Monthly Archive: August 2015

Week 66: Neighbours

Cloud over the hills behind us

Cloud over the hills behind us

A walk behind our house

A walk behind our house

The oven arrived: getting it into the bakery and assembled was another matter

The oven arrived: getting it into the bakery and assembled was another matter

The intense, enervating, 24-hour heat of late July left and never came back. Throughout August we’ve seen many cloudy skies, both day and night. By contrast, in December, the first full month we lived here, we had nothing but blue skies (see Week 29), which might have something to do with how dry the land is now.

These summer clouds bring no rain – nothing worthy of the name anyway, as I wrote last week – and our well is still dry. It might be time to look into having a borehole constructed; our architect mentioned this recently. She was surprised we were relying on a well. A borehole will no doubt involve heavyweight paperwork, alongside all the technical expertise required. Rainwater catchment is another technique to develop, but it might be months before we get any precipitation to work with.

We’ve been at home a lot lately because one car was in the workshop, awaiting a spare part, while dear old Rolie was being given a rest, having developed an unseemly ‘clang’ somewhere in the works. Costa, the charming, talkative man who sold us Rolie, is going to take him away for a check-up – thus offering possibly the best after-sales service on the planet. Being grounded has proven to be no bad thing, however, because at the moment we are enjoying a wonderful novelty: neighbours.

We have two houses close to us, both second homes. The owners of one house live in Lisbon; the owners of the other in England. Since it’s August, our neighbours are all here. And now there are criss-cross trails from one house to the other: gifts of prickly pears, return gifts of prickly pear produce, orders and delivery of bread, offers and taking up of use of swimming pools . . . We all had dinner together one night, out under the stars. At one point Mr Lisbon said: ‘We are three Portuguese, one German and two British. So why are we speaking English?’ Well, English is the world’s most widely spoken foreign language and it trumps all others. We’re working on our Portuguese, but it’s not up to dinner-party standard yet. And with the constant reversion to English, we’re not getting there any quicker either.

Mr Lisbon also had something to say about the Spanish. ‘They come here, many of them, and speak to us in Spanish, and we understand completely and help them with whatever they want. We say something back to them in Portuguese and they are dumbstruck. They don’t understand a word. We understand Spanish – why can’t they understand Portuguese?’

Oh, the many mysteries of this tiny corner of the world. Today, our car newly restored to us, we dropped into our favourite place: Flaviano’s. No post to be had, but we were exhorted to join the group of rotund men around a long brown Formica table, the top of which was buckled and all its edges worn away. A cutting board sat in the middle, the remains of bread and presunto (ham) scattered about. The men were carving a rugby-ball-shaped green melon with pale yellow flesh into long, thin slices. White wine was poured into glasses for us. The friendly woman who gave me cake at Easter, the one with eggshells in it, was, uncharacteristically, sitting to one side and not joining in. Her lips were in a straight line. I caught her eye. She gestured with a thumb towards her mouth and rolled her eyes. The men were drunk and she wasn’t pleased. Flaviano agreed, resorting to German – a language he speaks a few words of, all of which amuse him hugely – to tell us that the men were ‘besoffen’. We ate our melon and drank our wine and listened to their drunken philosophising. ‘People who don’t like animals don’t like people either,’ the leader declared, feeding presunto to a puppy. When we had finished our melon and wine, we thanked them profusely and carried on home.

Prickly pears from our neighbours

Prickly pears from our neighbours

Prickly pear compote. I’ve seen photos online of prickly pear jam and it’s ruby in colour; ours is this rusty pumpkin shade

Prickly pear compote. I’ve seen photos online of prickly pear jam and it’s ruby in colour; our fruit is this rusty pumpkin shade

Bakery

Having neighbours, plus visiting friends and an electrician, meant that we were able to achieve, by sheer male human strength, the mounting of a 185-kilo oven on to a waist-high frame, which up until that moment had looked to me to be impossible. And thus the bakery is almost complete.

Estrela in our house, where she isn’t allowed – the interdiction coming from her owner, not from us. She has a slightly ragged right ear and some damage to her neck, which likely come from an encounter with a wild boar. She is unaffected, her curiosity ever undimmed, although she is alert and jumpy as ever

Estrela in our house, where she isn’t allowed – the interdiction coming from her owner, not from us. She has a slightly ragged right ear and some damage to her neck from an encounter with a wild boar. She is unaffected, her curiosity undimmed, although she is as alert and jumpy as ever

Bread - not yet from the new oven

Bread – not yet from the new oven

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 64: Greasy pole

Our well ran dry, so we got two lots of 5,000 litres delivered by tanker; the water comes from the Bishop’s Font (Fonte da Bispo), and the skill of the tractor driver in manoeuvring the tanker in the small space at the front of our house was a joy to see

Our well ran dry, so we got two lots of 5,000 litres delivered by tanker; the water comes from the Bishop’s Font (Fonte da Bispo), and the skill of the tractor driver in manoeuvring the tanker in the small space at the front of our house was great to see

Sourdough ferments very quickly in the August heat

Sourdough ferments very quickly in the August heat

Woodchat shrike, a newcomer to our garden

Woodchat shrike, a newcomer to our garden

Whimbrel, seen in the mudflats at Santa Luzia

Whimbrel, seen in the mudflats at Santa Luzia

 

It’s getting ever harder to ignore the fact of August. If we go into town the roads are full and it’s difficult to park. Many of the new road-users are hire cars who, naturally, don’t always know where they are going; others are expensive cars driven in from richer places, who are inclined to think that small cars – such as my dear Rolie – don’t have quite the same road rights as they do. We do not let it get to us, because we live here and we will have it all back to ourselves soon. Besides which, the valley in which we live remains absolutely peaceful.

Among the good things about high summer are the non-stop festas and events, and the restaurants and shops that have miraculously appeared from behind wooden doors and dull facades, absorbing the excess population and adding new life to the towns.

We went to the Festa dos Pescadores at Santa Luzia to see the boat race and got unexpectedly caught up in the contest that preceded it, the pau de sebo, or the greasy pole. Not caught up to the extent of taking part (maybe next year . . .) but we were enthusiastic spectators. It’s surprisingly entertaining to watch willing participants attempt to traverse a lard-smothered pole suspended from a fishing boat over the water. The object is to grab a flag from the end of the pole. You are going to land in the water whatever you do, but if you take the flag with you, you’re a winner.

Santa Luzia: the boat with the pau de sebo

Santa Luzia: the boat with the pau de sebo

A great effort, but he didn't make it

A great effort, but he didn’t make it; in the background you can see the old tuna-fishing village of Barril, now a beach resort

Another loser

Another good loser

A winner

A winner

 

Best of all was seeing Os Cavalinhos, the restored fishing boat I wrote about last week. Here is the beautiful boat, tuning up and getting ready for the race:

And here is the team with an unassailable lead, soon to cross the finishing line in first place:

O regresso do guerreiro: the return of the warrior. Almost too good to be true, huh?

‘O regresso do guerreiro: the return of the warrior.’ The renovation was completed only the day before, and in the race the boat came in first. The story is almost too good to be true. (But true it is.)

This dog was so thrilled to be at the water's edge he couldn't stay silent or still for a minute

This dog was so thrilled to be at the water’s edge he couldn’t stay silent or still for a minute

Nightjar

Another of the pleasures of the summer has been the starlit film showings in the cloisters in Tavira. We returned home this week after one such film, a two-hour one, in the early hours of the velvet night. Along the dirt track to our home, Rolie’s headlights picked out a bird in flight, which at first we thought was an owl. The bird came to the ground and we stopped the car. It sat in the dirt like a tiny, slightly rusty boat. It was a red-necked nightjar. We watched for a while, then turned off our lights so as not to alarm the bird any more than we already had. The night became very still.

After a while we faced up to the inevitable. We had to get ourselves, and our vehicle, home. We turned the engine on again, and pulled forward slowly to creep around the nightjar. Not waiting for us to go by, it took off, lifting and turning its long wings, their bright white patches like broderie anglaise, scooping and beating away the air until it had disappeared.

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

%d bloggers like this: