Over to Us!

It has seemed very quiet on the farm this past week or so without the to-ing and fro-ing’s of the workmen. Since starting the renovation at the beginning of the year they have been a big part of our daily routine. We’d had the weekends to ourselves and the odd day or two when the weather was too bad for them to work outdoors, but generally speaking they have been around and we have enjoyed watching our dream grow week by week.

The phrase “topping out” normally refers to the point in time when the final piece of the structure is installed on a building or perhaps when the roof has been completed. It is seen as a celebration and usually involves toasting the project with a glass or two of something nice. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the project has reached it’s completion, but signifies that the building has reached its full height. With this in mind, the roof of our barn and the longhouse is now complete and the barn is as tall now as it is ever going to be.

Not sure if it is the custom in Portugal to have a topping out ceremony when the builders have finished their part of the project, we would have nonetheless enjoyed doing this on their last day and were disappointed that the Covid restrictions had made this impossible. So, we’ve decided that we would like to have a bar-b-q and a bit of a gathering when restrictions allow, as a belated topping out, giving us the opportunity to celebrate the success of the build and to let the team know how much we appreciate their hard work.

It has certainly been a strange few months, socially distancing with only a wave or a “bom dia” as communication and not even being able to offer a friendly smile due to wearing our facemasks and we are looking forward to the times when some normality is re-instated.

With the Portuguese lockdown now eased, we took the opportunity to call by the Ecositana workshop with a couple of bottles of brandy for Antonio and Raphael and some beer for the workers. I think this went down well and both Antonio and Raphael were insistent that these should be drank together – so a Bar-B-Q it will be. Great minds think alike!

Since Simon first came to tinker with the buffalo, we haven’t managed to get it started again as it seemed to be stuck in gear, so he came back to have another go. This time he took the top off the gearbox and spent an hour or so stripping it down, cleaning it up and generally having a good look at it. For our part, we kept him well supplied with black coffee and biscuits and left him to do his stuff. Eventually, from where we were working outside of the annexe we could hear the deep snarl then growl as it once again kicked in to life.

We rushed up see what was happening and could see Simon out on the land walking alongside it. Mark didn’t want to let him go until we’d managed to start it for ourselves – it was quite a task to say the least. It’s a very old piece of machinery, and in UK terms probably an antique. It has no doubt been here for many many years so naturally it seemed right that we should do what we could to get it up running and back doing what it does best.

The modern day versions have some sort of electronic ignition to make things easier when stating up. This one has a rope fastened to a piece of timber that is wrapped round the front pulley wheel. To kick it into action, the rope needs to be wound around the wheel and yanked with some considerable force judging by Mark’s red face as he was starting it.

She is quite a temperamental old lady and doesn’t always want to co-operate. After several attempts, Mark did eventually get it started and was given some instructions from Simon on what does what and where and when – then he left us to get on with it. Getting it going does seem to be very technique sensitive but with a few gentle words and a bit of rough handling she was ready and willing.

The ground was hard and the ruts made by the crane in places were extremely deep. We knew we had our work cut out as there were two terraces to level, but we are keen to do as much on the land by ourselves and if nothing else we have the time and energy to give it our best shot.

The buffalo cut its way through the soil, dancing about whenever it reached one of the ruts. It appeared for all the world to resemble a scene of a world war 1 tank traversing the trenches. Mark was hanging on for dear life behind it, desperately trying to steer it in a straight line. I’m fairly certain that at times I saw both of his feet leave the ground at the same time as the buffalo dipped in and out of the deep trenches. Quite a sight to behold but great to see it doing its job.

Not wanting to damage the blades on any bricks and broken tiles left behind by the builders, I had the job of wheelbarrowing all the hardcore to the ever increasing mound that we find ourselves with. I smiled to think that back in December I needed “L” plates when using a wheelbarrow and now am quite confident manoeuvring it between terraces. I’m also confident pruning trees, cutting back the vines, driving the tractor and general manual labour. When cutting the grass around the plot in the ride-on tractor though I still need to learn to duck when passing under low branches on the fruit trees as I feel like I have been almost scalped a number of times now. I do wonder what other skills I’ll pick up over the coming years.

While I was clearing the way, Mark got on with rotavating, I definitely think he scored for the more strenuous of the jobs but it’s amazing what can be achieved with sheer grit and determination. We were keen to tidy our land and nothing was going to stop us.

We’ve often noticed a local couple passing by the farm on their Japanese Buffalo attached to a cart. As luck would have it, we inherited a cart with the sale of the farm and I am led to believe that once the rotavator blades have been disconnected, the cart can be attached to the main body of the buffalo and it can be used to transport soil, cuttings, rubble or even passengers.

There is a little wooden seat for the driver to sit on and there seems to be a lot of these being used in this way. We’ve even seen one parked up in Castelo Branco with a dining chair firmly fastened in the cart. Mark thinks he would be able to get our cart attached ok and has offered to take me and Wanda out for a test drive. To be honest, I’m a bit concerned that he seems to have visions of using it like a roman chariot or such like and for the moment at least, while he still needs a bit more practice I’m happy to stick to a more conventional way of getting around and use the car.

Levelling the land was tough going although we did manage to get both the two terraces 99% complete.  At one point the buffalo got stuck in a rut, spitting and spluttering as it sunk deeper into the waterlogged hole.  Several attempts later, after we had tried placing wooden chocks and bricks under the wheel to help it out, we resorted to BFI and the buffalo crawled out of the other side.  Deciding to give the boggy area a wide berth we carried on with the rest of the terrace.  8 hours later, with sore backs, aching arms and desperately in need of hot showers we stood back to admire our handiwork.  Not bad for a days work.  

The soil on the Quinta is very fine, with lots of sandy granite which means that it becomes very soft and difficult to walk on when rotavated without sinking in to it.  We were forecast to have some heavy showers so decided to leave it to settle, for the rain to compress it down and then to have another go once it had dried out. 

Getting back to the farm and in particular, the land,  there has been a lot to be getting on with.  As I’ve already mentioned,  we were due to have heavy wind and rains, so we were keen to do as much outside as we could.  We’ve adopted a kind of “indoor/outdoor” rule.  If it’s fine we’re out working on the land, if the weather is bad we’re working indoors. 

The early part of the week was extremely hot.  The factor 20 sun-cream came in really handy as did the bush hats – although I do think we need to have a wardrobe conversation before we get dressed in the morning!

When living back in the UK we knew that there would be a growth spurt in the garden once we’d had a bit of sunshine, but that is nothing compared to the scale here in Portugal. Our farm is so amazingly beautiful it almost feels as though we can see the leaves and fruit growing on the trees before our eyes.  

There are still number of trees and shrubs that were not really sure about – so they will be part of our learning curve for our first year – discovering what they are, when they flower and fruit, what we can use the produce for and how to prune and cut everything back.

We are fortunate to have Linda and Andy less than an hours drive away so often pick their brains and bounce our ideas off them and the little book Linda gave me about growing vegetables is proving extremely useful. They often donate plants, trees and shrubs to our little Quinta which they have dug up from their farm and so far these have taken really well to their new site.

Our recently planted fruit tree terrace is also becoming established – the nectarine, plum and cherry trees are all showing an abundance of green shoots and the little orange tree, although it does look a bit mottled has several white buds with the promise of blossom in the next week or so.

The Guava is holding it’s own and depending on the angle we are viewing it from gives the impression that it is perhaps developing new growth.  It’s difficult to say and maybe its something we are going to have to research a bit more.  I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Guava so perhaps will be able to try our home grown variety next year.

Elsewhere around the plot nature is waking up with beautiful fragrances all around.

The trees in the orange grove are now almost void of fruit although one of the trees at the end, with a slightly darker leaf to the others still has a few fruit remaining.  The new tree that we planted on the fruit terrace is supposed to be a late fruiter so we are hoping to be able to pick oranges for most of the year when this matures.  We will be harvesting the last of our oranges for juicing and eating later this week with the anticipation of a new crop around November time.  Nature is so divinely clever  –  it was almost as the last fruit fell that the orange blossom started to make an appearance – as my boss would say, it’s the circle of life!

The veggie plot is also doing well – with onions, swiss chard and broccoli added to it’s beds.  We’ve re-routed the grey water from the bathroom (where we also have the washing machine) into the veggie patch so it’s doing ok for irrigation.   Long term we will introduce a system that irrigates the whole of the plot through a pipe with little holes to create a bit of a sprinkler system, but for now we are managing as we are and using our waste water.

We’ve enjoyed taking the baton and starting the next phase of development the farm. It does feels very much “Over to us” now but we are loving every minute.

And the days grow longer ….

Portugal keeps exactly the same time as the UK (the only country on mainland Europe that does), changing from summer time to winter time.  The UK and Portugal have been very close for many centuries, in fact it is the oldest alliance in the world, so it is thought that this may explain why they choose to function in the same time zone.  As Portugal is on the same Meridan as GMT and they are almost the western-most point in mainland Europe, it also seems sensible from a solar time viewpoint.  Whatever the reason, our clocks were put forward one hour, we lost an hours sleep and gained an hour extra time to work on the farm.  

The seedlings were growing into strong and healthy little plants and there was a sense of urgency to get the veggie plot ready to receive them.  We’d turned over the soil some time ago and had been waiting for materials so that the fence could be constructed and the pathway laid.

We’d been given a recommendation by our neighbour for a builders merchant in Escarigo, so decided to pay them a visit and order the things we needed.  Famous for our poor navigation skills and not wanting to leave anything to chance, we entered the address into Google maps.  We set off driving along winding mountain roads and beautiful countryside, passing through several small villages on the way.  Eventually we were directed along a number of very small streets and were convinced that we had once again got ourselves lost as it seemed the most unlikely location for a builders yard.  Surprising enough though,  half way up a hill and in a residential area we reached our destination.  Donning our masks, we joined the socially distanced queue to wait our turn to be served.  We were soon greeted by a cheerful man called Sergio with a dry sense of humour.  His English was excellent which is always a big help so we were able to quickly place our order for delivery the next day.

The delivery driver did not speak any English and unfortunately due to the lack of language lessons our Portuguese remains extremely limited.  There was some deliberation where the delivery should be unloaded – the best Mark could offer was “Nao” (no) or “Aqui” (here).  Eventually after some frustrating lack of communication, the driver put it where he wanted anyway!  At the age of 58 unloading the 30 plus concrete kerb stones and 10 bags of cement by himself nearly finished Mark off and the only items not unloaded by hand were the sand and gravel!

On the plus side – we were given a free tutorial on how we should be pruning the vines, albeit it all in Portuguese.  The driver did seem very impressed with the farm and even more so when he saw the barn extension that Ecositana had built.  So much so that he got his phone out and made a little video.  

The veggie plot took time to create, I didn’t factor in needing to allow time for the concrete to set and digging trenches to place the kerb stones before then setting these in concrete as well.  I’d also forgotten just how much of a perfectionist Mark is and everything was perfectly measured and lined up.  Eventually, after 4 days it was complete – even though I do say it myself Mark had done a fantastic job (with a little bit of help).  First in were the sweetcorn, peas, beans, onions, kale and rocket.  Mark made a rather snazzy looking gate to keep out unwanted four legged visitors and I consulted Mark’s dad, Ray, about making some bug spray.  Linda gave me a book on growing vegetables which has a section on companion planting so I’m planning on introducing flowers in the patch as well.

Work in Progress

As we can’t really work in the long house at the same time as the Ecositana team and the electrician, it was always the plan that we would focus on doing the land and legal stuff first.  So many things to be getting on with and so many things either part completed or not even started, so we’ve made an executive decision to get a few of these ticked off before beginning anything else.  

The build continues to edge forwards and each day seems tantalising closer to completing the first phase.  Some days there are quite an army of people working on site, led of course by Sargent Antonio keeping everyone on track.  On other days we are down to one, two, or even nobody here.

However, this being said, a lot of preparation is being done in the workshop at Lardosa which means that when things arrive at the farm it is almost fully constructed with often only the fitting and finishing touches needed. 

During the past week, the main aspect of the building work has been the flat roof and the balcony.  Two water resistant membranes have been laid ready to receive the framework and decking.  It took a while to source but late in the week we took delivery of the decking boards which will hopefully be fitted next.   Apparently there has been a bit of difficulty getting hold of them.

The railings arrived part-assembled and before too long these were sited and the balcony was really looking the part. The cladding on the downstairs lounge extension was given another application of staining and visually, this made such a difference seeming to link the upper and lower levels. For the first time when standing back and looking at the project as a whole, the barn extension seems to “belong” to the original part of the property.

Meanwhile, Jose, the electrician had turned his attention to the far end of the long house starting to lay the now familiar blue conduit. The electric fuse box is so old it is illegal, so while replacing this we are taking the opportunity to try and conceal it as much as possible within the wall so it is less obvious.  As Jose does not speak English and as Raphael is not always on site to translate, we’d given Jose diagrams to work from to simplify the language barrier as much as possible.  Although this concept works well, he’s also quick to make suggestions which we are grateful for such as outdoor lighting – something we hadn’t factored in at all at this stage.

On one of the days when the Ecositana army was present, we decided that we would drive in to Fundao to try and register with a doctor.  Our EU cards are valid until their expiry date, but we wanted to make sure that we had a health number and if we needed to see a GP, we we were on a system somewhere. 

We went armed with passports, residency certificates, nif numbers and certification documents that we downloaded from the Portuguese website directly after Brexit.  We  have still not been able to join Potuguese language lessons due to the pandemic and current lockdown so we struggled to explain what we wanted.  However, Google translate really came in to its own and with a little bit of typing into my phone we got there.  I love how the Google translate app enlarges the translated text to fill the screen when I turn my phone sideways – helps with social distancing no end. 

It was all a little bit muddled to start with and we were passed from one person to another, trotting dutifully behind several different people as we were escorted through various departments.  Eventually we saw a really lovely GP who spoke excellent English and after sorting us out with healthcare numbers, she explained how we could access medical attention should we need it and the process for ordering prescriptions.  She also very kindly provided us with a medical certificate which we will be able to take along to the IMT so that we can exchange our English driving licences for Portuguese ones – another thing that we have started the process for but not finished.   

On our way back from visiting the Centro Medico, we decided to call in at the garden centre to pick up some things we needed.  It’s one of those shops that you could spend hours browsing around – lots of interesting bits and bobs that you would not necessarily expect to find for sale there. 

For some reason, I love hardware stores and garden centres.  I think it may go back to my childhood memories when my Mum and Dad owned “Handyman’s Corner” in my home town of Withernsea.  It is a small seaside town on the east coast of England where back in the day everybody knew everybody else and we all looked out for each other. 

Being on the coast, every summer we had an influx of holidaymakers who would come and stay in the caravans.  My parents shop sold caravan offcuts, gardening tools and all sorts of DIY things that the visitors would come and buy from them.     

People often ask me if I miss anything in the UK and without any hesitation I answer “taking our dogs Dippy and Wanda for long walks on the beach”.  Sadly Dippy passed away shortly before we left for Portugal.  She is deeply missed and we know she would have loved living here as much as we do.

I enjoyed growing up in Withernsea with it’s outdoor swimming pool, the sand and the sea and spending long days playing outside.  I feel fortunate to have grown up when it was safe to go out first thing in the morning and come back at dusk without parents getting worried.

The garden centre in Fundao had a large and varied selection of trees.  It has always been our intention to populate the fallow terrace up from the orange grove with lots of different fruit trees.  While living in Portugal we’ve enjoyed sampling the different fruits that are not readily available in the UK, so decided to try our hand at growing some of these for ourselves so that friends and family visiting us can try them too.

We bought a small selection to start with : lemon, lime, cherry, plum, a late fruiting orange, a persimmon and a guava.  We’re still hopeful that our Cherimoya seeds will develop into strong little plants so didn’t buy one of these.  Linda and Andy have already bought us a nectarine tree so by the time we’d finished we had quite a few to be getting on with.

Reading up about the best place to plant fruit trees, they generally need plenty of sunshine and plenty of water to go with it.  We both agreed that our empty terrace with sunlight all day long and the nearby well would be the perfect spot.

As part of the inventory of the purchase we acquired with the farm a Japanese Buffalo. It has obviously been round the block (or a plot or two) in it’s time as rags were being used to cover perished rubber seals and as well as a cork being used for a replacement fuel cap, wires were holding the fuel tank in place.

Unfortunately this didn’t seem to work so through Linda and Andy we sourced the services of Simon, an ExPat who has been living here for about 10 years and who is a dab hand at all things mechanical. After a couple of hours he managed to get it going although there remained a problem with the gear box. We agreed that he would come back to have another look at it after he’d done a bit of research.

In the meantime were were able to use it to try and level the ground where the heavy crane had traversed. This was a picture to behold as due to the poor gear selection the machine was rather unwieldy and more often than not was dragging Mark along behind at speed instead of a controlled rotavation of the land. I tried not to laugh and really wish I’d video’d it.

Unfortunately after about an hour the machine stalled, was stuck in gear and remains for now unusable as we can’t restart it. We await Simon’s return for the next instalment.

Windy Wanda

The weather seems to have now done it’s worse and we have enjoyed some beautiful sunny days recently. This has been a plus all round – the builders have been able to work outside making great steps forward with the cladding and staining, the water filled trenches have started to dry up and we have continued our work on the land.

We’ve noticed just how much the nights are starting to draw out. When it gets dark, it is still as though a light has been switched off, but instead of this being about 5 o’clock we now have light until almost 7pm. The warmth on our backs and the bright sunny days lift our spirits giving us such a zest for life and for living and we enjoy being able to spend so much time outdoors.

Not all is as straight forward as it may seem though as we’ve have quite a few windy nights where the metal door to our bedsit has rattled and banged and the wind chime on the olive tree outside our annexe has definitely been chiming.

Now, we can usually sleep through such things, especially after long days toiling out on the farm, but Wanda isn’t at all happy with it. Our room is only 5 metres square, so as you can imagine, Wanda’s bed isn’t far from ours although to her it would seem that it is not close enough.

For several nights now Mark has been woken in the small hours with her head inches from his and her breath on his face. We’ve tried lots of things to try and settle her – putting a draught excluder up against the door, moving her bed next to ours, snuggling her down wrapped in a blanket all to no avail. The only thing that seems to offer any help at all is asking Alexa to play “calm” music for 30 minutes at bedtime. It’s definitely a dog’s life!

Clearing out the little brook that runs through the bottom terraces has been on our list of things to do for some time. The recent rains have made their way down the mountains and in to the wells and water mine. The increased water has washed away some large chunks of the bank as well as flushing debris along the brook, where the already overgrown edges caught the twigs, grass and sludge. One side of the well is already open so we could clearly see the water line rising, so much so that the ground around it for four or five metres was acting as a huge soakaway. It was extremely boggy and the only way to walk on that terrace was by wearing wellies. The grass seemed to love it though and grew to almost a foot high.

Extremely happy to see that not all the foliage around the edges of the brook were weeds, we found lots of mint, wildflowers, watercress and grasses that we wanted to keep. These were carefully gathered from in and around the brook and relocated on the sides of the terraces. We’re hoping that the mint in particular will take hold and spread along the bank, helping to knit it all together. The mint smelt wonderful and there are at least three or four different varieties that I spotted. We brought out Moroccan teapot and glasses with us from the UK and I’m looking forward to using this to serve our home grown mint tea.

But before then, so much work is needed to sort out the not so babbling brook. Mark spent the full day digging out the smelly stuff from the bottom and using it to fill in the little gulley in the orange grove. His challenge was to channel the water so that it flowed gently through the terraces and over into the land next door at a much slower pace. This way, we should be able to keep the brook flowing and use it’s precious water to irrigate our trees and vines.

To stem the flow of the brook Mark came up with the idea of damming it by using a series of blocks with a hole drilled through the middle so allowing the water to flow.  The blocks were then covered with soil and plants such as mint and watercress to make it look much more in keeping with the natural environment.  As part of the work in progress the blocks had to be frequently removed while their positions were adjusted, resulting in a sudden excessive flow of water down the brook.  This brought with it more smelly slurry and debris at such a force that frustratingly washed away some of our newly created dam.  Although it’s taking quite a bit of effort to regulate the flow,  we’re slowly getting there and we can see the brook starting to take shape.  

Half way through the digging near the well, we were startled when we noticed a long tailed creature dart up the bank and into one of the water irrigation pipes.  First thoughts were that Mr Rato had returned although we were surprised to see him out and about in daylight.  Waiting quietly for a while we saw it emerge back out of the pipe and we found that it was in fact not a rat, but a water vole.  A sweet looking creature, with a rounded face, currant eyes and a twitchy nose.  I remember reading as a child Kenneth Graeme’s “Wind in The Willows” where one of the leading characters, Ratty, was actually a water vole.  He is quite a cute little fellow and feeds mainly on grass, and other vegetation near the water, possibly why he has made his home near the mint and watercress. 

Sometime later, we found another co-habitant of our farm that wasn’t quite as pretty.  A Scolopendra Cingulata, aka the centipede that bites!

 

The one Mark found was approximately 3 inches long, and we found later that this was a baby as they can grow up to 8 inches.  It is often found under stones, rocks and fallen tree trunks where it rests during the day, only to come out at night-time to feed, but as we are doing a lot of digging and land clearing, we had obviously disturbed it.  These centipedes eat all manner of other insects and grubs but have also been know to tuck into small mice as well as eating each other.    Apparently, their main weapon against threat is their painful bite which although causes a nasty inflammatory reaction, is not supposed to be fatal to humans.  Not something we’re planning on putting to the test!  We’ve even heard that they can rear their back end up like a scorpion with their pincers ready to bite.  Would you believe that some people actually have these centipedes as pets?  Definitely not for us, we’ll stick with Windy Wanda thank you very much.  This fella was swiftly tossed over the fence.

So, an update on the progress of the build.  We are so pleased with how it is progressing.  We’d heard some disturbing stories relating to local building works and must say we are so happy with the professionalism, advice and attention to detail from Ecositana.  I’ve managed a number of building projects back in the UK so have a rough idea of the challenges and procedures that need to be in place, We were under no illusion that systems would be different in Portugal due to the locality, building materials, geology and the sheer heat of the sun.  I must say, Raphael has been an absolute star, going the extra mile sending us information and youtube videos as well as sharing his network links with us.  Fantastic company.

The electrician has now started doing his stuff. We’d provided him with a drawing showing where we wanted sockets, switches, lights and such like and he got stuck in. I’m sure he must have wondered why so many sockets were necessary but was polite enough not to pass comment. He too has also shown his expertise suggesting changes that would better suit the layout of the build. It’s sad really that because of Covid we can’t be on site as much as we would like while the work is being done. Maybe its a relief for the workmen, but we would like to be able to build a relationship with them and just communicate what a great job we think they are doing. Sometimes we do need to go and talk through things with Antonio or Raphael but even then it is difficult to express any real emotion as we can’t shake hands and our faces are covered with a mask so smiles go un-noticed.

Jose, our electrician has set to about his work laying a labyrinth of blue pipe conduit ready to accommodate our requirements for endless sockets and switches. The Ecositana team have moved on to the balcony area and have already completed laying the base to the balcony floor, ready for fixing the decking. Two layers of waterproofing membrane is now in place and we are looking forward to seeing the decking being introduced next week.

We’re still plodding on with sorting out our hidden treasures although Mark did a double take when he came across an old scythe – wondering if it was a relic from a bygone era or a calling card. Whichever, it has now been added on to his list of things to weld!!

Reap what you shall sow

Taking the proverb literally, we decided that this was the week our new veggie patch would be created. With all the land around the farm, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that we were spoilt for choice when choosing a suitable location for it. Not so, there are apparently lots of things to consider when creating a vegetable garden, including having the right tools for the job. Our one and only fork lost a prong early in the game, so the stack of jobs for Mark and his welder continue to build up.

Keen to grow as much as possible to meet own needs, and hopefully have some left over to give away,  we knew that the plot had to be in the right place.   Our seedlings are growing at some speed and it won’t be long before they need to be planted out, so we knew we had to crack on. 

Not wanting to make the same mistake as last year when we planted all our seeds at once, resulting in about 200 lettuces all being ready at the same time, we have staged the growth of seedlings and have another dozen or so packets waiting for their turn in the propagator once the first growth have been planted out.

Back to planning … there was so much to think about…  how big does it need to be? what was the soil like? will it get enough sun? will it get enough shade? would it be in the direct line of the wind coming down off the Gardunha’s? will it be easy to irrigate? is it accessible?  These were only a few of the things going round in our heads but eventually we agreed  … then changed our minds – twice before deciding on the perfect spot!

The first step was to mark out the shape of the garden with some red rope and metal rods.  Reading the sowing instructions on our packets of seeds it seems that we have to leave quite a lot of space in between the plants so we went big – Mark was unsure if it was a vegetable garden or an extension to the nearby N239. 

We spent the next two days digging up the grass and relocating it to in front of the annexe.  There was a bare compacted mud hollow between the two olive trees and we’d decided to build it up with our excavated soil and use some of the grass seed we had brought with us to try and create a tiny grassed area.  Not sure how successful we will be but we’re hoping with plenty of watering we will be able to keep it green during the summer months. 

 

We dug, we raked, we levelled and raked again and finally we were happy with the result. In the middle of our vegetable plot standing proudly is the old walking stick cabbage. I remember seeing this growing up through the long grass when we first came to look at the farm a couple of years ago. Since moving in we’ve redirected our grey water onto this terrace and the cabbage plant seems to love it. The waste water pipe is buried just under the soil leading from the bathroom (where the washing machine is) and comes out on the top of the bank near the cabbage. We didn’t realise just how much water is used doing the laundry and we will certainly be looking to make good use of the grey water in the long house. We’re learning bit by bit.

Our 2 compost bins we had in the UK hitched a ride on our removal van and with all the cutting back we had to do when we first arrived, were filled up within a day.  My impatience got the better of me and I ordered some compost accelerator tablets online.  Once delivered they were quickly put to good use and within three weeks the level in the bins had reduced by half the size.  I’m glad we decided to place them at the end of the terrace as there are hundred of tiny little flies in and around them.  Back to researching and we have been looking in to the sort of stuff we can compost.  Some of our trusty orange skins, Vegetable peelings, egg shells, grass cuttings, ash from the log burner to name a few.  It’s going to be a while before we can use it but maybe when we have finished harvesting our home grown stuff it might just be ready.

Way back when we first completed on the sale of the farm, we found that there was a little triangular patch of land opposite that also belonged to us.  It’s not very big but it does have several olive trees on it and a good supply of water which is always useful.  This little bonus also came with the task of clearing it.   The farmer who comes to see to his sheep has his land adjoining it and I’m sure that he must have been eyeing up the overgrowth and wondering when we were going to get around to doing something to sort it out.  Loading up the trusty ride-on tractor with the trailer full of gardening equipment, and with Wanda in tow, we headed over the road.  Wanda soon got herself settled down in the shade and despite the noise of the strimmer, lawn mowers and chain saw, slept soundly on her blanket.  In fact, there was one small patch that we had to leave until the very last as she was fast asleep and we didn’t like to disturb her.  We were quite pleased with the results of our labours and since it has been tidied up the farmer now seems to go out of his way to acknowledge us with a toot, a wave or a cheery Bom Dia.

During one of our regular video calls with Mark’s mum and dad, we were excited to show them how the land was coming along.  Ray is a really keen gardener and for years now has been growing bedding plants for us to put in our hanging baskets and borders – we’re going to miss them this year but have noticed some little marigolds growing so will think of his plants when enjoying them.

The last week has been another full on week with the build.  The hard work of the Ecositana team on the renovation of the long house has continued at pace.  All the barn extension has now been clad and the making good of the block wall beneath has been completed.  The RSJ has been fitted and the interconnecting wall from the living room extension into the old store has now been removed.  Work on the roof of the ground floor extension has also started. 

We still have our morning and evening strolls around the plot and love seeing the daily progress. We are particularly pleased with the roof tiles, they blend in so well and the finish is fabulous.  We can now see the views we will be able to enjoy from the balcony once the project has been completed.  It is going to be another busy week again this week with the electrician due on site and Ruivo, Carrega Barata coming to measure for the new windows.

To be continued …

Waste Not Want Not!

The saying, “waste not want not” can be traced back to the 1700’s and perhaps, with the current global crisis, it can be argued that it is even more relevant today. One dictionary definition quotes “If we don’t waste what we have, we’ll still have it in the future and will not lack (want) it.”

So this brings us back to our oranges. Hundreds of them. In an earlier blog, we mentioned the glut of windfall oranges and fruit on our trees and how we wanted to make good use of everything that we have on the farm. Our ‘champion juicer’ has been a superstar and we now have over 50 litres of orange juice stored in our freezer. It really is a fantastic little piece of kit and has already paid us back for the initial investment we made.

We’ve received lots of ideas from people suggesting different ways to use our fruit and we’ve had a go at most of these. It is true that oranges on a bonfire don’t burn and instead create little blackened balls in the remains of the ashes, which are no use for anything. However, we’ve found that if we put orange peel on the top of our fireplace, it gets really warm and as well as making the room smell lovely, it dries out and makes fantastic kindling.

As we have a 5 litre container of olive olive from the 2019 harvest that Linda and Andy picked for us, we have more than enough for our own needs so we decided to experiment a little.  I’d read once that if an orange is cut in half and the fruit removed without damaging the white stalk part,  the shell can be dried, filled with olive olive and the stalk used as the wick to make a candle.

We gave it our best shot at scooping out the fruit although it all got a bit sticky.  After allowing it a suitable length of time for drying out, we filled the little orange cup with our olive oil and lit the wick.  To start with it burned clear and bright but after about 10 seconds it just fizzled out.  Wondering if it was the oil or the wick that was the issue, I took out the middle of a tea-light candle and repeated the process.  No problem at all, we had a little orange candle for about 4 hours although I’m not sure if pinching the wick from the tea-light kind of defeated the object?

Next up on the list of things to try out was our home-made orange degreaser. I remember buying orange solvent for cleaning the kitchen back in the UK and swore by it, although at £5 for a tiny bottle, it was quite expensive. To make the home made variety I removed the pith from the orange peelings, put the pieces of peel in a glass jar and covered it with white vinegar. This will now be stashed under the sink for a couple of weeks for the citrus oils to infuse and then it will be ready to try. Watch this space …..

A few days ago I received an email from my Auntie Fay with a couple of recipes attached.  My Uncle Frank was famous for his soups at his local church and his main source of inspiration came from his little book of 400 soup recipes, I received two of these in my email : Watercress and orange and carrot and orange.  The watercress is still a working progress in the propagator but we tried the carrot and orange for lunch – delicious with a chunk of hot crusty bread and butter.

I also had a go at orange butterfly buns using the whole of an orange (peel, pulp and juice) to make the cake and flavoured the buttercream with orange.  I also made another sticky orange drizzle cake. 

Mark received a parcel from his daughter Helen and family last week containing his birthday present – included were some Kilner jars, a book about growing citrus trees and a recipe book for all things Marmalade. Having stocked up with sugar, grapefruit and lemon to compliment our oranges,  we will be putting this to good use later this week on a mammoth scale.

Meanwhile, while we were busy eking out our orange harvest, the Ecositana team were busy working on the main house.

Both of the new roofs are 95% complete – we are waiting for the delivery of some finishing tiles for the apexes.  Although the cladding is only partially fitted on the barn extension, it is starting to look really impressive.  We’ve watched the team of builders majestically manoeuvring themselves on and around the roof – it seems an art form in itself to see them work so confidently at these heights.

The timber frame structure for the extension has now been erected and we are starting to get a feel for how the two buildings will connect.  Work has started on re-enforcing the wall before the opening can be made to make the old store and the new extension one big living space.  

 

On Thursday morning we woke up to find that we had a power cut.  Mark checked out the circuit board and it appeared that there was no supply at all coming to our property.  We contacted our electricity provider to try and find out if the problem was unique to us or something on a wider scale – unfortunately we struggled to get an answer to our question.  As the builders had been due on site, we contacted Raphael to let him know that we had no electricity and true to form he came to the rescue arranging a visit from the electrician.  However, before they arrived the power was re-instated and it seemed that there had been an area fault. 

Raphael, Antonio and Jose the electrician arrived at mid-day and although in the rain, we had a very productive meeting.  The plans for the revised electrical layout were discussed and agreed and we arranged for Jose to start work in a fortnight’s time.  We’ve decided that initially 50% of the electrical work will be undertaken at opposite ends of the house while we’re still making our minds up about the layout of the middle section. 

Linda and Andy stopped by on their way to take the dogs for their haircuts and brought us some chu chu plants which will be planted out near to where our veggie patch is going to be sited. Although we were having grotty weather it was a lovely to see them and have a quick socially distanced catch up – it seems so long since it was possible to move around freely visiting friends, exploring the countryside and enjoying a drink outside a cafe-bar. As foreign nationals we are still way down the line regarding getting the vaccine but we are sticking to the rules, keeping our heads down and working on the land until it is our turn.

STOP PRESS … We received the long awaited news that my daughter Amy and her husband Adam had safely delivered their first baby – welcome baby Rupert. Regrettably, due to travel restrictions, cuddles from his grandparents will have to be put on hold but we are so looking forward to finally meeting him.

The world needs more Trees

It’s hard to believe that already another week has flown by and we have been in Portugal for 3 months now.   There is such a lot to do and we’re finding that we’re jumping from one thing to another, depending on the weather and what is most needed at the time. 

Mark is spending quite a bit of his time mending the fences and repairing the holes where our night-time visitors get in.   We have around a dozen entry/exit points varying in size from something quite small to something very big and decided that it was time that we got these fixed.  Fortunately, when sorting out one of the old stores we came across a full roll of the fencing wire.  We’d also noticed a number of metal rods lying around the farm.  They were quite substantial in size,  approximately 4 metres long and varying in thicknesses and perfect for mending fences.  Mark had made sure his angle grinder was packed on the van when moving from the UK and soon put this to good use cutting the rods to size.  

The repairs were pretty straight forward to do, but at the same time very time consuming.  A patch for the repair first had to be measured and cut to size before attaching it to the fence with some thin metal ligatures.  Once in place, the metal rod was weaved through the fencing and sunk into the ground about 6 inches deep.  The fencing was also curled over under the ground so that if anything wanted to dig underneath the fence, it would first have to dig down before being able to get to the other side.  Hopefully this will be enough of a deterrent but something that we will be keeping a close eye on over the coming weeks.

We’ve been really busy working hard on the land and finally feel that it is starting to take shape.  Out of curiosity we wanted to take count of the trees and vines on the farm and find out what we actually have growing.   We have 3 quince trees, 15 fig trees, 18 orange trees, 81 olive trees, 379 vines, 1 pear tree, 28 pine trees and 22 cork oaks.  We have a few willows, several poplars and a few others that at the moment we’re not too sure about. 

When saying that it is starting to take shape, we are under no illusion that there is an awful lot of hard work still to do, but for now feel quite pleased with ourselves that the land (apart from the wooded copse) has been cleared.  The boundaries are not exactly pretty but they are tidy and we’re not creating a lawn, we’re living on a farm.  The olive trees have all been pruned and the vines have all been trimmed.  It’s a very satisfying feeling.

Linda and Andy have given us several trees, shrubs and plants and it has been a joy to get these planted out.  After clearing the land near the pine trees, we found that there was quite an area that was pretty sparsely planted.  The idea of extending the wooded copse to include other non fruit bearing trees, with wild flowers and grasses appeals to us and we plan to make this an area that attracts birds and insects to it.   There is quite a lot of lavender and some grasses already growing there although to be honest, not much in the way of colour.  Back in the UK when I used to make the hour long drive into work, I used to drive past several long grass verges that the council had filled with a huge assortment of lovely colourful flowers – poppies, cornflowers, daisies, chamomile and loads of others.  They looked so lovely and always made me smile.  I’ve always loved fresh flowers, I have a particular liking for yellow roses, but love all flowers and creating our own meadow for bees and butterflies would be so lovely.

This part of the farm is very uneven underfoot and it seems as though it has previously been used as a dumping area for pruned branches, cut vines and straw.  The pine trees have dropped their needles over the years and although it will eventually mulch down, it is going to take quite some time.  At the moment it is very springy to walk on and difficult to do anything with.  Another lesson in being patient!

As we’ve been clearing the land it has been necessary to take out a number of trees – sometimes because they were growing too close to another tree and fighting for space, other times because they were too close to the house and posing a risk to the structure of the building.  We felt sad that they had to come out especially as many were strong and healthy, but planting trees near the copse went someway to compensating for this.  We all know that trees are so incredibly important.  They give us oxygen, take in carbon, stabilise soil and provide homes for wildlife.  Trees also provide us with building materials and tools to do the building so we wanted to make sure that we not only replaced what we’d taken out, but that we added to their number, planting trees that are small,  so that we could see them grow as we ourselves grow in our new life. 

As well as relocating as many as we could of the ones we’d dug up, we also planted out our new additions – two paulownias, an Australian jacaranda, six hydrangeas and several rose bushes.  We’d found a number of terracotta urns when clearing out the old store so decided that these would make perfect planters and ideal for the geranium that we’d been given by the Hipwells.  The urns needed a bit of a jet wash first, but all in all came up quite well.

It had been three weeks since we’d stocked up with lockdown essentials and our supplies were getting very low.  As we prefer to shop when the stores are less busy we set off early one morning to buy enough to keep us going for three more weeks.  Our Portuguese language is definitely not progressing as quickly as we had hoped.  We’d planned to take lessons to help us communicate in the national language of this beautiful country.  Covid-19 has put a halt to that idea so until that once again becomes an option, we are looking for other ways in which to learn.

We’ve always written ourselves a list when we go shopping so we don’t forget anything – we’ve now started to write the list in both English and Portuguese so that we can remember at least some of the basics and hopefully as the weeks go by we will increase our vocabulary. 

Having made up our minds some time ago to buy an unfamiliar item each time we shopped, this weeks purchase was an Annona, a heart shaped fruit with a pitted pale green skin.   As it was ripe, we didn’t have to wait to eat it, but we read that if these are not quite ready to eat when bought they can be kept for 2-3 days in the fridge.

 We cut it in half, scooped out the creamy flesh and discarded the skin and the black seeds from the centre.  

It’s reported to be very high in fibre, vitamins and minerals so comes with added health benefits.  There are quite a lot of recipes suggesting ways in which this can be used ….. fruit salads, smoothies, mixed in yoghurt or even salad dressings.  We ate it chilled with a spoon – it was sweet, smooth and really did taste like custard, which is why it is also aptly known as a custard apple.

 Would we buy it again?  it’s quite expensive but definitely a yes from us.  We collected the seeds and will have a go at propagating them. Apparently they are also well liked by slugs and mealey worm so will see how we get on – watch this space …..

While we were out shopping, we also took the opportunity to call in at a garden shop to pick up some things that we needed.  We bought some seedling trays, a propagator, some pots, compost, copper bactericide and strimming chord. 

I’d been given an assortment of seeds as a Christmas present and now is the perfect time to get these planted. There are seeds for salads, fruit and vegetables so once the propagator was packed in the car I was really excited to get it home and set up.  Mark put the framework together and I turned our kitchen table into a potting shed.

Learning from the mistakes we made last year which resulted in about 200 lettuce plants all being ready at the same time, we split the packets and will be doing our sowing in batches.  First up was a selection of herbs – coriander, parsley, dill, basil and chives and a variety of vegetables including broccoli, aubergine, cherry tomatoes and cabbage.  These were suitably labelled, watered and placed into position on the shelves.  I had a facetime call with my friend, Nadene, who is also a keen gardener.  She’d been listening to a programme with Alan Titchmarsh and learnt that potatoes seed very well if placed in an egg carton in the dark.  In the absence of seed potatoes, I did just that and will be carefully watching for signs of shoots in my little cardboard container. 

This week has brought with it a few rainy days and the Ecositana team reviewed their plan of work so that they could maximise the dry weather, working inside at the factory when it was wet outdoors and outside on the farm when it was brighter.  Raphael has once again been a font of knowledge, sending information about the options for insulating the property as well as sharing his network of contacts so that we can start getting quotes for electrical work and replacement windows. 

The big question facing us related to the fly screens on the new doors as the openings will be 4 metres wide and 2 metres high.  We wanted to check these out for ourselves at the factory so headed off into Castelo Branco to Ruivo Carrega Barata on the zona industrial to meet with a lovely and extremely helpful man called Orlando.  He took the time to explain in great detail the profile options of the windows and doors and demonstrated the thermo properties of the double glazing units that he has quoted for as opposed to a standard unit.  Lots to think about, but we’re moving forward in the right direction.  Apparently, once we have made our decision we can take delivery in 2-3 weeks.

Back on the farm, the building work has moved forwards at quite a pace, despite the poor weather conditions.  The barn now has a fully tiled roof and we are extremely happy with the way in which this is in keeping with a more rustic look.  The old store is now no more having been removed and work on the foundations for the new lounge has begun.

In addition to the external works, Antonio has generously created for us an internal partition framework separating the bathroom, walk-in wardrobe and bedroom.  These rooms are much bigger than we first though they would be.  We are delighted with the outcome and looking forward to the day we can move in!    

Sunshine After the Rain

Still so pretty – even in the rain

Someone once told us, that Portugal doesn’t get much rainfall, but when it comes – it comes! 

The rain came …… and stayed with us for five days albeit with varying degrees of intensity.  The little brook that weaves down from the water mine, along past the olive trees and onto the orange grove now closely resembles a fast flowing stream and we have our own water feature where it disappears under the fence and onto the land next door. 

With the rain has come new growth and all around we can see the first little shoots and buds of the year,  as though heralding the advent of Spring.  The grass does grow at quite a fast pace and now that it has nearly all had a good cut, it is a joy to see the land starting to look cared for.  We trimmed back some of the trees that were heavily overgrown when we first arrived and these are now bursting into life.  It was really more by luck than design as we needed to clear a way through for the little tractor so we chopped off the bits that were in our path.  However, it is as though they have appreciated our efforts.  The lavender too is showing its first signs of colour, the vines have signs of new growth and our big fig tree (the one I am so reluctant to take down) is boasting tiny little figs. 

There are a number of daffodil plants directly outside of the annexe.  My Mum used to love daffodils and pussy willow together in a vase and I smile thinking how much she would have been in her element here on the farm.  Our plan is to recreate this as a tribute to her.  We have a willow growing on the edge of the brook and we sent a photo to Matthew Pottage at Wisley RHS to ask if he would identify it for us.  We also wanted to ask his advice on the terrace banks as they seem to be collapsing in places where we have taken out a lot of the weed.  The answer to our queries came back within a couple of hours – our willow is probably a goat willow (and is pretty much a weed) although I still think it looks pretty.  Matthew recommended that we invested in some creeping rosemary and blanket plant this, or a Myrtle, to help stabilise the banks.  He also suggested that we might want to think about using railway sleepers to create two or three terraces and plant around these.  It wouldn’t be practical to do this on a large scale but I do like the thought of having a pretty little garden area and think this would be perfect for this.  Something on the back burner to re-visit at a later date.

The Ecositana team, although unable to work on site while it was raining were busy making the new wooden structures for the barn in their workshop. The new roof has been a blessing, protecting the end wall and our belongings from the rainwater.  There is a small gap where the new building will meet the old one and the driving rain had managed to get inside and made quite a puddle, but thankfully there is no sign of any damage to the internal wood. 

While we were confined to working indoors, we busied ourselves looking at plans, working out were the internal dividing walls will be and researching types of windows.  My favourite pastime at the moment is going up to the longhouse and trying to decide on the design of the kitchen and the decor for each of the rooms.  It seems way down the line at the moment but everyone needs a goal!

Portugal remains in lockdown until at least 15th February, with the general feeling being that this will be extended for a number of weeks.  We can only travel for essential purposes and have 1pm curfews on a weekend.  All three of us desperately needed a trim so we decided to try our skills at hairdressing. 

First up was Wanda.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with the breed, The Spanish Water Dog is classed as a medium sized dog with a thick curly coat and if left uncut, her hair will grown into long thick woolly chords.  A lot of people mistake her for a labradoodle although the history of the Spanish Water Dog goes back hundreds of years.  They were originally bred as gun dogs to retrieve prey and flush out game.  Most Spanish Water Dogs, as their name would suggest, love water.  When Wanda first came to live with us she was extremely wary of any water – the sea, rivers, ponds or puddles – you name it, she was frightened to go anywhere near it.  It took a lot of effort and perseverance but eventually we got there and she’s much more comfortable these days, even going in for a paddle from time to time.

Back to the haircut.  Her hair has been getting thicker and longer and we’d noticed she was getting very warm and panting a lot.  Having invested in some Andis dog clippers, an assortment of blade sizes and some cooling oil spray back in the UK, we were all set to go.  Wanda was a little sweetheart and stood really still while we cut her curls.  We had to keep checking that the blades were not too hot and giving her lots of cuddles but after around an hour we were quite pleased with our first attempt.  Wanda dashed outside to play ball and obviously felt much more comfortable.

 

Next it was Mark’s turn – we also have some hair clippers for him so we chose a size four cutter and set to work.  He hasn’t got as much hair as Wanda, so was all done in 15 minutes.  He thought I’d done an ok job so I decided to trust him with the scissors (I didn’t really have an option and figured if it went wrong it would always grow back).  Mine took a bit longer, with a lot of direction from me but with two inches off I was all done too.

Despite the extremely wet weather,  it was also surprisingly warm and when we were able to get outside there was a pleasant earthy musk as we walked the around the farm.  The lavender smells lovely when the rain has fallen on it and the Cistus has a rather unusual but pleasant, almost fruity fragrance.  I remember being here when it was in flower, a beautiful delicate white. 

Although we both envisaged the need for flip flops as opposed to wellies, we packed our boots all the same and were glad that we did.  The water mine is overflowing and a large part of the bank has collapsed and fallen outside the entrance.  Another job to add on the to-do list. We have noticed that the water from the tap is cloudy so we have been collecting our drinking water from the communal fountain in the village, just to be on the safe side.  We have made a mental note that we need to find out about the process for getting mains water.

Wednesday morning, the sun had was shining and Ecositana were back bright and early.  The preparation in the workshop certainly paid off and by lunchtime the roof apexes and the trusses’ were fixed in place.  If anyone had told us at the beginning of the week that by Friday afternoon we would have the barn walls built, the roof and openings for the windows in place, the vaulted ceiling up and the waterproof membrane on …. We would have queried their optimism. 

We’ve got a really good working relationship with Antonio and Raphael. We can hear Antonio loudly giving instructions while they are working and have it on good authority that his nick-name is the Sargeant! He’s also a very knowledgeable and gentle man and has immense pride in their work. Raphael has been our conduit between us and his dad and has also demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of not only the construction of buildings but the considerations that need to be made given the geographical location of our farm. He constantly offers impartial advice and is more than happy to help us obtain quotes and estimates for other materials and skills that we need.

This has given us great comfort and confidence as the renovation has progressed and we look forward to the end results and being able to share it with our friends and family.

Sharing our Home

We arrived in Portugal two months ago with the misconception that there would be just the three of us occupying Quinta Vinha das Almas and that we would be spending the next few month by ourselves, socially distanced and renovating our farm.

Morning walks and working on the land have taught us differently. One of the things we most love about living here is the absolute peace, quiet and tranquillity. We can hear the sheep bleeting across the way on the farm opposite, and near the Gardunha’s a donkey brays from time to time, but other than this, for the most part there is very little noise. Maybe the odd car now and again and the farmer shouting his sheep in at nightfall but that is literally it.

However, we hadn’t been here very long when we learnt that we were sharing our new home with a quite a few co-habitants.

When strimming back the brambles and weeds on the terraces we noticed quite a few holes in the bank and wondered what had made them. We puzzled over why our terrace was peppered with random little holes, about an inch in diameter and tried to imagine how they had come to be. Suddenly, we saw something moving quickly into one of the holes and there we had it, a seemingly full housing estate of Fieldmice! living on the bank, near the brook and with a bountiful supply of fruit, seeds and nuts right on their doorstep.

We started to take much more notice of our land and the sounds, sights and smells around us. The birds with their beautiful morning song, little ant hills dotted around the terraces, rabbit holes heading deep down underground, the empty birds nests in sometimes the most unexpected places and long ridges in the soil where moles have furrowed under the ground, not quite breaking through but leaving a bumpy trail as they have travelled along. Sometimes we see the footprints and rooting of something quite large, probably wild boar foraging for acorns or olives or even trying to sniff out the moles.

We’re enjoying learning to appreciate the creatures around us and living peacefully with them, side by side. We all have our paths to follow and can do this quite harmoniously most of the time.

We could hear some dogs nearby this morning and guns going off. As we walked the plot, two hunting dogs went trotting along our boundary fence. It seems to be quite the norm for the hunters dogs to roam and track the wild boar. Wanda seemed to be un-phased by their presence although her instinct seemed to kick in and she was intensely focussed with her ears raised on the dogs and nearby sounds. We were mindful that we do have some holes in the boundary fence so kept Wanda close by us in case the dogs strayed onto our farm.

However, despite being happy in sharing our land with the animals, we’ve found the tell-tale signs that we have got a trespasser in one of our store buildings. We’re not sure if this is a new visitor or a previous one that Mark disturbed when clearing out the animal shelter, but we have definitely got a resident rat.

We would be quite happy for it to find a little spot for itself out on the land somewhere but moving into our building just isn’t at all acceptable and we knew we had to do something about it.

We had a choice of rat pasta or rat rice, so we bought some of each. We set a couple of traps, scattered the bait then left it overnight. The next day we checked the storehouse. The traps were empty, the rice and pasta had all gone and there was more than the usual amount of rat droppings. The next few days saw us repeat the process over and over again. Each time the rat was well-fed, poo’d a lot and avoided the trap.

The Ecositana team are ready to start working on the roof of the store so we needed to move anything that may get damaged out of the way. The rain had stopped, the ground was starting to dry out and reluctantly, I saw this as an opportunity to check if there was a rat nest tucked away in the store. We started moving things outside into the sunlight coming across a lot of little treasures and curiosities that we’ve carefully put safely to one side.

We found a huge pile of Portuguese crockery, several terracotta urns of various sizes, some metal milk churns, cooking pots, copper pans, a beautiful salmon poacher, an early 1900’s cast iron, several ornate port glasses as well as a couple of carved wooden chests, some wine making equipment and the trailer to fasten on to the Japanese Buffalo.

We did find a small amount of shredded paper in a box but other than that, there was no sign of Mr Rato. We will keep a close eye out for signs of his return but hopefully he has moved on his way and won’t be calling again.

The new roof and the building work has continued over the past few days although at a much slower pace due to the adverse weather conditions. Our farm is definitely a building site with the rain filling the deep furrows made by the crane in a few hours. At one point we had a torrent of water weaving its way down from the main gates, past the olive trees and down the bank outside the annexe. This answered another puzzle as to why part of the terrace wall had collapsed – it appears that when it rains intensely it flows down to that point and causes the soil to wash away. Mark is undecided what to do about this but perhaps installing some irrigation pipes to divert the water may be an option.

The roof of the longhouse is very nearly complete, just a couple of bits left to do and already we have noticed a difference. Inside we get the impression that the rooms feel less damp and don’t smell as fusty. As the roof tiles have a significantly increased overhang, this improves the deflection of rainwater away from the walls so they don’t get as wet. We are hopeful that this will all contribute towards making it habitable and a comfortable living space.

Once the roof is complete we are looking forward to the work continuing on the barn so that it also has a new roof and it is a step nearer to us living in it.

Oranges Don’t Burn

The weekend was a bit of a slow starter where we walked with Wanda around the farm, throwing her ball and finding the ones that we’d thrown previously and she’d lost! She’s really good now at working out where the stream is and is able to leap over it without any hesitation at all – it could be said that she is becoming a proper little farm dog.

The Ecositana team do not work on a Saturday so we took advantage of their absence and climbed up onto the roof of the barn to check out the views we’ll see once the bedroom and balcony have been built.  We could see right down to the farthest part of the Quinta and for miles beyond it.  The long winter shadows created a dark contrast against the bright green grass that is now starting to appear and is replacing the weeds and brambles that covered the terraces when we first arrived. 

The Gardunha Mountains looked magnificent with the rugged terrain, abundance of trees and many water courses snaking their way down the mountainside.  We could see that some areas on the mountain were less dense, maybe because of the raging fires that had engulfed much of the area over recent years. There are a few small roads that look as though they offer a route over the top and we decided that when we are able to start to move around more freely, we would take the opportunity to go off for a drive and explore.  It would be great to find some beauty spots to show our friends and family when we can finally have visitors come and stay.  

Closer to home, we could see nestled in the foothills the orange roof of a building and further along a large white house.  A small village reaches out along the mountainside and we wondered what it was called and whether there may be any restaurants or shops there that we can visit once the uncertainty of the pandemic has declined.  

 

The task for today was to carry on with the olive trees, cutting them back, this time making sure that our equipment was carefully sanitised. We got stuck into pruning the trees outside the longhouse as we try not to work here when the builders are on site. Scaffolding has been erected along the front of the main house stopping outside of the kitchen near the big fig tree which seems to be a hindrance to anyone wanting to work anywhere near it.

Mark found his chain saw and cut back one of the large branches that seemed to be the most obstructive. We had originally thought that the tree should come down in its entirety as we had noticed some damage to the paving nearby. But, for now, with its little trim, it has managed to buy itself a bit of time.

We packed up around 3.30 and had a zoom call with friends.  It’s great to catch up and hear how things are going in the UK.  It is all very worrying. Zoom certainly seems the way to go at the moment as it doesn’t seem likely that we will be doing it in person any time soon. 

In my pursuit to find new ways to use some of our oranges, I tried out a recipe for orange cake with a sticky orange topping – extremely tasty, especially served warm with with vanilla ice-cream and very easy to make.  I’ve decided that I will create a collection of our favourite recipes.  I think at the moment, they will be primarily orange-based due to the seemingly endless supply of the fruit but maybe when the figs come into their own, this could change.

Saturday night was probably the wildest one that we’ve had since being here and not in a party way!  The wind took a sudden turn for the extreme and carried on throughout the night. 

We have an orange tree, laden with fruit at the back of the annexe and as it is on the terrace above, the branches overhang the annexe roof.  At around 2am, we were woken with a start when the wind blew the oranges off the tree with a bump, bump, bump down the roof until finally they fell on to the path with a thud outside of the annexe door.  This at any time of the day would sound loud and in the middle of the night sounded so much worse.  Wanda was not in the least bit happy and when the metal shutters flew open and banged against the wall it was the final straw for her and she shot off her bed and straight up on to ours!

Morning arrived and we opened the door to be faced with bright sunlight and scenes of the morning after the night before.  Branches, twigs and cuttings were strewn across the terraces and more noticeably were the abundance of windfall oranges on the ground extending right down to the orange grove.

 

Then began the morning task of gathering up the fallen fruit – today was a bumper harvest resulting in 6 buckets from the orchard and a further one collected later from below the other trees on the farm.

While I was busy foraging, Mark was busy attending to lighting a bonfire.  He knew it would not be an easy task as the rain we’ve had over the past few days had made the piles of branches quite damp.  But we’d phoned to book a fire and knew that if it didn’t happen today, we would have to start the process of booking another fire all over again.

We’d brought with us from the UK a gas powered weed burner which we thought would be really useful for starting fires.  It was something that we have used twice before and in the past has worked very well.  Not so this time.  For a while a small clump of dried grass or some leaves would spark up a flame and burn for a minute or so, then fade out.  Getting more and more frustrated, we used up all of our three gas cannisters.  As a last resort, Mark eyed up an empty cardboard box and half a box of firelighters.  I could see he was undecided whether to try them but he went for it anyway.   Within a couple of minutes, and very much to his surprise, the bonfire was ablaze in no time at all.  He still can’t get his head around how a sustained and intense gas powered flame was outdone by a couple of firelighters and a small pile of cardboard.

Once the bonfire was finally esablished, the flames quickly started to creep onto the straw-like grass nearby.  In an attempt to halt the quickening pace of the spread, Mark started to vigorously stomp on the flames.  Someone with an imagination may have likened it to a rendition of Michael Flatley’s Riverdance.  In my mind’s eye, I could see some locals observing the shenanigans and discussing amongst themselves why the crazy Englishman was performing some kind of ritual dance around his fire.  As a footnote, we did have on standby a hosepipe set up but for some reason it did not enter into Mark’s head to pick it up to subdue the flames. 

 

 

I’ve mentioned before that although we think our Champion juicer is fantastic at juicing, when it comes to making orange juice, it is necessary to peel the fruit first. The peeling doesn’t bother us, but it is a bit of a quandary knowing what to do with the peel and damaged fruit that can’t be eaten. We had a great idea, so we thought, of putting the oranges on top of the bonfire thinking thatbthey would burn. The fire was going for most of the day managing to clear all the olive branches we’d cut from the trees during the week. As it was dying down the oranges were rising up like a Phoenix from the smouldering ashes. So here’s the question – what do we do with them if oranges don’t burn?