Maçãs e peras galore

August 17th, 2017 by Jackie

There are a couple of reasons why we have been rather slow at updating the blog recently. The first has to do with my iMac; it seemed to have died. We stared at the blank black screen that refused to show any sign of life and then, as there seemed to be a strange noise coming from behind, we both peered over the top… poof! It blew itself up. We have only just got round to choosing a (non iMac) replacement today.

The other reason (I’m struggling with the different apps on Richard’s computer now) is that we have both been busy turning Casa Azul into Fábrica Azul – a factory for a whole range of fruity goodness. For some reason the apple and pear harvest has been amazing this year, not just in our garden, but everywhere we go. Branches are breaking and bending under the weight of large, ripe fruit, many falling to the ground to create a colourful, fermenting carpet.

Our apples have been grated and given to grateful hens, chopped into cubes for crumbles and of course enjoyed with the local cheese for dessert. They have also been peeled, cored and sliced and then frozen. We have this great gadget that does the peeling, coring and slicing in one go so we go though the kilos very quickly.

Next up was the drying. To say that the weather is perfect for drying would be an understatement, it’s been hot and windy for weeks. So experimenting with an old clothes horse, apples have been dried in spirals, reminding me of the hanging incense in Hong Kong.

Not content with all of this Richard loaded up the truck with empty barrels and we drove around the country lanes collecting loads of apples from a range of different trees for Operation Cider. Out came the juicer and all the paraphernalia for making one of his top tipples. As he has been making beer as well it would not be an exaggeration to say the house smells of a brewery. (In fact the fermenting bucket behind me looks like something is trying to escape from it).

The pears have had a different treatment. Most have been bottled, my all favourite way for preserving fruit. There’s nothing nicer in the winter than to open a jar of summer sunniness which has been flavoured with vanilla, or perhaps star anise and cinnamon, cloves or cardomoms. Mmm indeed.

The bottling process has been quite a learning curve, there’s a huge difference in approach between the US and UK but I think I’ve perfected the technique this year. We have also had pears cooked in a red wine syrup, a dessert so tasty it should be more difficult to make.

Apart from the tree fruit the tomatoes have, until recently, been defiantly putting on some sort of show. Luckily I have grown a fair number of plants because the high temperatures have put an end to any decent crop from each one, and the range of varieties grown has also meant we have had enough for salads as well as roasting a whole load too. You can never have too many roast tomatoes. The special roma ones have then been through the mouli to make passata. Aah indeed. Luckily we have two freezers.

And just as I was feeling we were getting on top of everything, tidying all the gadgets and whatnots away, Richard has just announced that the figs are ready. Looks like the factory isn’t closing down just yet…

The heat is on (still)

July 4th, 2017 by richard

We’re now into July and the heat is still relentless. In the aftermath of the fires, the controversy regarding the growing of eucalyptus has intensified. In fact a number of villages have decided to not wait for government (in)action and are taking matters into their own hands and have decided to chop all the eucalypts down within a certain radius of the village.  Lets hope it makes a difference. After the fires we actually had some rain. Well not much more than a shower but it was enough to coat the truck in ash. Although we’ve had it for a few years I had to give it a wash for the first time!

In garden news, I forgot to mention previously that for the first time we had a decent harvest of loquats. We did what we do with all the fruits – made jam and crumble.

We’ve also had the yellow and red plums and are currently waiting for the huge amounts of greengages to ripen. Despite the heat and little rain, the apples have done really well as have the pears which should be next up. Jackie will be reporting on the veg patch later this month (hopefully it hasn’t completely frazzled by then), but I wanted to say that the corn on the cobs were as delicious as ever. They are probably my favourite product of the veg patch.

 

In June we also had Jackie’s dad over so we’ve been doing that most Portuguese of traditions – throwing sardines on the barbie!

another barbie

The heat and the dust

June 19th, 2017 by Jackie

So let’s start with the bad news: 61 dead, so far, in the worst forest fires in Portugal for many years. Fires continue to blaze since Saturday in some places and new ones pop up all the time. The firefighters are exhausted, their heroism is extraordinary. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures and videos yourselves. Despite this we count ourselves as exceedingly lucky. We have the smoke, the ash, the drone of the helicopters, the intense heat of a 40° sun but we are safe and sound. Until the weekend I was lamenting the fact that the temperatures were affecting the vegetables but now I realise losing some of this year’s crop is nothing compared to those who have lost all.

It’s been very hot, of course, for the chickens, all three batches. The ‘roasties’ seem to suffer the most, sitting panting on the ground dipping the beaks into the water. Ah well, Richard is sharpening his knife so they won’t be suffering for much longer! The new hens, we are really pleased to say, are continuing to grow well. The eldest black one laid her first egg 27 May and has since been laying every day; perfect, nut brown eggs.

Many years ago, we saw that one of the fields allocated to the hens had little shade midday so we planted a couple of lime trees. It gives me great joy to see our new hens sitting under them, exactly as planned!

The veg patch is bursting with growth, somewhat curtailed by the heat, but battling it out. Far too many crops to mention here but we are eating the cucumbers, a little celery, the parsley, the runner beans and I’ve already pickled a jar of gherkins. Oh, and the courgettes of course.

The sweetcorn should be ready soon and some of the many tomatoes too.

Fruitwise we are eating the raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. Having our own eggs again means ice cream is back on the menu so we’ve had some delicious gooseberry and elderflower ice cream. The neighbours’s peach tree put on a good show again for us too.

We are really hoping for a bumper crop of plums. Alas, our Stanley plum tree has died – such a shame when we had so many last year and they were just so delicious. The redcurrant almost died, a few twigs left only, and the blackcurrant also died. At the end of the day some things can cope with the freezing temps (remember it went down to -6° quite a few nights over the winter) and blistering heat, and others can’t. The red and yellow plums, damsons and greengages will make up for that we’re sure.

Meanwhile, back in the courtyard, it’s looking lovely since being painted and the pink against the blue is surprisingly striking. Just a shame it’s too hot to sit outside and enjoy it – ha!

Finally, the most important things in our lives are also fine. Less lively in the heat…

…but thankful for the cool of the outdoor ponds.

Richard has just come in from watering the garden. He says there are more helicopters over the valley from us and a new fire has broken out. With the summer just starting these are certainly unsettling times.

Hens back on track

June 3rd, 2017 by richard

After the disappointment of our Orpingtons, we happened to meet an old friend who told us that she bought her chickens from Miranda do Corvo market (not far from us) and that they had a wide variety on sale. We had not been to this market before so we decided to give it a go and picked up some more chickens. A couple of weeks later we are really pleased. Although the seller wasn’t sure what breed he sold us, after a search on the internet we are fairly sure they are crosses between Rhode Island Reds and French Marans. Two of them are Bluebells – the Bluebell sisters and the other is now known as Rocky. We still have one Orpington – Bright eyes. And one of them has already been laying eggs for a few days – beautiful brown ones.

A bluebell sister


Rocky


Meanwhile our two original hens have officially fully retired from laying duties.

And in the third pen the roasties and ducks are about ready for the chop. Once they can eat from the feeder while sitting on the ground definitely means they are ready!

roasties and ducks

Orpington blues

May 23rd, 2017 by Jackie

It’s rare that we start a post with a heavy heart but here goes… I have been wanting to get some different breeds of hens for some time now. The standard brown ones are fine but they don’t lay for very long and they’re… well, standard brown. When we bought the chicken plucker a few weeks back the guy there told us of someone who breeds Orpingtons; one look at some photos and I was hooked. And not only do they look nice but they are also dual-purpose birds so suitable for eating too ie the male chicks aren’t going to be killed straight away as they don’t lay eggs.

Anyway, arriving at the place the first thing we realised was this was a private home not a commercial business. There wasn’t a chicken to be seen. The guy soon turned up in a large truck, he’s actually a builder by trade. He took us through and round the back and it’s clear he has a large, well-organised operation going on. There are various pens of breeding trios and seeing the birds for the first time we understood what they mean by ‘heavy-breeders’ – they are enormous. We were shown inside a room where the chicks are.  They are under a heat lamp. “You have a heat lamp?” Er no… He can’t tell which are males or females so that’s a no go. Another pen has older chicks, still under a heat lamp and still un-sexed. Thinking it was a wasted journey he took us round the back, past some very inquisitive goats, to some paddocks with small white marquees in. On opening one of the doors an assortment of hens flew out which he said were about 2 and a half to 3 months or so. I had really wanted the golden lace winged ones (as pictured above) but he only had one. So in the end we took that, a brown ‘chocolate’ one, a black one and a striking black lace winged one.

Just as we were leaving, hens all boxed up, he said that in fact these hens were all under a lamp too, there was a table in the middle and the lamp hung from under it. We were astonished, we have never used a lamp. And later we thought it was odd that he hadn’t let them out until we were there, it was well gone 3 and a hot day…

We took them home, popped them in their new coop and stood back. First days and first impressions were not so favourable. They seemed very dull and lacked interest in anything. Ah well, they looked nice. It soon became apparent that they were listless rather than docile. They ignored any of the ‘grown-up’ food preferring a mash of baby food and water. Despite the warm weather we worried they had not acclimatised to their new habitat but research confirmed that chickens do not need any type of heat lamp after 3 – 6 weeks, depending on the breed. Basically, once they have feathers they’re fine. These hens were all at least 10 weeks old!

One by one the hens were obviously not well and taken into a special box in the barn, a borrowed heat lamp installed. Only the black one, with her huge beady eyes, seemed fine. She took to perching immediately and was always the first one out in the morning, the others stayed sulking inside. The three died. We have gone through various emotions, animal welfare is very important to us, the very reason we want to have and look after our own is so they can have the best lives possible. We don’t know what happened really but we think that the change of environment was too much for them and they hadn’t built up any defences. They weighed nothing.

The remaining hen doesn’t want to be called Billy-no-mates so tomorrow we are going to buy her three friends. I hope they all get on. Orpingtons are known to be gentle and can be picked on by other hens, fingers and feathers crossed for her.

Not to end the post feeling down-hearted I must say that the garden is looking lovely in the May sunshine, it is alive with flowers and birds. The white lillies, already in the garden when we bought it, are just splendid next to the red bottle brush:

The rose, clematis and blue nigellas also look nice:

Along with the nightingales, robins, blackbirds, black caps and great tits the frogs add their voice, we must have at least 50 in the big pond right now:

And we have finally finished – hurrah! the painting of the blue around the courtyard:

So we are appreciative that we can eat all our meals outside in such nice surroundings, we are now looking forward to enjoying our own eggs once again.

 

Busy bees

April 30th, 2017 by Jackie

It’s been one of our busiest months, not just in the garden or veg patch but around the house too.  I’m sure we thought that, once we had been in the house for seven years, we wouldn’t have much to do. But with the new wall this has meant painting, re-organising the rooms, moving stuff from one place to another (my old office is now Richard’s ‘man cave’), putting up shelves, painting, putting up new lighting, buying a new sofa and, yes, painting. I still need a desk of some sort for the main computer. I’m perched on a stool under the stairs at the mo.

The courtyard too has had a face lift. We had painted the lower part of the walls a solid blue which faded, so we did it again and that faded. Last year we went to a paint shop and asked for advice: this meant us buying special fixative first which is applied to a cleaned wall. And then expensive exterior paint, two coats. So yet more cleaning and painting. Urrgh. I have to say I don’t want to see another paint brush again for a long time. Alas all the walls, I am reluctant to say, need their second coat and I have lost enthusiasm. Anyway, it all looks a lot nicer and pics are to follow.

Meanwhile April has not been behaving itself. The nightingales are here, the colourful orchids and wild flowers are appearing but the showers, or any real rain, have yet to come. It’s been very dry. Dry and hot. The lack of rain has meant watering the garden and veg patch (we haven’t had the wood burning stove on all month). Despite the drought we are drowning in peas and broad beans and have just had the last of the asparagus and beetroot. The veg patch has seen far too many bugs already, especially aphids. There are ladybirds (didn’t see a single one last year) but these are too few and too late. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slugs and snails have kept away; they love the wet weather (and our many frogs have very beady eyes). Strong winds and ants have meant most of the broccoli and cauliflower have failed. On a more positive note three different kinds of runner beans are running up their poles, gherkins and cucumbers are showing signs of flowers, and there are courgettes in too. The sweetcorn are doing well. All the other seedlings have now been potted on and these will all be planted over the next few weeks of May; the game of putting all the plants away at night into the polytunnel and then back out again in the morning has begun.

We have a new set of ‘roasties’, this time 3 ducks, 5 white chickens and 2 brown ones. Which reminds me: the highlight of Richard’s month has been the purchase of a chicken plucker. Expensive? Yes. Worth the money? You bet. Half an hour of plucking has been reduced to a cool 10 seconds. One happy Richard.

Cooling off time for the dogs, two happy hounds:

Four seasons in one month

March 31st, 2017 by Jackie

Spring is here, hurrah! I decided to sow most of the seeds for the veg patch at the start of the month and this year, instead of putting them in either the potting shed or polytunnel, chose to keep them on the window sill. The temperatures, especially in the polytunnel, can fluctuate widely and I thought I would try, as many books suggest, a sunny south facing spot inside. Well, it worked a treat with everything coming through very quickly, and a load of old seeds I almost threw away too. I think the sun and the even temperature really did the trick.

So with spring in the air and in my step I planted a whole load of sprouts, cauliflowers and broccoli. And some beans. Beans which, for the last two years, have always been killed off by the frost as I have been too eager to plant them out. Then it got hotter and hotter, summer barbecue weather arrived, and everything needed to be watered. Then autumn mists greeted us in the mornings. Then it got colder and colder, winter glove wearing weather arrived, and yep, the beans all got killed off by the frost. Ah well, I did have some spares and they are now thriving that the spring has sprung back.

Despite the set back all is well in the veg patch really. Remember this?

Well, both the broad beans and peas survived the freezing temperatures and are well on their way:

We are eating the asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli:

And the onions are monsters (Betty guards the seedlings):

I should add that the seedlings, those that haven’t yet been planted out, are brought in every night and we share the kitchen table with them when we eat. There are 6 different kinds of tomatoes, gherkins, 2 kinds of cucumbers, aubergines, peppers of various types and all sorts of squash. Oh, and some sweetcorn. So looking forward to some April showers, sunny spells and proper spring weather all month.

 

Bloomin’ spring

March 21st, 2017 by richard

Just three weeks ago Jackie mentioned that the almond was the first tree to blossom, followed by the blackthorn and peach. Well since then the cherry, plums, apricots and now the pears have joined the party. And in fact the almond and the apricot have already set fruit. Last year we had 2 almonds and we are yet to get any apricots, so lets hope this year is a bumper crop!

apricot

almond

Last year we really hacked back a number of greengages and more grew up from water shoots in the hen run. These have borne flowers for the first time this year, so it’s looking good so far. In addition, the grape vines have sprung into life and also the kiwis which were newly planted in the autumn. We won’t have fruit this year but we are hoping for a good show.

grape vine

The other trees are not holding back either. The plane trees in the courtyard and the garden are showing signs of life. The courtyard plane has been great. It lets all the sun shine through in the winter and then provides plenty of dappled shade in the summer. Just what we wanted.

plane tree

Also in the courtyard, we haven’t mentioned the orange trees for a while. These guys fruit in the winter of course and have provided plenty of oranges. Only a few days ago, I picked bucket loads of them and got 8 litres of juice but there are still dozens left on the trees!

oranges

Still in the courtyard, the quince is in full flower. That never disappoints with plenty of quince jam and quince crumbles to come.

quince

Last year we had daffodils in December, or should I say, December 2015. This year they have been late but are now putting on a show for us, as is our Forsythia which is in full bloom.

forsythia

Last but not least, even the figs have burst into life – last year was a bumper crop. More of the same again please!

fig

The wall (no, not that one)

February 28th, 2017 by Jackie

We say in our introduction that Casa Azul is now restored. Well, although the major restoration was done some time ago now, there are still things here and there being fiddled with. After a freezing January we were reminded yet again that the living room could be cozier. It’s definitely a summer house, lovely and cool during those blistering temperatures. We’re fairly hardy, have to be I suppose with the dogs trooping in and out leaving all the doors open, (and we firmly believe in putting on an extra jumper if it’s chilly) but there is often a draught when the fire’s blazing caused by the spiral staircase and its hole in the ceiling. So we have at last done something about that and now we have a new wall which divides half of the living room, effectively separating Richard’s study area and the sofa bit. It looks a bit dark now but once plastered and painted will be warm and snug. Someone hasn’t even noticed the workmen plodding in and out:

Meanwhile, it’s been a mild February. Plenty of weeding has been done in the veg patch and lots of little flowers have germinated, been transplanted and are now ready for the garden. Most of the beds are ready for busiest time of the year although I must get out and do some more mulching…

The almond tree won this year’s Who’s going to Blossom First award. There are now flowers too on the ornamental cherry, blackthorn, peach and the rosemary is alive with appreciative bees. Fingers crossed we don’t have any downpours like last year that knocked all the flowers off. The first of the orchids have also been spotted in the village.

Finally, we are more of a little farm again with the arrival of 3 ducks and 5 roasties. I was a bit anxious about the cold nights and the possibility of avian flu heading this way but both seem to be less of a concern now. I have peeked at them at night and they are all huddled together in their cardboard box.

So March is marching towards us; seeds have been bought, tools are ready and beds are waiting. Bring on the spring!

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The big freeze

January 23rd, 2017 by Jackie

It has been cold. Finger-numbing, shoulder-hunching, teeth-chatteringly cold. Freezing cold. We have woken up (it seems like for weeks) to heavy frosts and winter wonderlands. One night we recorded a minimum of -6.3C, now that is cold!  Many of the garden plants are now wrapped in plastic bags, fleece or bubble wrap. There will be some trepidation when they are unwrapped to see how they have survived.

The first victims have been the prickly pears. Every morning they have drooped lower and lower, and their recovery less noticeable. Alas, some have now snapped although this just means replanting the fallen leaves, and we’ll have a lot more come the summer.

The pond has regularly turned to ice and its plants blackened. We did remember to make sure that it was full before the big freeze came, somehow the leaves of the lilies and water hyacinths suffer more by being exposed to the frost rather than being frozen in the water.

This little, actually rather large, salamander was caught with its mate during a clear up. I do hope they, and the resident frogs, will be okay come the spring.

We have also been making sure there is plenty of extra seed for the garden birds, the usual suspects come and work their way through vast quantities every day.

One bitterly cold morning a little robin was completely still in the courtyard, almost like it had been frozen to the ground. I was able to gently pick it up and place it in a nest we’d kept. The next time I looked it had flown away.

Along with a certain beauty the cold has, there is also the reward of clear blue skies and sunny days. When the wind drops it’s still warm enough to eat outside for lunch, and has meant there is no excuse for not tackling the winter jobs. Pruning continues with the plane tree having its annual pollarding, the vines all being cut back and the willow too being pruned.

Like the summer afternoons, when the temperatures go well over 40, the veg patch has been a sorry sight these winter mornings. At first the broad beans would have collapsed and then bravely ‘pulled themselves together’ come mid-day but now most of them lay on the ground in a sorry state. The smaller ones planted later seem okay but we’ll be lucky to have another bumper crop.

Having said that we, amazingly, have had loads of broccoli and tonight we’re having the first of the cauliflowers. Somehow the leaves have provided enough protection, full marks to them.

We’ve also just had the last of the Jerusalem artichokes, the ones the voles kindly left for us, and there are still some leeks to be had. We’ve just had the first of our beetroots too, so really we can’t complain!

And with a roaring fire every evening the dogs aren’t complaining either. There is also some welcome rain on the horizon too; it seems incredible that we have actually watered some of the plants and smaller shrubs, in January! Let’s see if I can finish knitting that jumper for Richard before it’s no longer needed…

 

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