Bread

Snow in the Algarve

Carpenter bee in the bougainvillea

The snow of the Algarve: the almond trees are in blossom

 

While our swallows are far away in West Africa, the sparrows have tried again to take over the nest. The same old story. So we nailed two corks together, side by side, using heavy U-shaped pins, and slotted them into the entrance to the mud house. We went away for a couple of nights and came back to find the corks had done the job: the sparrows hadn’t been able to remove them. What they had done instead, however, was to start to peck away at the mud gobbets placed by our indefatigable swallows in order to get in behind the obstruction. They hadn’t removed enough to gain access so we pushed the corks further in to block them. The only sure-fire way to protect the nest is to hang around on the front veranda for ever. The sparrows don’t like us near. The feeling is mutual.

Our permaculture journey is about to begin. Behind the house, the neglected hillside is to be ‘engineered’ into water-retaining swales and terraces and planted with a variety of young trees. We will slowly sow seeds and plants between the trees, as well as allowing pioneer seeds to take root for themselves. From here, the biotope will do its own thing. The health of the soil will gradually be enhanced and it will increasingly sequester carbon and hold water. In the few weeks since our eyes were opened to this possibility, I have tried to teach myself about permaculture and developing a food forest. Some of the things I have learned:

  1. Diversity is key.
  2. The soil is queen.
  3. Mulch is king. All kinds of things, not just plant material, can be mulch: old clothes and cardboard, for example.
  4. No such thing as garden ‘rubbish’. It’s all useful biomass.
  5. The biotope is a natural, self-sufficient energy system. Nothing in, nothing out – except for food produce.
  6. Weeds are good, not least for soil cover.
  7. Don’t be purist. What works, works.
  8. It isn’t always pretty in the short term. In the long term, it will be beautiful.
  9. It is an agricultural system for humans (and animals) to live in.
  10. Small-scale farmers feed the majority of the world – some say 80 per cent – while having access to less than a quarter of all farmland.

Another journey, begun long ago, has reached a new destination. When my grandparents ran away from County Offaly in Ireland to Liverpool to get married – in the face of parental disapproval – they didn’t know they were extending a lifeline to a future granddaughter that would allow her to keep her treasured European citizenship. I applied to register at the Irish embassy in Lisbon as an Irish citizen of ‘foreign birth’, then, once that had been confirmed with a certificate, I applied for a passport, which a few weeks later arrived from Dublin, via Lisbon. It was straightforward and I dealt with nice human beings all along the way. Across the pages of my new passport run lilting lines of prose, among which are: ‘The Irish nation treasures its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’

Lordy visiting us

Lordy with his breakfast bread

Bony fig tree, soon to come into leaf

Bread: two spelt and seven alfarroba loaves. The alfarroba (carob in English, Johannisbrot in German) was a successful experiment. Almost half the bread’s flour comes from the alfarroba, the rest is rye, spelt and wheat; the crumb is firm and dark and mildly sweet, the crust has a hint of caramelisation. It slices well and keeps well. Not for nothing does the German name of the tree and its fruit translate into English as St John’s bread

Lovebirds

On Sunday, when Eder scored a goal in extra time, I got up and put my head out of the door to listen to the sound of the world outside. I wanted to know if the cheers reached down to our valley. They didn’t. Nothing but the warm wind gusting about. Ten minutes later, when Portugal became European champions, I did the same: still nothing. Only the sounds of our own cheers. We are remote here. This proves it.

The main story here at the end of the world remains that of two swallows building a nest. Gobbets of heart-shaped mud have been arriving at our veranda roof at intervals as regular as a London bus: every ten or fifteen minutes and in pairs. They are brought in tirelessly by the two Red-rumped Swallows. Each gobbet is pushed out with the tongue and drilled into place with horizontal movements of the head and sprays of tiny droplets of saliva. (Do birds have saliva? They must do. Or else it’s the moisture in the mud that gets forced out.) They choose their material from various spots in the land around where we live. It can be red, brown or grey. The nicest-looking stuff, the red mud, comes from a place by Eleuterio’s water tank; he told me so. He looked quite chuffed about the swallows too. They have built their upside-down dome gobbet by gobbet, layer by layer, like potters who eschew a wheel. Plant fibres make up part of the building material.

As the days went by it became clear that the tunnel entrance wasn’t to be at the back after all, as I had assumed. The buttress sticking out at the rear is an architectural or engineering feature impenetrable to the human mind. Perhaps it’s a veranda. At the other side of the nest, ‘our’ side, they gradually narrowed their dome to a tiny bottle-neck, facing our front door.

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday: building

Wednesday: building

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday: 'Ick'

Thursday: ‘Ick’

Friday: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday 8 July: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday: not much more to go

Friday: not much more to go

Saturday 9 July: landing

Saturday 9 July: landing at the increasingly narrow entrance

Completion

Sunday 10 July: completion

Sunday: time for a rest

Sunday: time for a rest

... and some preening

… and some preening

 

By Sunday, it was done. The last of the mud had been spat out and driven into place. Stalks of dry grass were taken inside for padding. Now, in the morning, I look up at the nest to see one or sometimes two pairs of round eyes, under blue-shiny crowns, at the entrance to their home. And they look down at me.

I read somewhere that the birds don’t mate on the wing or on the wire, they wait until their home is built and mate inside. The first egg might already be laid. Incubation takes a couple of weeks. You can hear the birds chattering to one another inside. It sounds like they are zooming through the stations on a tiny analogue radio, the sound muffled by the chamber. They never seem to find the station they want.

No blog next week because of another work-related visit to London. Back by the time of the first hatchlings.

Industry in another corner of the: focaccia dough

Industry in another corner of the house: making focaccia for a party

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

 

The road to nowhere

I can never tire of our river

I can never tire of our river

river1 river2

Some of this week's bread

Some of this week’s bread

We may be at the back of beyond but many roads lead here. For Rolie, the Renault 4, the only possible route is our ‘main’ one; you need an off-road vehicle for the rest. You take a turning off the main east–west road, close to our local big village. The road condition deteriorates somewhat but it’s still a road. It goes up to a pass – not too high, we’re in the hills not the mountains here – then drops down, past Flaviano’s emporium with his never-ending Christmas, until it reaches a concrete bridge over the river. It’s a simple bridge with no sides. It probably never had any sides but a visiting boy, thinking it looked dismantled, asked us if that was because James Bond movies were filmed around here.

From there it’s a fairly steep ascent and a sharp bend, then you come to a turn-off. Now you are off the tarmac and on to the dirt. It’s a couple of kilometres along this track until you reach the river, where we live, and where there are two fording points if you want to go on any further. The second of these fords is the closest to our house and it’s the one strangers come a-cropper on. They will have driven on until the dirt road runs out and must either give up, turn round and go back or attempt the route to the river, which means driving over a rocky lip and down a footpath. Farmers can do it in their tractors and pickups; saloon and estate-car drivers cannot. It’s worse for people coming up from the river, which happens in the summer sometimes. The lip at the top of the path will defeat them. We come out at the sound of spinning wheels and spitting pebbles to recommend they reverse out of their predicament and take another route.

If you can get across the river, which is still possible even now, while it isn’t in spate, there’s an immediate choice of three dirt roads, which branch off into more and more tracks, some of ever-decreasing size. From here you can end up in neighbouring villages or eventually re-emerge at some point along the main east–west road. It was one of these routes that led a couple of weeks ago to the burst tyre, and the spotting of the fire salamander when we completed our journey home by foot.

In winter, without our neighbours here, we see an average of one vehicle a day, and it’s probably a tractor. Occasionally on a weekend there is the short-lived nuisance of a dirt bike. We don’t hear any other vehicle; the main roads are too far away for even a distant hum to reach us. We live with birdsong.

A Common Buzzard has recently taken up residence here. Its Portuguese name – the ‘round-winged eagle’ – is so much more charming than its English one. It isn’t welcomed by the foraging flocks of smaller birds we have around: Goldfinches, Serins, particularly the Azure-winged Magpies. The magpies, in their smart uniform of fawn with air-force-blue wings and neat black cap, are a rather military bird. Impossibly elegant in their dress uniform but with manners that do not match, they have taken to squawking at and mobbing the buzzard, who hunches rather pathetically in a too-small medronho (strawberry bush) until giving up and flying off. I wonder why the magpies are so bullish when they don’t have any young to protect. I guess it comes with the uniform.

The real road to nowhere: fossil fuel

And I can’t stop thinking about how all this could be lost, not just for us, but for everyone in the Algarve and for everyone who loves to come here. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet signed the petition against oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the Algarve, and would like to, please click on the link. Ta very much.

Tavira river

I never tire of Tavira either: the river Gilão reflecting the streetlights

tavira castle

Tavira’s castle by night. Original fortifications were built by the Moors, then rebuilt in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Portuguese kings

tavira parish church

Santa Maria do Castelo, the main parish church. After the 1755 earthquake, it was too damaged to be in use; the nearby Miséricordia took over as the parish church until 1800. The beautiful Baroque azulejos (tiles) of Miséricordia date from 1760 and perhaps it was the church’s elevated, albeit temporary, status that made their shipping in from Lisbon a possibility

 

Winter

Husband's bread

Husband’s latest bread

The rushing river

The rushing river

Clouds over the valley

Clouds over the valley

 

The river is very talkative these days. We’ve had so much rain that it babbles loudly. We can hear it from the front terrace, adding a new track to the bird sounds that accompany sunny breakfasts. Only two such breakfasts have been possible in this week of cloud cover. The well is liquid again and allowed us a second cisterna top-up of the month; this is the water tank under the front terrace, which supplies water to the house. A mathematical error in its building means that it is unusually capacious – 30,000 litres instead of the intended 15,000 – and we have managed to get it about three-quarters full, which is good.

Winter is a beautiful time in the Algarve. I love the cool brightness of it, the lushness of the hills, the crystal water that gushes from our well, the quietude in local towns; I love the fact that daytime is always temperate, if not warm, while night-time calls out for a fire to be lit.

Manueline

I’ve been exploring Tavira some more. The town was at the height of its success in the sixteenth century. Dom Manuel I was on the throne until 1521, and known as ‘the Fortunate’ for the wealth that came in through the spices and gold of India and Africa. His name was subsequently given to the predominant architectural style of the era, Manueline, also known as Portuguese late Gothic. The armillary sphere, a navigational device represented by a globe or half-globe encircled by bands, is a key Manueline symbol. No surprise there, with the astonishing success of Portuguese navigators and the riches pouring into the coffers of the Fortunate king. Other marine ornamentation – shells, pearls, rope, seaweed – also found their way into frothing, elaborate designs, but my personal favourites are the simpler examples of the style, ones which arguably show the calming influence of the Renaissance.

At this time, the Gothic pointed arch has been replaced by a rounded arch, often containing counter curves, like this one in Rua da Liberdade:

counter-curve

And here is another, the original doorway of a sixteenth-century inn, and now, as you can see, part of a chemist’s:

inn

And here is what remains of another . . .

counter-curve2

with, if you zoom in closely . . .

counter-face

a tiny, highly simplified, upside-down head – the discovery of which absolutely made my day. It’s on the house said to have been built in 1541 by André Pilarte, stonemason and Renaissance designer of the Misericórdia church.

Ever since the time of Dom Manuel I, the armillary sphere has been a key symbol of Portugal. It appears on the national flag, which dates to 1911 after the overthrow of the monarchy; the monarchy went but not their symbol. It was also, as I saw from this old postbox, once used for the Portuguese postal service, though a redesign has seen the end of it

Ever since the time of Dom Manuel I, the armillary sphere has been a key symbol of Portugal. It appears on the national flag, which dates from 1911 after the overthrow of the monarchy; the monarchy went but not their symbol. It was also, as I saw from this old postbox, once used for the Portuguese postal service, though a redesign has seen the end of it

 

Oil

So we went to the Sessão Pública de Esclarecimento, where representatives of various oil companies plus, my favourite fool, Paulo Carmona of the ENMC oil quango gave, after much public pressure, a series of talks to demystify what the process of oil prospecting and exploitation was all about. This is the cabinet of fools:

oilers1

The oil company representatives seemed to think they were there to give a geology lecture to a bunch of schoolchildren, or else to bring the good news to the benighted, and might have been surprised to be met with 250 stroppy, well-informed and angry members of the public. The presentation of the Italian rep, from ENI (Agip), was the worst, and ended with this spectacularly patronising picture:

oilers

whereupon he was almost laughed out of the lecture hall. However, it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all. These people have never heard of climate change, never heard of renewable energy, never heard of a global movement away from fossil fuel. Because if they did, they’d have to cease to exist. They’d have to uninvent themselves. We’re stuck with them. I’ll do everything I can to stop them despoiling this beautiful part of the world and to protect it for the future, but I know there’s not much I can do. So here’s the deal. I’m just going to enjoy the hell out of being in this beautiful place while we still have it – OK?

The life of the valley

We went for a walk and found Camilla, the dog I looked after a little while ago, playing Grandmother's Footsteps with us

On a walk we turned to find Camilla, the dog I looked after a little while ago, playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with us

Misty Sunday morning

Misty Sunday morning

The sun breaking through. I apologised to visiting family from Sweden for the overcast weather, but they were thrilled just to see daylight

The sun breaking through. I apologised to family visiting from Sweden for the cloudy weather, but they seemed thrilled just to see daylight

Our valley might look like the end of the world but it has many stories to tell. Only a couple of decades ago there was just one car here, a beaten-up one at that. Donkeys would have done the work of taking people and produce into the local village. Now there are Land Rovers and jeeps, family cars and, of course, a Renault 4 (Rolie, who is mine). We have a neighbour who keeps sheep, who has probably lived in the valley his entire life. We have tried hard to engage with him but he’s not too impressed by us. This week I saw him smile for the first time. I slowed Rolie down to a crawl so as not to alarm his sheep on the dirt road. The big beasts didn’t look too bothered either way, but two tiny, white, nervous faces looked up from just below the level of the road on the river-side of the track: lambs. My face melted and my expression was caught by the old man. That was when he smiled.

I am fascinated by other Renault 4 drivers, though usually too shy to openly demonstrate solidarity. Husband doesn’t have the same reserve. Recently we drove past a yellow R4 that we usually see parked outside an equally yellow house on the winding route into the town of São Brás de Alportel. So happy we were to see the vehicle in use that Husband – unusually, he was at the wheel of my car – beeped the horn to say hello. By chance the next day, alone in Rolie, I saw the car again. The driver’s hat was barely higher than the steering wheel. As we drew level, an old, crabbed hand was lifted in greeting.

Wheat

Not long ago, wheat was grown here in the valley. People harvested their own crop and a portable mill arrived by truck in the season to grind it for them; like all country people they understood crop rotation and knew what the land was capable of. The women made bread in wood-fired ovens and it tasted like heaven, I’m told. But cereal-growing didn’t last: two, opposing forces killed it off. A drive of Salazar’s, Portugal’s ascetic, etiolated twentieth-century dictator, to turn the Eastern Algarve into Portugal’s bread basket led to wide-scale land clearing for intensive cereal production that gave little consideration to the reality of the soil. The earth here is perfect for olive, carob, almond, medronho, fig, cork oak, and for subsistence vegetable farming. The drive failed. After only a few years of year-round production the land was exhausted; it has since reverted to more appropriate use. Somewhere along the line cheap flour imports became the model instead, and that put paid to people growing wheat for their own sustenance. Why work so hard when you could buy the stuff so cheaply, even if it didn’t taste as good or have anything like the same nutritional content?

This might have been a field of wheat at one time

This might have been a field of wheat at one time

The path to the river

The way to the river

An abandoned watermill exists at the end of our footpath to the river. I can’t imagine there was ever water enough for a millrace, so perhaps this was part of Salazar’s failed vision too, but I don’t know. It’s a puzzle. The millstone, which doesn’t look well used, lies decoratively but uselessly outside our garage and we and our visitors occasionally reverse cars into it. For us it is a reminder that not everything goes well, even in our little paradise.

I found this line in a photographic book about the Algarve by a Dr Marjay, published in 1968, in what would have been Salazar’s thirty-sixth, and last, year as Prime Minister: ‘Living in the heart of this perennial spring the people of Algarve hardly feel the bitterness of life.’ A glib sentence like that would surely have had the approval of Salazar, whose regime openly cultivated a ‘conservative, paternalist and, bless God, “backward”’ country. Salazar didn’t have time for people’s innate wisdom and need for self-determination. (I’m grateful to Becky of Hidden Delights of the Algarve for The Algarve book tip; the words of Salazar are from a letter he wrote in 1962 and are quoted in Barry Hatton’s very readable The Portuguese.)

The rosemary bush in our burgeoning garden; I love this herb

The rosemary bush in our burgeoning garden; I love this herb

This is Christmas for us: the medronho with its fruit baubles and its flower bells

This is Christmas for us: the medronho with its fruit baubles and its flower bells

Lordy came to visit. He did not want to look at the camera, but he sat with his leg pressed against my shin in a companionable way. Estrela came too, and Eleuterio confirmed what was evident: she is pregnant, and we are in line for a puppy or two

Lordy came to visit. He did not want to look at the camera, but he sat with his leg pressed against my shin in a companionable way. Estrela came too, and Eleuterio confirmed what was evident: she is pregnant, and we are in line for a puppy or two

 

Week 77: St Martin’s Summer

Early morning river

Early morning river

Sweet-smelling loquat blossom

Sweet-smelling loquat blossom

Cat and cactus; my neighbour is back, and I will miss feeding the animals

Cat and cactus; my neighbour is back, and I will miss feeding the animals

Other cat, on a sack of alfarroba - I will miss him too

Other cat, on a sack of alfarroba

My companion of the last ten days, coming to our terrace in the hope of a bread snack (which she got)

My companion of the last ten days, coming to our veranda looking for a bread snack (which she got)

 

Quite a lot of the entertainment round here takes place in Flaviano’s shop, that multi-purpose venue with the year-round singing Father Christmas. Sometimes that entertainment is me. This week I was met in the covered exterior of the shop by a seated group of three: Flaviano himself, the camionista whose drunkenness was the cause of disapproval a few weeks ago, and the round lady on her old office chair, her favourite because it’s padded and she can swing from side to side on it. I was wearing an ankle-length jersey dress. The round lady, wearing trousers, looked me up and down and said, ‘Nice dress but you can’t do this in it!’, then leaned back and scissored her legs up in the air. An impressive display for an elderly and stout person. So I stood on one leg and lifted the other straight up to the side, a sort of a half-scissor, to demonstrate that I had plenty of stretch in the fabric of my dress. Nods of satisfaction all round. As I walked by the round lady, she held out her hand for mine. Apologizing, she squeezed my hand: ‘You’re OK, aren’t you? I don’t really mean to make such fun of you.’ Teasing is a form of acceptance, isn’t it?

My Portuguese is still very limited. In the towns, especially a place like Tavira, much visited by foreigners, most people speak English. In general the Portuguese are willing to speak English and very good at it too, and it’s too easy to let them. Here in the campo, however, it’s a different matter. Here the language is deep Algarvian, and it’s sink or swim for me. I have to rely on body language, and hope no one asks me a direct question that needs an answer beyond how I am that day. So it’s perfectly possible that something else altogether was going on in Flaviano’s, but I don’t think so. Sometimes you don’t need words.

I rather like going around in a fog of incomprehension. It stops you taking life too seriously.

One day this week a flock of birds about a hundred strong flew down the valley, sunlight shining on their wings. Binoculars were needed for a better look: woodpigeons. They are either northern European birds migrating south to the Mediterranean for winter – a sensible move – or local flocks on a feeding frenzy, their numbers swelled by the surviving August-born young, filling their crops with acorns for later digestion. They landed fleetingly on the oak trees in our part of the valley and moments later were gone, moving on downriver. Always something new to see here.

New output of tin loaves

New output of tin loaves

Round loaves

Round loaves (and empty tins)

O Verão de São Martinho

I was wrong – and not for the first time – when I said that the Algarvian ‘spring’ in October was likely to reverse sharply into winter. Blazing sunny weather has returned and lunches can be eaten outside again. I hadn’t taken into account Saint Martin’s Summer. St Martin’s Day – 11 November – is celebrated in northern and southern Europe, but with a few interesting differences. (In the UK we pretty much ignore it, having lost touch with the traditional agricultural calendar, and having eclipsed St Martin’s Day with Remembrance Day.) Take Germany. Here St Martin is lauded for cutting his coat in two and giving half to a freezing beggar so that each of them might have some warmth. In Portugal St Martin is celebrated for giving half his to coat to one beggar, then the other half to another beggar, after which the good weather returns and bathes the coat-less man in sunshine. How pragmatic are our religious beliefs! Summer returning to northern Europe in mid-November really would be a miracle. Here, it actually happens, and people celebrate with roasted chestnuts and agua-pé (‘foot water’): young wine from recently trodden grapes, fortified with aguardente.

Last two logs: we need to get new supplies in ready for winter

Last two logs

Half an hour later

An hour later – now we’re ready for winter

 

Week 76: The river is back

I'm looking after a neighbour's dogs and cats. This one is always leaping with joy so I can only catch her mid-leap

I’m looking after a neighbour’s dogs and cats. This one is always leaping for joy so she’s difficult to photograph

She was pretty excited by the river, too, but also scared. She stayed in the shallow parts and whimpered if I waded too far

She was pretty excited by the river, but also scared. She stayed in the shallow parts and whimpered if I waded in too far

Much of October felt like a second spring. Showers were plentiful – such a relief, after all our anxieties about the aridity. Patches of bright green appeared on the hillsides. Tiny white snowdrop-like flowers emerged: Leucojum autumnale, the autumn Snowflake. Blue-winged Grasshoppers flew up from the riverbed and the paths around at approaching footfall; as good as invisible on the ground, it is only the flash of blue wing when they take flight that lets you know they are there. In our garden, it was possible to sit out in the warm sun and be surrounded by birdsong. At the front veranda, the sparrows flew in looking for the mud nest, as though ready for another brood. But the nest is gone. We took it down to get ready for painting the walls, and a smelly, wormy thing it was too.

But this is a spring in reverse, a spring heading for winter. On Sunday 1 November we woke up to thunder and heavy rain, and read of an extreme weather alert for the Algarve, especially between the hours of noon and 3 p.m.: up to 20mm of rain per hour, and gusts of wind at 80 kph. Here in our house at the end of the world the outlines of the hills dissolved and the sky vanished. The rain came down in torrents but we were safe and dry inside, and cosy with the fire lit. Flaviano and the nice round lady at our shop/letter-collection centre were very happy about the rain when Husband saw them two days later. People in local towns didn’t fare so well, especially the tourist developments on the coast, where streets ran with water and bars and shops and houses got flooded. The emergency services have been praised for their interventions. An Albufeira SOS page has been set up on Facebook: self-help for the families and businesses affected by the flooding. One visitor to the page lamented in Portuguese: It’s just sad that we are in Portugal but everything on this page is in English. I know nothing of Albufeira and its ilk; I’ve never been there. It is another side to the Algarve than the one we know. I am sorry for the people there, while I can’t help wondering what part the planners and developers played in creating the conditions for storm and heavy rain to turn into flood.

Monday saw more and more rain. It was intermittent, as though the sky takes a huge in-breath, then spews out rain until it needs to draw breath again. Husband had been out shopping. He was happy to arrive back in a dry spell. He got out of the car, picked up the shopping, then, in walking the few yards to the front veranda, got drenched. I opened the door to see him dripping wet, a surprised look on his face.

The river, having started as a trickle on Sunday, was in full flow by Monday. Its reappearance is a month earlier than last year.

The riverbed on Sunday after the storm - the river at this point is a trickle just behind me

The riverbed on Sunday straight after the storm – the river at this point is a trickle just behind me

The river on Monday: at last the fish from the pond get to go somewhere

The river on Monday: at last the fish from the pond get to go somewhere

The river on Tuesday, still flowing well

The river on Tuesday, still flowing well

Husband

Other news, besides his being caught in a sudden surprise downpour: he’s baking more bread than ever, and is also standing in as projectionist for Tavira’s Cine-Clube for a couple of weeks. In summer the club puts on the wonderful outdoor film festival I mentioned before (see Weeks 61 and 64), and the rest of the year maintains a weekly showing in the town’s cinema, a down-at-heel, atmospheric place, which could do with a few more visitors.

Cinema lobby

Cinema lobby

Two lots of antique projectors, and between them, hidden from sight at this angle, the modern, computer-driven version

Two lots of antique projectors, and between them, hidden from sight at this angle, the modern, computer-driven version

Bread

Bread

 

 

 

 

Week 68: Away

Baking bread

Baking bread

bread2

Autumn has arrived. This means cover is required in bed at night, but the days are still sunny and warm. Our birds have flown away: the bee-eaters, the orioles and the swallows have gone south or, at least, if they haven’t left yet, they are gathering elsewhere for their collective departure. It’s quiet without them. I await the return of the redstart and the robin, and wonder if we will start to hear from our little owl again.

The bread from our new oven is delicious: a crunchy, brittle crust and a firm and nutty crumb. With nothing on it but butter or oil, it’s perfection.

It’s been a busy week for us both. We’ve been getting ready to go away for a few days: to London. I managed to carve out just enough time to gather the last of the prickly pear before they fell, and I tried my hand at cactus jam. I couldn’t find pectin in the shops so I turned the unpromising apples from our tree – small, hard and green – into a homemade version of the stuff. I boiled 750g chopped green apple in water with the juice of half a lemon, pressed the pulp through muslin, and thereby extracted what was supposed to be an abundance of pectin. I wasn’t confident in it, so I added the whole lot to my 43 scorched, peeled, whizzed and strained prickly pear fruit, and gave the mixture a good rolling boil. The result is two large jars (500g a piece) of cactus ‘jam’ which appears not to have set at all. But it will be heavenly on ice cream or yogurt, and at least nature’s sweet gifts didn’t go to waste.

London

On the plane over, a Portuguese woman and an English woman in the row behind me fell into polite – though loud – conversation. The Portuguese woman is a carer in London; she gets paid for nine hours a day, then the rest of the work she does in a day goes unpaid. She doesn’t mind this because the lady she cares for is lovely, she said, but she misses the sunshine. Each time she arrives in London she calls her mother and cries because the grey skies ‘break her up into pieces’. I miss our home but I haven’t cried on the phone to my mum yet.

Straight from the plane, we visited an old haunt in Covent Garden, an Italian restaurant run by brothers from Le Marche. In our absence, one brother has returned home. ‘It’s the sun,’ said the remaining brother. ‘You wake up in a different humour. Anyway, I don’t want to grow old here.’ He understood why we’d moved to Portugal. He liked the people very much, he said, describing them as ‘humble’. (I’ve heard this word used a lot for the Portuguese people. It’s interesting, and not inaccurate.)

Refugees

Portugal has recently increased the number of refugees it is prepared to take. I can’t be exact because numbers vary according to source and date, but it’s a fairly small number – it’s a small and relatively poor country. Some are due to arrive in the Algarve in October. I don’t think the refugees themselves will get any choice where they go, I don’t know how they are selected or how they will get here, but I do know there’s a Welcome Refugees group already set up in the Algarve as of this week. I guess this destination isn’t at the top of a refugee’s list. The economic powerhouses, such as Germany, are the places to start a new life when you’ve got nothing left and have to rebuild from the bottom up. But at the very least, if you have come from Syria, the climate and vegetation of the Algarve will not be too alien.

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

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