Olive harvest

Perfect weather for the harvest

Olive tree before harvesting – and pruning. It is now much shorn, but still has many olives we weren’t able to reach. We’re leaving them for the birds . . .

Our two meagre sacks of olives. The elderly Algarvians around us harvest this amount in about a tenth of the time it took us


It’s been a good year for olives and we decided to harvest ours. We don’t have an olive grove with trees neatly and evenly spaced over flat land. Instead we have a few fruitful trees on sloping ground in among bushes, so harvesting was never going to be easy. We borrowed equipment from our neighbours – sacks, long-handled secateurs for pruning while harvesting, netting to catch runaways, a second olive comb (we already have one of our own) – and we started out in good heart. However, we couldn’t agree on the best approach. We argued a little. I’d already begun pruning and olive-laden branches lay on the ground. Resolution wasn’t immediate, but then Husband picked up an olive branch and held it out to me.

Peace fell on our work, which became more and more enjoyable as we became absorbed in it. The olives were mostly black, silky with oil and had a fresh, grassy scent. Running our fingers through the lanceolate leaves until the olives came off into our palms proved the most satisfying means of extraction. Over the course of many hours spread over three days, we managed to part-fill two sacks, and weighed them at roughly 15 kilos apiece. A single sack of 15 kilos would be enough to gain entrance at the press.

Pickup trucks piled high with crates full of green and black olives have been rolling up to the press in Santa Catarina one after the other for the past couple of weeks. Sometimes the queue stretched beyond the village. The simple, white-walled exterior of the building suggests small-scale production, so it’s a surprise to get inside and find you can’t hear a thing above the clanking of metal belts moving olives away to no doubt high-tech pressing machinery out of sight. We arrived in the Renault 4, took a ticket for our place in the queue and, on the advice of one of the managers, went to have lunch to sit out the wait. When we got back we found we’d missed our slot. They waved us in anyway, guessing we were novices and correctly assuming we didn’t have much to offload. Husband reversed the Renault 4 towards a large grid, where a strong man in huge boots had unloaded and upended our sacks into the weighing space below before we’d even got the handbrake pulled up. Our paperwork confirmed that we had delivered 30 kilos, and marked the olives as having been well presented. This amount of olives entitled us to 3.3 litres of oil, and the cashier suggested we pay a few euros to make it up to 5 litres. ‘The oil is very, very good right now,’ she said.

Our entire harvest, on its way


We then queued at the entrance to a high room lined with 15,000-litre stainless-steel tanks. Our contribution of olives would amount to maybe a millimetre layer in one of those. An ex-water bottle was filled from a pump as though we were at a petrol station and we left, gleefully, with our share of the olive harvest of our community. It is the best, freshest olive oil I’ve ever tasted.

I’m newly returned from two intense weeks spent on the border of the Algarve and Alentejo completing a Permaculture Design Course (PDC), for which I now have a certificate. (Always nice to have a certificate.) The course gave me a good framework in which to slot some of the ideas I’ve picked up in the past few years as I’ve become increasingly thoughtful about the land we live on, both personally, in our little space here, and globally, as the human race. The course also gave me a fascinating insight into people. It attracted ‘searchers’ – of whom, I suppose, in a way, I’m one. The other participants were young; I was the odd one out. Two unconnected, extracurricular conversations have stuck in my mind. The conversations were about community, not in the sense in which I used the word above – our local, olive-sharing community – but in the sense of a group of people who get together specifically to live communally, respecting the Earth and one another, sharing everything and abiding by an agreed set of social rules. In their different ways, each conversation boiled down to the same idea: that the concept of privacy was a defining factor in the setting up of these communities. Specifically, that privacy was the refuge of the ego, that it represented something you wanted to hide, and that it was inimical to the functioning of a group. Each of these conversations was with an earnest, passionately engaged person. And each one chilled me right down to the bone. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I believe, passionately, that they are wrong. Privacy is precious. Maybe it’s the most precious thing the human spirit has.

PS Although I post intermittently these days, I still like to stick to my Wednesday-morning habit. However, a thunderstorm and heavy rain – hurrah! – has taken out our internet connection and I’ve had to come to the local café to get online again, missing my usual slot. As it’s the first heavy rain in six months, we are more than happy.

Cu do mundo (dictionary: vulgar slang)

The Algarve is bursting into flower. It’s wonderful to see the gum rock rose again


We put on our protest T-shirts and gathered at the spot in Faro where the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was due to arrive. The police fenced us in, which was handy because it meant the banners could be strapped to the temporary railings and I, for once, didn’t have to be Sister Anna. On a recent visit to the Algarve, met with a similar protest, the president gnomically remarked that there was as much chance of the area being exploited for oil as of him going to the moon. This led to today’s protest being moon-themed, with one poster showing a giant-sized one-way extra-terrestrial ticket and others displaying various exhortations to the president to take himself into orbit. When he turned up, after we’d been hanging around and banging drums for four hours, he showed himself to be the celebrity he is, who can work a room, or indeed a series of railings lined with protestors, with skill. He drove up himself, with no obvious security detail, then left the car with the keys in the ignition – an aide parked it – and came straight over to us, looking for hands to shake and asking who’d like to talk.

One particularly fervent protestor – and friend – bore a stuffed, yellow fabric new-moon toy which she’d splattered with black ink to suggest an oil spill. She waved it at the president until he took it off her hands. It looked rather like a large, overripe banana.

The ease with which it is possible in Portugal to come face to face with politicians at the highest level is one of the great things about this country. It might be a product of its small size or the general openness of its people, or both. But we were disappointed when the president revisited his moon analogy – though you could argue that it was game of him given how much he was being mocked for it. And when he continued to assert that the contracts – or contract, singular, in his estimation – were only for research and not for exploitation, we were more than disappointed. The old ground we’ve been over so many times. There’s no way an oil company would invest millions just to see what’s there, then generously share that information widely and non-commercially. And we know the contracts allow for extraction to follow exploration because we’ve seen them. The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, was filmed last year trying to sell the Portuguese seabed to oil companies in the United States. Then she said in Parliament that there were no contracts for oil production in Portugal, a remark of the ‘alternative fact’ variety.

I peeled off in the middle of the wait for the president. A friend and I went for a sit-down and some coffee and cake in an elegant café in the centre of the old town, where we were served by waiters dressed smartly in black. No one looked twice at me even though I had large black teardrops painted on my face, which I’d forgotten about.

That night Husband made it on to the national news – again.

Back at home

We think of this dirt road leading to the floor of the valley as a romantic setting, the fim do mundo, the paradise at the ‘end of the world’. The locals are more likely to call it the cu do mundo, the ‘arse end of the world’. There are people in the nearby village who’ve never been here and would never bother to come. Maria used the term herself the other day. ‘We always thought of this place as the cu do mundo, but the foreigners seem to find it pretty.’ We were talking to her about our permaculture project, for which she and her husband have slowly developed a muted, guarded interest. As all salt-of-the-earth types worldwide, their response is purely practical. ‘We see what you are trying to do, and if it works, we might be impressed. But it takes time. We’ll see.’

I’m taking a blog holiday again. So many things to do. Many seeds to plant, for example, in our little paradise.

‘Gon out. Bisy. Backson.’

Another fantastic array of bread

Seeds for sharing

Perfect joy (or was it?)

This wild pear tree predates our arrival, but has never done much. Certainly its few and hard small fruit have never been of interest to us. But as if the permaculture project on the hillside above has given it a boost, it produced more blossom this spring than we’ve ever seen. The blossom is sweetly fragrant and thrumming with bees and wasps. If you get too close for a sniff you are in danger of inhaling the stinging insects


Tuesday 7 March: a day to remember. The red-rumped swallows returned – much earlier than we’d expected them. It was warm enough for breakfast on the veranda. It’s rather exposed there now since we cut the bougainvillea back to a coarse heart-shape bristling with cut arteries that isn’t even visible over the front wall. We had to do it for the painting work. I miss its colour and exuberance and trust it to come back in full vigour. In the meantime, we now enjoy sweeping views from the full width of the veranda across the valley to the Meditation Hill. The same change of perspective has occurred inside the house, where you can glance up from the kitchen table or sofa, through the window that gives on to the veranda, right through to the other side of the valley. Our horizons have broadened.

Into these broadened horizons on Tuesday morning floated the shiny elegance of two red-rumped swallows. They surveyed the veranda in two broad sweeps through the airspace, then one returned and settled upon what remains of the nest on the hook. He – I think it was the male – delivered a peroration. It sounded like: ‘We’re back. This is ours. Sparrows, get lost. And you humans could have done a better job of caretaking. You realise we now have to rebuild, don’t you? Don’t you think we’ve had enough work to do, flying here from Africa?’ Then off again. We sat there in perfect joy, despite the telling-off.

Later the same day, we saw barn swallows on the wire outside the house. Barn swallows, not red-rumped. Had we been mistaken in the morning? Still half asleep over breakfast, not fully with it? Over-keen to see one of our most beloved birds? We’re going to have to wait and see. If they were barn swallows on the veranda in the morning then it raises the uncomfortable possibility that we might have to protect the red-rumpeds’ home from the barn swallows, too.

We want the red-rumped swallows. They belong here. They’ve been a big part of our lives and we want them back.

And if it turns out that 7 March is memorable for nothing else then at least as the first night we didn’t light a fire in many a month. It seems to have been a long winter. Even if days were warm and bright, nights were always chilly – until now.


A Mediterranean Garden Fair took place near Silves, about an hour’s drive west, on Saturday. We went in Rollie with two friends. Four people in Rollie for a longish drive: this was a first. We’d have used the jeep but its engine packed up a couple of weeks ago and it’s undergoing a complex repair at a local garage. Rollie was well up to the task, including the transport on the return journey of a number of new plants for our land. We’re putting smaller trees and shrubs between the larger trees now, and after that we’ll probably start putting in vegetables in the reducing spaces that are left between. The small lavenders, sages and succulents went into Rollie’s boot. Into the rear footwell went the two grapefruit trees we selected on the advice of our permaculture expert to fill a couple of gaps in the irrigated swales. At roughly shoulder height they just fitted in, their young leaves brushing the roof. They were held securely between the two rear passengers, of whom I was one, for the return journey. Already showing blossom they ensured the journey home was bathed in heavenly citrus scent. Another kind of joy.

Then it turned out that the grapefruit trees were an error in translation. Our permaculture advisor does us the kindness of speaking in English, her third language. But ‘grapefruit’ tripped her up. She had meant to say ‘pomegranate’. And when you come to think of it, ‘grapefruit’ is a silly name. How did that stick? It came about because of the fruit’s tendency to grow in clusters, like grapes. This tendency has never been very evident in our one pre-existing grapefruit tree, even in its most abundant fruiting year, which was the year we moved in when we hardly knew what to do with all the fruit it gave. The name was a stretch of someone’s imagination.

According to Jane Grigson, in her Fruit book, the citrus’s earlier name was shaddock, after an English sea captain who brought its seeds from their native Java and Malaysia to Barbados in the eighteenth century, beyond which they spread to Europe. Alan Davidson, in his Fruit book, describes another old English name: pimplenose, a mishearing perhaps of the French name pamplemousse. Pimplenose! Such a brilliant name. I wonder if I can make that stick?

PS Three years ago when I began this blog journey I met another would-be blogger, Penny Johnstone, a lovely, warm person who was a huge encouragement to me. This week I learnt from her daughter that she has died of cancer. Pen: this one is in memory of you.

Damp crevices. One day after heavy rainfall the water-retaining capability of the swales is clear

Fava beans are sprouting all over the land after our broadcasting of the seeds: this is green manure

Our guest dogs, Estrela and Lordy, found something interestingly smelly on the veranda floor

With the bougainvillea cut back, Estrela and Lordy have found a new vantage point. In view top right is the inevitable plastic bag, used in the bakery for proofing doughs then washed and hung out to dry



I never even noticed this beautiful carob tree before; it was inaccessible and hidden. Now it invites you to visit it. It is a perfect example of how the permaculture work on the land has opened it up in whole new ways

About to become deluxe accommodation for a sapling

Swales awaiting their protective covering of straw

A mango tree in the ‘tropical swale’, which is lined up to get more water than the other swales


A dust cloud from the Sahara landed on us this week, turning everything light brown. It must have met with humidity somewhere because it adhered to everything it touched. Vehicles queued up at car washes for the next couple of days. It took me several hours to clean the garden furniture. The swimming pool’s hitherto white cover is now dark sand but I haven’t tackled that yet. As for all the leaves in the garden, it would be a task for the Queen of Hearts and many obedient decks of cards to restore the colour of those. We need some rain to fall – and it is forecast for the weekend.

The battle of the corks continued all week, with the sparrows, now experts in the task, ousting the twin-cork contraption every night and us replacing it the next day, until a slip of Husband’s hand brought most of the rest of the fragile nest down. What this revealed, before the breeze took them away, was a luxurious lining of soft feathers. Now the swallows will have to rebuild, and the sparrows have nothing left to fight for possession of. The sparrows are not so hard done by. Flocks of them have taken advantage of the seeding of the hill for a feeding frenzy.

Also luxuriously feather-bedded have been the new trees brought home in the black van last week. They have been housed like racehorses. A few months ago, before we had any idea we were about to embark on a permaculture project, a landscape expert told me, ‘Make a hundred-dollar hole for a ten-dollar tree.’ How true. The excavating of the holes was, of course, done by costly machine. Heaven provided the first watering. Compost and manure made the first layers of bedding in the spacious hole, then each tree – healthy-looking but none the less insubstantial saplings every one of them – was introduced to its new home. After that, infilling with more precious stuff, a good watering, a layer of cardboard, another watering, and finishing off with a counterpane of straw. Each tree lives in an advantageous part of a swale, and we have high hopes of them.

I have not been without my protest armour this week. While Husband and visiting friend took on the job of repainting some exterior wood, I went to Lisbon by chartered coach. It meant leaving home at 7 a.m. and getting back after 1 a.m., and it meant standing outside the Assembleia da Républica for some five hours. As usual, I was Sister Anna with the banner. I need only to stand in one place for a few moments for someone to ask me to hold their side of the banner and then to disappear for good – though another kind-hearted protester can always be relied upon to relieve me when it gets too much. At one point someone asked me which group the banner I was supporting represented. I wasn’t sure. ‘I’m just a general banner holder,’ I explained.

The date – 23 February – and the timing were to coincide with the hearing inside the assembleia for ASMAA, a campaigning group seeking to protect the Algarve. The hearing was occasioned by the anti-oil petition with its 42,000 signers – included among them some dear readers of this blog. It had taken a while to get the date for a hearing, and in the meantime the DGRM (the department responsible for natural resources) had authorised a licence for drilling offshore anyway. But ASMAA decided it was worth going ahead with the hearing, not least out of respect for all the signers. Additionally, and rather hopefully, a lawyer has been digging up all the shaky ground around the 1994 law that allows oil-drilling to take place, and has found that the law itself is arguably illegitimate, and therefore so too all the contracts it has given rise to. The whole caravan is a mirage, swathed in desert sand …

The outcome of the hearing was good. Not so much a step in the right direction as a leap, I was told. And what’s more the politicians heard us chanting outside and it disturbed their usual smooth surfaces.

With all this going on, Carnival completely passed us by.

Black van

A black van arrives most mornings and disgorges a bunch of good-looking young people, distinguished by beards and/or dreadlocks, who then work the land over the course of an often long day. Their current tasks are to fill the tree holes and layer the swales with compost and mulch (straw) and to continue to distribute the stones in the land to best advantage for the swales and for the plants to come. Hillocks of compost sacks and miniature hay ricks appeared at the bottom of the track up the hill, dropped off by van, and were then delivered by tractor to the top and sides of the land where they could be more easily dragged or rolled to where they were needed.

I was in England for a while this past week and in that time an enormous amount of rain fell here. From the pictures Husband sent me and the descriptions he gave, it sounded more torrential than any I’d ever experienced. Certainly the river is lovely now: enough current to smooth over the worst of the council digging – which went on for ages but seems at last to have stopped – and with a crystal clarity. The rain proved a little too much for the swales, however. There were a few breaches, one in particular that carved a clear path through, leaving a U-shaped gap in the earth mound. This is good, however. It revealed exactly where the water on its desired route down the land met a weak point in the swale, and enabled us to fix it before the planting started. It was a fierce downpour and so a worthwhile test. Additionally, the swales, newly made, are at their most fragile. When plants have established themselves on them with root systems burrowing down, they’ll be stronger. Even in their newly made state, they channelled and furrowed the rainwater to much better effect than has ever happened before. So, it was all done just in time.

It was several days after I returned home before I could even go and see what had happened on the hill, having been laid low by an English cold. When I finally emerged, it was to a whole new space, one which invites wandering and exploration and offers many opportunities for planting. Today, I got to be an occupant of the big black van, as we drove the long journey across the Algarve to Monchique to our chosen viveiro to purchase the trees and shrubs, which include these: Portuguese oak, olive, almond, red pepper tree (not sure if that is its name in English), loquat, fig, medronho, quince, persimmon, plum, apricot, mango, banana, avocado, grapefruit, lemon, lime, blackberry, mulberry, goji, strawberry, walnut, vine . . .

Our plant haul, arranged in the back of the black van. Being away and then sick this week meant that this is the only photograph I took, but it is one to lift the heart

Never give up

Moody weather over the Meditation Hill

Linaria amethystea, Amethyst Toadflax, a tiny jewel amid the abundant greenery


The landform engineering is complete. The steepest part of the hill is wreathed in swales. They are large and deep, and within each land-hugging curve is a flatter terrace designed to make the land easier to walk on and – eventually – harvest from. The completion of the digging was met with downpours. Pleasingly, the swales, although they lack the mulching and the plant roots that will make them truly like sponges, channelled and held on to plenty of water.

Before the rain came we sowed the swales with seed – what musical words! – of broad bean and oat to generate green manure for spring-time and roots to train the water down into the earth. I joined in, informing the others as I scattered the seed with a sweep of the arm that this was the origin of the English word ‘broadcast’. This fascinating announcement fell on stony ground. Of much more interest to them – I discovered only when I’d finished – was my technique of scattering. It took me four times as long as anyone else and on completion I was met with indulgent looks. I demand patience from my co-workers, it seems. My desired transition from desk-worker to smallholder is going slowly. I’m still more Margot than Barbara.

It was morning and the sun rising over the opposite hill – the Meditation Hill – had lit up most of the dew drops like diamonds, but some drops, hanging heavily from grass stalks by a broken rock, looked more like copper, gold, amethyst. The broken rock had to be shale, I realised; this shiny film is what the fossil-fuel dinosaurs are interested in. It’s a great relief that the contracts giving one deluded businessman the rights to frack almost half of the landmass of the Algarve were cancelled. All the offshore rights remain in place, however, and one activist with her nose close to the paperwork – Laurinda Seabra – discovered that in January the government had secretly signed the licence for Galp-ENI to start drilling 3,000 metres below the seabed off the Aljezur coast. Not only that, in the small print the oil consortium is exempt both from paying licence fees and a security deposit and from providing proof that they have civil responsibility insurance in place – which can surely only mean that they have no such insurance in place. The government has taken no notice whatsoever of our repeated protests and petitions. Gestures towards public consultation were a weird Trumpian handshake while behind the scenes it was business as usual. So we’ll have to keep protesting. The next demonstration takes place in Lisbon outside the Assembleia da República on 23 February, when a long overdue parliamentary hearing is intended finally to take place to discuss the issues raised during the public consultation process: just to complete the window-dressing on their part, I guess.

Soon we will plant trees on the land. Mind you, with all the log fires we’ve been making to drive out the damp and the chill of recent wet days, we must be burning more trees than we could ever replace. Hypocrisy – never far away.

The sparrows refuse to lose interest in our veranda and its mud nest. They managed somehow to dislodge the two corks nailed together with metal U-pins. This contraption must match the body weight of the sparrows, so they really do deserve applause. But they are not getting in on my watch. I’ve replaced the corks. Build your own nest, feathered friends. You have so much space to choose from.

The sparrows don’t give up. The oilmen don’t give up. And we don’t give up. Well, apart from last week when I was scheduled to write a blog as ever, but ran out of juice and didn’t do it. It is a purely self-imposed deadline, an exercise in self-discipline and commitment as much as in communication, but it’s important to me and I didn’t like failing to meet it. I’m glad to be back this week.

This sparrow youngster was fascinated by the phones near the Signal Tree, aka the central post of the veranda with its backdrop of bougainvillea, often strung about with devices as it is one of the best places to have a chance of picking up an incoming call. First it looked at itself in the screen . . .

. . . then, having discovered how cute it was, it played all coy in front of Husband, hiding its face in its wing

Permaculture start

An almond tree in the morning fog, the sun trying to break through. The view is from our veranda and is of the land going down to the river, which isn’t ours. The land we are working on is behind us but I’m not able to show it, for reasons explained below . . .


Our battle with the sparrows has escalated. The natural world is boss, but we’re not above a bit of engineering where we can. The sparrows are not going to squat the swallow nest, whatever they think. Their latest attempt was to push our cork barricade down into the nest since they couldn’t remove it – rather like we might do with a wine bottle we don’t have a corkscrew for but are desperate to get into. I positioned a stepladder under the nest, then reached in to retrieve the corks. The half of the tunnel entrance that had not been pecked away by the sparrows came away in my hands, so after filling the nest interior with a scrunched-up plastic bag I blocked the widened entrance with the broken-off bit of nest.

They breached the mud barricade in no time. It was in pieces on the veranda floor the next time I looked. The plastic bag was working, however. They couldn’t get round that. This time I returned the two nailed-together corks to the entrance and added a third for good measure. So far so good. I believe I get malevolent looks from the sparrows every time I go out but I’m up to that.

Land engineering is our other preoccupation. Our permaculture project has got under way: we are beginning to create swales on the hillside. ‘Swale’ is a little-used word, possibly east Anglian dialect but don’t quote me on that, meaning a damp or shady hollow in the landscape. Little used, that is, until taken up by the world of permaculture, where the swale is a favoured piece of landform technology. I think of a swale as like a swag, the soft, drooping curve of a piece of gathered fabric. We are taking the wrinkled, uneven material of the hillside and bunching it into smooth ridges and furrows that curve along its contours. The ridges and furrows will slow down and capture water run-off. The furrows will also be where organic material can gather and topsoil can build up, with a bit of help from compost and mulch. You can build swales painstakingly using a pick and a shovel if you have masses of time and good muscles but we are getting a machine in to dig them out.

The first step was to work out the contours using a large A frame from which a rock hung on a string like a plumb line. I got to spend a precious morning away from my desk marking out the swales as assistant to our permaculture advisor, which was heavenly, especially on the warm day we were blessed with. I moved across the face of the hill, swinging the A frame from point to point like a large pair of compasses, waiting for the rock plumb line to determine the exact position of the frame’s forward foot so that my companion could hammer in an iron stake there, fluttering with a red and white strip for visibility. We marked out four swales on our neglected hillside in this way.

The next day the digger arrived to start the work of carving out the furrows and building up the ridges following the marked-out routes. Rain stopped play, however. The red earth turned claggy and unworkable. We must wait until the sun shines again before continuing.

I took pictures to show you but the internet is not cooperating with me today. It might be the rain that’s slowed it down to an impossible degree. I hope to have progress to report on next week – but we are in the hands of the weather gods.


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