be out of alignment.

The ceilings are all very rough and uneven, so we’d invested in a bag of what we thought was skimming. It wasn’t. The large bucket full of stuff that Mark had mixed set within 5 minutes leaving us with a large block of “porcelain” in the bucket instead of on the ceiling. Back to Maxmat to buy a different product – which seems to do the job although still a bit tricky to apply.

While I was away in the UK, Mark had been experiencing a bit of bother with the boiler and more often than not had taken cold showers as there was no hot water.  The day after I returned, the boiler gave up the ghost, refusing to work at all.  

I like a gentle start to my day, not an icy cold one so a cold shower was not an option.  As we will hopefully be living up in the longhouse in a few weeks, which has just had a brand new boiler fitted, we didn’t want to invest in a new boiler for the annexe so we had to find another solution.

Mark filled four buckets of hot water from the longhouse and carried them two at a time to the annexe bathroom so that I could have a hot bath.  He was born under the sign of Aquarius (The water carrier) and at this moment in time I feel that there is some poetic irony in that as I watch him trundle back and forth with his buckets each day.

The weather has really turned up the temperature dial and having invested in a new outdoor thermometer have seen the mercury rise up in to the 90’s. I’ve had a go at tidying up the terrace alongside the annexe, getting rid of the bits of hardcore and cuttings that had been left there. The trees have been cut back, the banks have been weeded and we’ve even planted some flowers alongside the fence. An old garden table that we inherited has been jet-washed to within an inch of its life and we are now feeling ready to al fresco!