Monthly Archive: April 2016

Robalo and nespera

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

Flamingoes over the salt marshes of Olhão on Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread with gusto

 

One hundred

Backlit poppies

Backlit poppies

Backlit lavender

Backlit lavender

vetch

Common Vetch, uncommonly pretty

hairy lupin

The Hairy Lupin, at seed stage, in the rain

Quaking grass

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

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

grotto

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

The self-made man

Morning mist in the valley

Morning mist in the valley

Our dipping pond - until the completion of the swimming pool. The pond is too cold for me, but I hope provides a nice memory for some of those who have visited us and were robust enough to swim

Our dipping pond – until the completion of the swimming pool. The pond is too cold for me, but I hope this provides a nice memory for those who have visited us and been robust enough to swim

Bougainvillea, coming back after heavy pruning

Bougainvillea, coming back after heavy pruning

A Small Tree Mallow that has managed to grow on the drive between us and our neighbours

A Small Tree Mallow that has managed to grow on the drive between us and our neighbours

Borage hides its pretty face

Borage hides its pretty face

The 'bottle-brush tree' in flower

The ‘bottle-brush tree’ in flower

 

The days divide themselves between blazing and blustery. The blustery versions feature short but heavy downpours. I feel sure this spring is wetter than last year, but I have only two to compare. People who have lived here much longer say all the seasons are drier now. Dry or not, the wild flowers continue to display furiously. Tall stands of estevas (Cistus ladanifer or Gum Rock Rose) cover many hillsides, their leaves a dark gleaming green, their many flowers like tissue-paper bowls that appear not so much to have grown on the plant as to have landed on them, the by-product of an inexplicable skyward event. Rows of lavender muscle up against prickly yellow gorse, and pretty red vetches sprawl among clouds of fennel. Along the roadsides for a couple of weeks now Judas trees have been displaying their creamy purple, blackcurrants-stirred-into-yogurt blossom.

Golden orioles have arrived in the valley, bee-eaters are flying above, and swallows once again glide teasingly in and out of our veranda. We are glad we took down the old mud nest, squatted by the sparrows for repeat broods last year. Sparrows may have undergone a decline in the UK in recent years, but worldwide they are a common, even dominant species, so we decided to let them fend for themselves, while the swallows, should they choose to, can always rebuild their own mud nest.

Red-rumped Swallows on the telegraph wire

Red-rumped Swallows on the telegraph wire

 

In the news

‘We’ve just seen you on the television,’ said our neighbours to Husband one day this week. We were having breakfast on the veranda; they were returning from having coffee in the café in the village, where the television is always on. The news was about the anti-oil activism in the Algarve, and the footage was probably of protestors in Faro last December, gathered outside the office where AMAL, the local mayoral association, was meeting with the grinning Paulo Carmona of the ENMC. This week, Carmona was interviewed for a television report that touched on the grimier aspects of the oil business and, in response to a question about accountability and transparency, answered only, ‘And?’, then again, ‘And?’, while wearing a smug ‘And-your-point-is?’ face. I will come back to this.

The current news mostly concerns one Sousa Cintra, self-made millionaire and, I hazard, horribly perfect example of a man who knows ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’, to use Oscar Wilde’s exquisite words. Now in his seventies, the beer mogul and former football club (Sporting) president has reinvented himself as an oil tycoon. Ten days before the previous administration closed its doors, Sousa Cintra got the signatures on two contracts giving him the licence for onshore drilling across 300,000 hectares of the Algarve, and the rights to any oil and gas found there for the next forty years. The contracts are in the name of a hastily put-together company called Portfuel, an offshoot of a tourism company in the names of his wife and son. A journalist visiting a registered company address found only a cleaner who said, ‘Oh, they aren’t actually based here, but the wife drops by occasionally to check the post.’

The word on the street, and in the newspapers, is that the government is going to investigate the Portfuel contracts. The man who authorised them, Jorge Moreira da Silva, when he was Minister for the Environment in the last government, has leapt to his own defence. He continues with the line – heard often now – that the contracts are for exploration, not extraction. This leaves the matter of Cintra’s forty-year rights to ‘freely dispose of any oil he finds’ (‘A concessionária pode dispor livremente do petróleo por si produzido’; contract shown as part of a TV report) as something to be puzzled over. Moreira da Silva also claims the contracts were signed at the beginning of September and not the end – attempting to refute the newsworthy ‘ten days before the old government left office’ claim. He also remarks, disconcertingly, that Portfuel had said ‘it would sue the State for any administrative delays. So there had to be a decision, and that decision . . . had to be positive.’

Portfuel has begun putting down messy bore holes in the Alzejur region, has already been fined for causing environmental damage there, and is rumoured to be about to start in the Tavira region. The call has gone out over social media for people to look for suspicious activity. It’s as though an unqualified man-in-a-suit turned up at a blood donation centre, threw on a white coat and started jabbing needles in people’s arms, and the only immediate course of action available is for the people awaiting their tea and biscuits to try to challenge him. At least Sousa Cintra seems rattled: in a recent letter to one of the mayors of the Algarve he complained about local activism. What? These people won’t let me bleed them to death? What’s the matter with them!

The good news is that this business is dirty enough that it really might be possible to make a case against the issuance of the contracts. Two grounds are that Portfuel is too young a company to have the clean three-year technical and financial record that the contract terms demand, and that it lacks adequate insurance. The bad news is that the ENMC, with its head the grinning villain Paulo Carmona, is the regulator in charge of oversight. Indeed, it was probably Carmona’s signature on the contracts, the contracts that he should now investigate. Additionally, the former Chief of Staff of the Ministry of the Environment is now with the ENMC, appointed by Moreira da Silva before leaving office. It was in answer to questions about this appointment that Carmona put on his ‘And your point is?’ face.

When the heart is full . . .

. . . the tongue is empty. This is a saying from the Philippines, or at least how I remember it after many years. This week my heart is so full – with visits from friends, trips to places new and old, the extraordinary, ever-increasing spectacle of spring flowers – that my fingers are silent on the keyboard and pictures can tell the story instead.

At home:

lizard

Lizard. Photograph taken on front veranda by Joseph Karg

lavender2

Lavender

cistus

Rock rose: Cistus crispus

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Asphodel

Asphodel

Meadow

Meadow with shadow

Going back to Culatra:

Man on jetty

Man on jetty

Man on boat

Man on boat

Child on boat

Child on boat

Throwing rope

Throwing the rope

Century cross

Century cross

Worn umbrella

Worn umbrella

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Man in Olhão

Man in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Thank you for your support

Thank you for your support

 

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