Harvests

Apricots

The river still has water into June. This time last year it was all dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The river still has water into June. This time last year it was dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The jacaranda flowers are on full display

The jacaranda flowers are opening

Apricots!

Apricots!

 

The kitchen smells of fresh apricots. They are falling from the tree unless we catch them first. A nice but not especially productive afternoon would be to sit between the pool and the apricot tree catching the fruit as it drops. Life does not yet allow for such indulgences, so the other way to harvest the fruit at its ripest is to glide your hand as gently as possible under the soft warm bottoms along the length of each branch, see which ripe, speckled apricots detach themselves unresistingly into your palm, then eat them immediately. Overnight, unseen, about two dozen will fall and have to be sought out in the morning from among the bedding of Hottentot fig below the tree; these go into jam.

I turned to the cookbooks on my shelves for recipes for apricot jam and chose the one that rather pleasingly involved the use of a mallet. The tender, yielding apricots are easy to prepare: halve them with a knife and remove the seeds, which takes about 3 seconds per fruit. The seeds you wrap in an old tea towel, and this is where the mallet comes in. You bash the seeds to shatter the shells and extract the soft kernels. This is a recipe from the highly rated Australian food writer Stephanie Alexander. I found a similar recipe from equally highly rated Irish food writer Darina Allen, but she failed to specify how you get the kernels out of the shells. You cook the fruit down (I used 1.5kg for my first batch of jam) with a little lemon juice, add an almost equal amount of warmed sugar and a small handful of the kernels you have managed to extricate from the shards. Cook on a high heat until a sugar thermometer reads 104°C, which takes about 15 minutes. Pour into super-clean jars. It helps a lot if you have a funnel, and of course a thermometer, both cheap items.

The first jar of jam was opened the very next day, and is delicious. It must be one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. Cookbooks are generally resistant to recommending the use of thermometers – I know, since I’ve copy-edited hundreds of them – and it’s because you don’t want to make a recipe unusable to someone who doesn’t have a particular piece of kit, and because you don’t want to turn a kitchen into a lab. But actually thermometers are great and well worth having, at least until you have the experience that enables you to tell when ingredients are ready by sight and sound and smell alone.

Then I got curious about the apricot kernels and wondered whether they were added for flavour – they have an intense almondy scent – or because they aided setting. So I asked Mrs Google, and quickly found myself in a world of furious argument over whether or not apricot seeds cure cancer. It seems that some people sell/buy the seed kernels alone and eat them medicinally. I quickly turned away again, happy to rely on the sensible and practised recipes of cooks.

Hoovering

The swimming pool engineer came round to explain how to run the pool and how to clean it. He is Portuguese with good English, which he was kind enough to use for my benefit. I’ve become very fond of Portuguese English. (Or it might be Algarvian English, I’m not sure.) I love the use of ‘imagine’, which is part of any instruction. ‘Imagine you want to clean the pool, then you . . .’ etc. I also love the cadence, which rises and rises, then ends on a two-note rise+fall.

‘Imagine you want to use the hoover,’ he said.

I never imagined the use of a hoover in a swimming pool. Wouldn’t you have to empty it first? I looked at him blankly.

‘You hoover the dust when it falls to the bottom,’ he explained.

‘With the water still in it?’

‘Of course.’ (Imagine – imagine! – this being said with a rise then fall, opposite to the English rhythm.)

And so you do. There is a hoover attachment which sucks up the particles that settle on the bottom of the pool and miraculously doesn’t suck up all the water as well. Not for the first time I realise that I don’t have a brain for engineering.

Oil

The vox pop vote after last week’s TV debate ran for 24 hours after the show was broadcast and the vote against oil exploration in the Algarve crept up, so that in the end it was 72 per cent against and 28 per cent for. Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-minister for the environment and one of the grinning villains of the oil saga, took up (or paid for?) an opinion piece in a national newspaper on 23 May to declare himself the victim of a campaign soaked in lies. He listed his rather feeble green credentials and went on to say that the oil contracts were fine and were really only for mapping resources for the benefit of the Portuguese state – this is a lie, or at best an obfuscation. One of the contracts has been shown on television and we know it allows for subsequent exploitation of resources. He also posed a couple of rhetorical questions: should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of the Portuguese state learning about its resources? Should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of a law applied since 1994? (A law that allows the Portuguese state and environment to be ripped off for the benefit of business.) How the poor man must suffer for his beliefs! To be capable of such contorted arguments as this, you would expect him to have good debating skills. Yet he refused the invitation to appear on the television programme. The other grinning villain, Paulo Carmona, was there, and made a holy show of himself.

After hoovering, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

After hoovering, and several more days of filtration, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

Let's just have another look at those apricots

Let’s just have another look at those apricots

Robalo and nespera

Flamingoes over the salt marshes of Olhão, on a gloomy day

Flamingoes over the salt marshes of Olhão on Saturday

Not far away from the flamingoes, a Black-winged Stilt, whose reflection makes its legs look longer still

Not far away from the flamingoes, a Black-winged Stilt, whose reflection makes its legs look longer still

Common Vetch blazing like a fire in front of the old mill

Common Vetch blazing like a fire in front of the old mill

Down on the ground, away from the glamour of the big blooms, are tiny plants like this Hop Trefoil, whose flowers are 3–4mm long

Down on the ground, away from the glamour of the big blooms, are tiny plants like this Hop Trefoil, whose flowers are 3–4mm long

Another, tiny flower, a few millimetres long: the Lesser Snapdragon

Another tiny flower, a few millimetres long: the Lesser Snapdragon

Nespera (loquat): we do eat them, but we are making little impression on the volume

Nespera (loquat): we are eating them, but making little impression on this great abundance. I cut them in half, slip out the shiny brown seeds, of which there might be one, two, three or four, then peel off the skin, which I find tough. The resulting semi-circle of almost translucent yellow flesh is juicy and tender, with a sweetness that is cut through by a hint of acidity. My taste for them is growing . . .

 

On Saturday we visited the salt marshes at Olhão, before going to the fish market. It was an overcast day. Black-winged Stilts and Flamingoes cast pale shadows on the grey waters. Low-flying House Martins and Barn Swallows knitted the air around us along the path, as though closing us in an invisible net.

In the market we bought stout, firm, shiny robalo (sea bass). They came to 27 euros, and we gave the man forty. ‘Vint’-sete,’ he repeated, holding the money we’d given him back out towards us. We explained we didn’t have anything smaller, but he just looked at us. Puzzled, we abandoned talking and resorted to gesture, a lifting of the chin to encourage him to check again the money we had given him. The penny dropped: he realised we’d given him two twenties. His expression softened, and he drew the forefingers of his raw, red hands in circles around his face to indicate tiredness and confusion. Nor does it look like an easy life, to be a fishmonger. I wouldn’t last thirty minutes with my fingers in crushed ice, guts and scales.

Since the weekend, it has turned warm. There is no longer any need, or excuse, for a fire at night. The wild flowers are still dazzling. It’s been an exceptional year for them, we’re told. Certainly they are more impressive than last year’s. Lordy is given to lying in the meadows, his kohl-rimmed eyes above the flowers, looking even more louche than ever. Alternatively he makes himself comfortable in the road and isn’t in any hurry to move when you drive up. Such a cool character.

The two dogs hadn’t been to our veranda for a while, so the slices of old bread we keep for them had become rock hard. I couldn’t even snap them into pieces. I gave them to the enquiring dogs this week regardless and they tackled them with the enthusiasm, and the dentition, they have for bones. Husband’s bread is eternal. If exposed to the air, it doesn’t go mouldy, it just slowly desiccates: a sign of very good sourdough bread.

The other visitors to our veranda are a pair of Red-rumped Swallows. They fly in and out all day long. They swim over us while we’re at breakfast, and cut in front of my study window – which looks through the veranda and down the path to the river – all the rest of the day. On the wire, they babble; in flight they call to one another with little bird barks. They fly right up to the mark left behind by the old nest, even seem to bump their faces on the wall. We’ve seen them fill their beaks with mud from the building site of the swimming pool, but it hasn’t been deployed on our veranda yet. They are sleek and shiny in the sunlight, such elegant and beautiful birds.

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread with gusto

 

One hundred

Backlit poppies

Backlit poppies

Backlit lavender

Backlit lavender

vetch

Common Vetch, uncommonly pretty

hairy lupin

The Hairy Lupin, at seed stage, in the rain

Quaking grass

Tiny lanterns of Quaking Grass which, true to their name, shudder in finely tuned response to the merest movement of air

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended. A second after this picture was taken, it had disappeared into the water below

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended; disappearance is imminent. A second after this picture was taken, it had dropped into the water below. I was surprised it let me get this close

 

Had I continued to keep count of the weeks, this would be number one hundred. I’m quietly celebrating that milestone. I’m celebrating the rain, too. The sky today has been dark grey, with blooms of white cloud and shafts of yellow light. Our dirt track is running with brown streams and the river is the highest I’ve seen it for well over a year. I dropped into Flaviano’s emporium to collect the post – Nada!, always more of a disappointment for Flaviano than for me, it seems – and the round lady greeted me. ‘How’s about this for rain then?’ she said. ‘Yes!’ I replied (my Portuguese still so limited), and we each raised a thumb, simultaneously. Shared pleasure over rain. Since the relationship between rain falling out of the sky, our well filling up and having water to wash in, cook with and drink is so intimate and direct, it’s impossible not to love the rain.

A few days ago at breakfast Little Owl arrived on his perch (a telegraph pole) and gave us a hard stare. I went to grab a camera but was too late, it flew off. Every day its calls rebound around the valley. At night, the Scops Owl adds its unique sound. We lie in bed at night and hear its solemn and restrained sonar beeps, so unlike the shrieks of the Little Owl. I looked the birds up in a book and discovered that the Scops Owl is smaller still than the Little Owl. Two tiny owls filling our days and nights with sound. We wonder if the Scops Owl, so present in our garden at night, is interested in the nest box we placed in a carob tree up the hill, not far from the bank of solar panels. The box is designed for hoopoes and small owls. I crept up for a look this week: no sign of any habitation.

Our little bend-in-the-valley world is filled with melodious nightingales, cisticolas (whose flight pattern and matching call seem to have tightened up: the loops are sharper and the calls more frequent), babbling swallows, whistling orioles and, impossible to ignore, the frantic call of the serin, that tiny, bursting bundle of yellow feathers. I feel for the serin. I hope its energetic song is born of triumph and not desperation.

The effort not to waste lemons continues. The pickled lemons I made a good few weeks back using a Diana Henry recipe, which involved briefly salting the sliced lemons then packing them up in paprika-dusted layers with oil, has been to my satisfaction, but not Husband’s. To appeal to his tastes, I’ve taken a recipe from the Prashad book, which comes from a small, northern English-based Indian restaurant. The first stage is under way: 1 kilo of chopped, pipped lemons – from Maria’s tree – are macerating in a terracotta sludge consisting of turmeric + salt + the juice that came off the chopped lemons. I give the plastic box a good shake every day, and after three weeks they will be ready for the next stage of flavouring.

I have turned my back on the nespera (loquat) tree, whose boughs are weighed to the ground with pink-flushed yellow fruit. There are just too many. The birds can have them. Our fig tree now has full-size, still-green fruit; not for nothing does the oriole (the papafigos, or fig-eater) turn up at this time. I’d like to get the figs before they do, though. They are so exquisite, and last year we had only the first harvest; the weather was too dry for the tree to manage a second fruiting.

We went this week to a day-long discussion session at the University of the Algarve about the ‘economic, social and environmental impact of hydrocarbon exploration in the Algarve in the 21st century’ – a long title for a well-presented but very ill-attended day. More disappointing than the lack of attendance was the presentation from the Portuguese Association for Renewable Energy, who are – it seems to me – failing to promote solar energy, while still spreading the now-discredited theory that natural gas is a halfway house between fossil fuels and renewable energies. We learnt the extraordinary fact that the solar contribution to energy in the UK is twenty-two times greater than it is in Portugal. I don’t need to tell you how much more the sun shines here than it does in the UK – even if this week might have been an exception.

One day this week I noticed something sticking out of one of the back doors. I bent down and took a closer look: it was a little skull. I opened the door to find the rest of the skeleton inside the door jamb. It was a small gecko that had been unintentionally garrotted. I detached its tiny skeleton from the door and let it be taken by the breeze, feeling out-of-all-proportion sad about this tiny, accidental death.

grotto

I like a bit of religion. Here’s Mary in her grotto in the church of Santiago, the pilgrim, in Tavira

Bufo bufo

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins were swimming through the air, sunlight turning them liquid

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins filled the air above, sunlight turning them liquid

River sparkle

River sparkle

Wading through the river in my new wellies

I can wade through the river in my new wellies

 

I arrived back from England wearing a pair of new, knee-length red wellies, which I’d found on sale in my mum’s village. I had worried about arcane airline regulations that prevent the wearing of long rubber footwear – who knows? – but they weren’t confiscated, though I did have to take them off to get through security. They are the Best Thing. The calf-length wellies that landed me in such cold water a couple of weeks ago have been cast aside, and in my knee-length ones I can wade properly through the river. I was happy to see the river hadn’t dried up in our absence, but equally it has never gone into spate like it did last year, when a torrent of brown water came down and filled the wide, shallow river bed from bank to bank.

At least there was enough water for the toads (Common Toad, Bufo bufo), who came into the water to mate. It was last week, just before we left for England. I saw something moving in the river: a squat and immobile thing, which pulled its head underwater on the approach of a human being but didn’t swim off like a turtle does. It turned out to be one of about half a dozen toads, each the size of a fat fist, waiting around for something to happen. The something was happening in one spot only, as you can see from the picture below. Whether there was only one female – the large one underneath is the female – and the others were males waiting their turn with her, I don’t know. I was disconcerted that they’d chosen one of the fording routes as their mating site and hoped they survived. Mind you, there is only about a car a day – usually ours.

Mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Underwater mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Bufo bufo waiting and hoping

Waiting and hoping

 

So when I returned from England in my wellies I went to see how the toads had got on. Clearly, mating had gone well. They must have all returned to their dry land sites because they were nowhere to be seen, but their translucent tubes of black eggs were left carelessly all over the place. The tubes often lay in pairs, looking like traffic-heavy dual-carriageways, following straight routes until forced to loop around rock obstructions, or piling up into occasional spaghetti junctions. This is Nature’s sustainable surplus at work. If all these eggs resulted in toads, the hillsides would be carpeted with them. As it is, only a tiny few of this vast number will survive. I had a go at working out how many eggs there might be; I quickly gave up. Even estimating the total length of tube wasn’t easy: certainly dozens of metres, maybe even a hundred. With so many eggs, and so few toads needed to sustain a stable population, the parents can afford to abandon them to fate – including the chance of being run over.

Toad egg roads - found on our return

Toad egg roads all through the river at the ford – found on our return

Toad eggs: Nature's miraculous abundance

Toad eggs: Nature’s miraculous abundance

 

Lemons

The lemon trees around here are doing a good job of sustainable surplus too. We had a picnic with friends among sobreiros (Quercus suber; cork oak trees) just before we left for England. It was a perfect day for walking and sunny enough for picnicking. On our way there, driving up the two-kilometre dirt track that is the high street of our local community, we passed Maria and pulled up for a chat. I had a Bulgarian cheese pie cooling on my lap – my contribution to the picnic. ‘She makes nice things,’ said Maria to Husband. (When your Portuguese isn’t that good, you get talked about more than to. I’m happy with that – I can listen in, like a child, trying to learn.) Husband said it was for a picnic, and then Maria insisted we take armfuls of their oranges to add to the spread. Theirs are the sweetest, juiciest oranges, so we were happy to. She also exhorted us to help ourselves to the abundant lemons. As we reached into the trees, gently twisting the fruit to see which were ready to fall into our hands, Maria said how much she liked a chocolate cake I’d made recently. It had been too much cake for us – the mood to bake a cake had arrived but without enough mouths at home to eat it – so when Eleuterio appeared on his tractor I had offered him a quarter to take away. It was very well received. ‘I like to bake cakes,’ I explained to Maria, in a sudden burst of Portuguese. ‘And I like to eat them,’ she replied, grinning broadly. She was less impressed, however, with my plans to preserve the excess of lemons with salt. Sweetness rules the day.

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, along with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Week 70: The sea

In many areas along the coast in the eastern Algarve are salt pans, like this. Now is salt harvesting season

In many areas along the coast in the eastern Algarve are salt pans, like this. Now is salt harvesting season

Salt mountain near Tavira

Salt mountain near Tavira

Saltscape

Saltscape

Abandoned boat on a bed of samphire in the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa natural park

Long-abandoned boat on a bed of samphire in the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa natural park

Fine veils of rain hung in our valley in the early part of this week, moving gently in the breeze, slowly drenching the land and releasing its earthy perfume. It was the kind of weather the Irish call ‘soft’. It was very much needed, and gave us a few days’ break from watering the garden ourselves. The sun returned the next day, and has continued to shine every day since, but it is a slightly less ferocious sun than the one of high summer and we no longer need to have windows and shutters closed all day to keep it out. It is perfect sun for the beach.

I would spend every day by the sea if I could. When we fell in love with this country, this province, indeed this particular valley, almost two years ago, it was over the course of a single grey week in January. We never went to the coast. We were some way advanced with our purchase of a house without ever having been to the sea. Now that we’re here, it is going to the sea that I love most of all. This week we managed one visit to the glittering, entrancing water and the glistening sand. We switched our beach habit from an early morning to an afternoon one, arriving after lunch and staying until the end of the day, which in September is 6.45 p.m. when the last boat returns to Santa Luzia from our favoured spot. As the afternoon wore on, more birds appeared. Winter-white sanderlings tore up and down the water’s edge, playing catch-me-if-you-can with the waves. Turnstones, rather drab without their breeding colours of oranges and reds, examined the sea’s terminal moraine for whatever it was they had lost. If they found it, they rushed away from their companions to examine it more closely, in case it was a precious thing to be kept from greedy eyes. Two Mediterranean gulls spent some leisure time at the sea’s edge, showing off their fancy red legs. Their head is black in the breeding season; out of season all that’s left of the colour is what looks like a pair of headphones. One was ringed; it will have a story to tell. And all afternoon long a slim, waxing moon hung over the sea like the ghostly remains of a paraglider.

At home, to our joy, the red-rumped swallows have been back to visit. Such independent-minded birds they are. We thought they had left with the rest of the summer birds, but no. Just as they arrived later than their swallow brethren, it seems they will leave later too. They perched on the wire and babbled, then swam into and out of the veranda, and glided up and down the valley, their feathers wet in the sunlight. When our neighbours arrived this summer, we finally learnt where the birds had nested: the enclosed mud nest with its tunnel entrance had been newly built under their eaves. Given the regularity with which the birds check out our site, we cannot have totally lost favour. My plan is to destroy their old nest so that the sparrows – who lack such nest-building skills – cannot take it over next year. Plus we want to paint the front veranda, which we can’t do with a mud nest in the way. Swallows will be welcome to rebuild on the freshly painted surface if they choose. The sparrows can find themselves a new site.

The first pomegranate from our tree. The seeds were little bursts of flavour

The first pomegranate from our tree. The seeds, though pale in colour, were little bursts of flavour

Cork oak near our house: such a craggy, unkempt-looking tree, whether with its full covering of cork or, as here, with its trunk stripped

Cork oak near our house: such a craggy, unkempt-looking tree, whether with its full covering of cork or, as here, with its trunk stripped. It always reminds me of the old drawings of Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter)

Week 65: Food

Plums from our tree

Plums from our tree

Prickly pear ripening

Prickly pears ripening

Bread orders are growing: the oven had better arrive soon

Bread orders are growing: the oven had better arrive soon

Our water-delivery man last week bemoaned that in summer there was never any rain, it was just heat, heat, heat. The next day it rained, and the next day, and the day after that. He wasn’t completely wrong, though. It was the kind of rain that lasts for seconds and evaporates the instant it hits the ground. If it hadn’t fleetingly drummed on our veranda roof we’d never have known it was there. The only other evidence of the existence of this strange ‘rain’ is that it disturbs the fine patina of dust on a car, turning it into a pattern of muddy splodges and making a merely dusty car into a dirty one that cries out for cleaning.

Dry riverbed

Dry riverbed

To entertain a five-year-old, we searched the riverbed for stones shaped like hearts – and found many

To entertain a five-year-old, we searched the riverbed for stones shaped like hearts – and found many

Riverbed

I love to walk along the riverbed. Every week it changes. The pond I like to think of as ours is hanging on, and still deep and clear enough for a paddle. Round the bend of the river another of the ponds I frequent has dried up completely. All those frogs – where did they go? The answer came in a patch of gloop under an overhang of cane just a few metres further on, its green satiny surface sequinned with bubbles and golden eyes, a kind of Frog Butlin’s that was heaving with the creatures.

Gloop

Gloop

Frog queue: the one in front has just eaten a yellow butterfly, possibly to the chagrin of the one behind

Frog queue: the one in front has just caught a yellow butterfly, possibly to the chagrin of the one behind

Butlin's redcoat

Redcoat checking the waters of Frog Butlin’s

redcoat3

Food

A long while ago a friend asked me if we were making Portuguese food at home. We use local ingredients, of course, but we use them in the same recipes we always have done, which, incidentally, are vegetarian. (We’re not exactly vegetarian, but anyway – long story.) We made lunch recently for Portuguese friends from Lisbon on holiday in the Algarve, and the dishes were Lebanese, Mexican and Bulgarian. All good and very well received, but it was only when they asked where the recipes were from that I became aware we haven’t yet adopted a Portuguese dish into our repertoire. Not eating any meat or fish at home is one reason why (vegetarian food isn’t big here). The availability of fantastic and well-priced food to eat out is another. Our local café, for example, has an eternal promotion of 1 coffee + 1 pastel de nata for 1 euro. The cakes here are very good – so is the coffee, something to do with those ties to Brazil, perhaps – and with prices as good as these we would never try to replicate them at home. However, I would like to get under the skin of this cuisine a bit more.

To deal with the glut of plums I have been making compote, following a recipe from my mother-in-law. To every 500g fruit, you add 100g sugar and 10ml vinegar – I’m using pomegranate vinegar, which we found in a shop here. Stone and roughly chop the fruit and macerate with the sugar and vinegar overnight. The next day, cook for 2 hours in a covered pan over a very low heat without stirring. That’s it. Keeps for weeks in the fridge in an airtight container. Divine with yoghurt for breakfast or with almond sorbet for pudding. (For almond sorbet, use 500g nuts, skin on; turn into almond milk by soaking, liquidising and straining, then add a little sugar syrup and churn in an ice-cream maker – almond and plum is a magical partnership.)

Plum compote with yoghurt

Plum compote with yoghurt

Prickly pears are ripening all around us, so I decided to try my hand at prickly pear sorbet. The important thing is not to touch the fruit with your hands because of the spines. I wouldn’t recommend gardening gloves, either. It just means your gloves get embedded with spines and you can never touch them again. So use tongs, and collect the fruit in a bucket. A good way to get rid of the spines from the fruit you’ve picked is to burn them off: a gas ring will do. Then top and tail the fruit, peel off the skin, put the entire insides into a liquidiser, whiz briefly, then strain (to get rid of the seeds). To the resulting pulpy liquid, add sugar syrup and lemon juice and churn in an ice-cream maker. I used about a dozen fruit, and sugar syrup made from 200g sugar dissolved in 350ml water with the juice of 1 lemon. Husband described the taste as between a peach and a banana. For me it’s reminiscent of cantaloupe melon, with a hint of caramel.

Scorching the spines off a prickly pear

Scorching the spines off a prickly pear

sorbet

Prickly pear sorbet

Week 63: Sea fishing

The beach (at Terra Estreita) in the morning

The beach (at Terra Estreita) in the morning

Another view of the beach in the morning

Another view of the beach in the morning

Plum tree ready to harvest; the hint of white in the top right-hand corner is the moon

Plum tree ready to harvest; the hint of white in the top right-hand corner is the moon

Plums that look like chocolate eggs (according to my great-niece)

The plums look like chocolate eggs (according to my great-niece)

The tourist season is at its shimmering, simmering height, but you’d never think so where we are. We still go out if ever we hear a car go by because it must be someone who’s come to visit us or got lost. The bee-eaters are the only hordes to descend on this valley. Their numbers seem to be increasing. Where we used to hear them only in the evenings, now we hear them at any time of day. Their calls sound like a toy musical instrument, their shape against the sky seems composed of the protractors and compass points of a geometry set and their colours are as bright as a box of crayons. They seem to be formed from the contents of a schoolchild’s satchel. We watched them from the back terrace this morning. We also saw, over the space of a few minutes, the red-rumped swallows, many house martins, two tumbling, twirling golden orioles, a languid hoopoe and a darting blue rock thrush. Good company to have at breakfast.

Snapped in Santa Luzia. This vessel's name, Atum (Tuna), suggest its occupation, but tuna-fishing is on a much reduced scale these days

Snapped in Santa Luzia. This vessel’s name, Atum (Tuna), suggests its occupation, but tuna-fishing is on a much reduced scale these days

Another fishing boat in Santa Luzia

Another fishing boat in Santa Luzia, taken on a rare overcast day this week

Wooden boats

Why would a wooden fishing boat be any better than a fibreglass one? I asked this question provocatively of an earnest photographer and environmentalist on Saturday, ignoring my own feelings on the subject: which are that my heart lifts at the sight of an old wooden fishing boat, and it does not do the same at the sight of a fibreglass one. Husband and I had found ourselves at a hotel on the outskirts of Tavira, an old tuna-fishing village converted into a holiday centre, attending the presentation of a new association aimed at protecting the marine environment in all its aspects. A series of chance contacts brought us here; we were interested to find out what the project was all about. The proposed association – they are still jumping through bureaucratic hoops to set it up – arose out of the voluntary work done by an archaeologist, a teacher, a photographer and a tourist guide to preserve and restore an old octopus fishing boat from Santa Luzia: Os Cavalinhos (The Little Horses). About 6 metres long and 1.3 metres at its widest, it was part of the traditional octopus fishing fleet and in its time the fastest rowing boat in Santa Luzia. At sixty years old, it had fallen into disrepair. The volunteers, two of them the daughters of Santa Luzia fishermen, attempted to raise the funds to restore the boat to take part once again in the annual fishermen’s race. They succeeded, though only just in time. The race is on Monday 10 August and we plan to go and see it.

Why all this interest in an old wooden boat? It seems the government is in the process of encouraging the fishermen to get rid of their old boats, burn them on the beach if necessary, and accept some money towards the purchase of a fibreglass replacement. I haven’t been able to find out what is the official thinking behind this policy, but, as you saw, I did get the chance to ask the volunteer at the association what he had against it. Obviously, heart-lift cannot be a factor on either side. So, is a wooden boat really any better than a fibreglass one? Well, yes, he said. First, it’s sturdier, and much safer in a heavy sea. Secondly, besides strength, it has give: wood will flex in response to the movement of the sea, which fibreglass cannot. And this means, in turn, that the fisherman is better off. In a fibreglass boat, he – or, rather, his spine – becomes the most giving point of contact, which soon leads to a ruined back. Thirdly, a fisherman has a long relationship with a wooden boat. With love and care it will last for decades and be like a second skin. Not so a fibreglass boat. I was glad I’d asked. We will be interested to see the association get up and running and to find out if there’s any way we can contribute.

My father in a wooden fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden half a century ago. He loved sea fishing in his spare time

My father in a wooden fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden half a century ago. He loved sea fishing in his spare time

Weeks 56–7: Animal families

Cork oak at daybreak

Cork oak at daybreak

You can just about make out the oriole - they hide surprisingly well for all their fresh lacquer colour

You can just about make out the oriole – they hide surprisingly well for all their fresh lacquer colour. A few yellow leaves on the trees aid their disguise

Estrela greeted us as we came back from our daybreak walk

Estrela greeted us as we came back from our walk

 

We celebrated the longest day of the year by making it even longer: we got up with the birds to take a daybreak walk upriver. The orioles in their family groups filled the valley with calls, which after a short while started to sound to us like recognisable conversation. The adults giving food to the young: ‘Here you go!’ The youngsters’ ungrateful response: ‘Whaddya mean?’ The irresistible urge to anthropomorphise. Another family group out that morning was the turtles: the big, old turtles slid quickly into the pools away from us but the little, fresh ones took longer to move: curiosity, or inexperience. Our very own sparrow family is closer to fledging clutch number two, and continues to be highly, almost comically alarmed every time we step out on to our front veranda. They don’t seem to have become accustomed to us yet. I wonder if it’s a new female. (I’m pretty sure it’s the same male.) She’s anxious and voluble. Perhaps it’s her first clutch. Altogether less in-your-face have been the Sardinian warblers, who nested in one of the rosemary bushes in our back garden, and whose young have now fledged.

Peaches almost ready to eat

Peaches almost ready to eat

Plums need a little longer

Plums need a little longer

Feigensenf/fig mustard

Feigensenf/fig mustard

Fruit

Our fig tree hasn’t let us down. Those early, mysterious (to me) ‘buds’ turned into beautiful green fruit which we’ve eaten – and shared, whether we like it or not, with azure-winged magpies, orioles and blackbirds. Husband made delicious fig mustard, like a sort of piquant jam, which is superb with mature cheese. Many more tiny new figs have appeared on the tree, so it seems we shall be well supplied for weeks to come. Our three apricot trees have finished fruiting; now the peaches are ripening well, and they will be followed by plums, then apples. But our lemon trees, so heavy with fruit for so long, have no more ripe ones. I am not above stealing from a nearby ruin which has a prolific tree, but Husband prefers a more legitimate route. So we went to see Flaviano, in case he had lemons for sale, and also in case we’d heard from the town hall about our swimming pool. There was no post for us of any description. As we stood at the bar drinking beer and port, I said to Husband: ‘E limões?’, and he replied that there appeared to be none. Flaviano heard. He disappeared into the back and returned with a plastic bag heavy with sharp scented lemons, about twenty, for which he would receive no payment. Lemons he had plenty of, he said. We paid for the drinks we had had, and the new fly swat selected from his goods on display.

Summer is here, but Santa still holds court in the coolness of Flaviano's shop interior

Summer is here, but Santa still holds court in the cool and dark interior of Flaviano’s shop

Colour

On the evening of the shortest night (assuming that’s the night before the longest day) we had watched the setting sun highlighting the few, scattered clouds in colours of gold, pearly-pink and – most surprising – blue. Blue clouds against a dark blue sky. Magical. But colour is deceptive, isn’t it? Husband and I often disagree about it. Neither of us is ‘colour-blind’, so far as we know, and yet we don’t agree about anything in the transition from violet and blue to green. We do agree, however, that colours are deeper here in the Algarve than they are further north. When I arrive back in England, I am still surprised at the change in the light. I assume the difference to have been temporary, or temporal, or seasonal, and yet there it is again. Several wavelengths of light seem to have been removed from the sun, making England a watercolour, whereas here the medium is oils.

In thanks for our work on the Marie Curie cookbook Everything Stops for Tea, the photographer, the designer and I were each presented with this sumptuous English-oak cake stand at the book launch.

In thanks for our work on the Marie Curie cookbook Everything Stops for Tea, the photographer, the designer and I as the editor were each presented with a sumptuous, carved English-oak cake stand at the launch in Norwich. I carried mine back home in my hand luggage for safekeeping, and photographed it here in the Algarve sun

 

 

Week 52: Horse, dogs and a new cycle

Male sparrow waiting in the pomegranate tree to deliver food

Male sparrow waiting in the pomegranate tree to deliver food (all animal photos this week by Fatma)

Extreme feeding - look away now

Extreme feeding – look away now

Miss Big, beautiful, boisterous animal, and friend of Horse

Miss Big, beautiful, boisterous animal, and friend of Horse

Mr Angry and  Miss Big: from this angle, the small dog looks relatively larger

Mr Angry and Miss Big: from this angle, the small dog looks relatively larger

 

Thank you to everyone who commented on the blog last week, and to all those who have commented in the past. I have been encouraged in many ways to continue this blog, but it’s less about the support from outside and more about this writing need I have discovered inside. The blog will write itself in some corner of my consciousness whether I want it to or not. Plus, I want to record a full year of living here, through every season. There is so much still to discover, experience and describe, from the strange hot winds of earlier this week, to whatever the outcome will be of the documents handed into Tavira town hall today – the size and heft of a fashion magazine – in pursuit of permission to build a swimming pool.

Horse

Reunited with Horse

Reunited with Horse

I met up with Horse again. I pieced together where he must be, then a friend and I went for a walk in that direction. We found him, in his stable, with his nose in the trough. He wasn’t disposed to be polite while he had food to get through, so we let him be and had a cup of tea with the owner, and also met the other four-legged inhabitants: six dogs. Well, five; a black one was missing. The dogs all demanded petting, though a little one – Mr Angry, I called him – didn’t stop the discontented rumbling in his throat even while he was being stroked.

Then we went back out to Horse, and solved the mystery of the black dog: there she was, with her friend. Horse was attentive now, especially since I had apples on me. ‘He definitely remembers you,’ said the owner. ‘They do, you know.’ Dear old Horse. I’m happy now I know where he lives.

Leaving the place, however, meant getting out of the front gate without a contingent of dogs at our heels. We failed. Little Mr Angry squeezed through the tiny gap before we could close the gate fully, and Miss Big, the lovely black one, just leapt over. They accompanied us all the way home, passing the house where some estrangeiros have a number of aggressive dogs. Miss Big was silently disdainful of their racket, and leapt up and down a few steep slopes in the vicinity to mock their captivity.

We walked along the riverbed. Surely the dogs would soon turn round and go back. After all, they didn’t know we were back at home. So while they frolicked around here and there, we quietly crept away and let ourselves into the house.

It wasn’t long before we saw the beautiful brown eyes of Miss Big at the kitchen window at the rear of the house, her paws on the sill. Meanwhile at the front, a bad move on our part – opening the door a crack just to see – let Mr Angry in, who sat down immediately and refused to budge. I had to push him back out on his furry rear end, his front legs scrabbling for purchase on the tiles. For growly Mr Angry, we were suddenly the best thing since bacon butties.

We gave them water but otherwise we had no choice but to ignore them. It was quite late in the day now. Some barking was heard in the night – Mr Angry – and by the morning they were nowhere to be seen. They’d finally gone home.

After all, they aren’t our dogs . . .

Sparrows

The sparrows have gone too. There was never much chance of seeing them fly the nest. With parents as attentive as theirs, so attuned to our presence or absence, the youngsters were sure to be ushered out when we weren’t around. Husband and I went to a brunch party on Sunday and when we got back, they’d gone. I miss the demanding song of the babies. I also miss the heavy whirr of wings that accompanied my every opening of the front door as the parents took sudden flight, only to venture back when it felt safe. They even seemed to know when I was looking at them. How can that be? If I watched the nest, they became anxious. If I stayed put but turned my head away, they went on with their lives, feeding the youngsters within earshot – but not eyeshot – of the human. They still haven’t given up the nest. Mr Sparrow was in there cleaning it up, bringing white chalky leavings to the tunnel entrance and dropping them on to our front terrace. He also spent a bit of time in the nest just looking out: reminiscing, or recovering his breath? I wonder if they are preparing for a second clutch.

Our apricots are ready for eating

Our apricots are ready for eating

More fantastic bread

More fantastic bread

Week 50: Dia do Trabalhador

Very loose translation of the label on the man's shirt: This jolly pair might resemble someone but it's just a bit of fun and not meant to offend.

Bonecos dos Maios. Loose translation of the label on the man’s shirt: This jolly pair might resemble real people but it’s just a bit of fun and not meant to offend

Zé and Maria are working on the land. Zé is here to fix the marker stones - according to the new legislation, usefully pinned to his shirt as well

Zé and Maria are working on the land. Zé is here to set the marker stones – as he must according to the new legislation, which is usefully pinned to his shirt as well

This fellow managed to lose sight of donkey when he went off for a pee and now he can't find him

This fellow managed to lose sight of his donkey when he went off for a pee and now can’t find him anywhere

Love this shady character

Close-up of the negligent fellow

Maria, the river washerwoman: a disappearing way of life

Maria, the river washerwoman: a disappearing way of life

Dancing at the festa

Dancing at the festa

 

Just as Maria said, on May Day our valley filled with people picnicking. Not too far away was an organised festa, with vans serving food and beer, and a singer on a small stage in front of a dance floor. The place was recommended to us for our first May first, so we went, and on the way we passed various bonecos dos Maios, lauding – and sometimes making fun of – the worker. During the dictatorship, festivities on Labour Day were suppressed; the revolution forty-one years ago saw a new flowering. My Portuguese teacher enjoyed seeing these pictures. She hadn’t seen bonecos for a while. She said you used to see more a few years ago, and sometimes they were a means of making a political protest. I believe these bonecos were made by the local freguesia (parish), which makes them quite tame, but I’m still charmed by them.

May Day has gone through a lot of rebranding over the centuries from its original pagan celebration of survival and renewal. Whatever the excuse, this May Day felt special. It was hot and bright; the air shimmered, seeming to feel its own weight. Intimations of real summer to come.

Rolie

I met Costa outside the local cooperativa agricola. We drove in through the gates until we got to the workshop of his mechanic friend, a stout, silent man. Inside, various tractors were being patched up and – heart-liftingly – a Renault 4 body was being resprayed, its chassis propped up against the wall behind. I left Rolie in his huge, capable hands.

I got a message a day later that the car was ready, so long as I didn’t want a complete respray of the back. If I did, I’d need to leave it longer. But Rolie was perfect. Nothing more was required. The chrome bumper was straightened out and refastened; the damage done to the bodywork patched up; the scratches spotted with matching paint. All for a few euros. I drove back home very happily.

Sparrows

We have hatchlings. We hear their tiny cheeps coming from the bottom of the mud enclosure. Their parents are busy feeding them. Each parent bird has a different modus operandi. The female arrives with her beakful of insect life, pauses on the mouth of the tunnel, casts a few glances around, then dives in. The cheeps rise in volume to greet her. The male arrives with his beakful of insect life, but he doesn’t dive into the nest. Oh no, far too dangerous. Instead, he lands unsteadily on the washing line below and wobbles. Then he flies off again, serpentines a bit, ducks and dives, checks all around, throws a few more diversionary moves in, and still doesn’t go in the nest. By this time the female has delivered several more beakloads. Eventually he deems the ground to be safe and goes in. The chicks get their feed, then he’s out like a shot to resume his commando role.

The swallows are leaving the sparrows alone. I wonder if they might retake the nest after the squatter fledglings have flown. I don’t know if that kind of thing happens.

Swimming pool

We put in an application for a swimming pool. Everybody we know – except our architect – advised against this. Nobody has a legal pool; the rules are vague anyway; they’ll only be on your back for ever. Go for a fibreglass pool, for which you don’t need permission. (Theoretically.) And then we went ahead anyway. We decided that if we were to have a pool at all, we’d like a proper, built one.

Our application has passed what is arguably the most difficult part of the process: approval from the Agricultural Department. Next it goes to the council. Our architect, who is managing the process, is another in the long line of pleasant, smart, intelligent Portuguese professionals we have dealt with. In her holidays, she goes to India to work on behalf of street children. What can I say? People here are nice.

Lesser spotted woodpecker taking a break from the telegraph poles and going for the dead flower 'stalk' of the century plant

Lesser spotted woodpecker taking a break from the telegraph poles and going for the dead ‘flower stalk’ of the century plant

woody2

Another view: such a tiny but loud bird

Harvest: oranges and nespera (loquat or Japanese medlar in English - though no one has ever heard of it)

Harvest: oranges and nespera (loquat or Japanese medlar in English – though no one has ever heard of it)

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