Monthly Archive: August 2016

Biscuits on the beach



A swallowtail in the bougainvillea


It must have taken me a couple of days to notice that the cicadas had fallen silent. They have moved into the next stage of their lifecycle and we won’t hear from them again for another ten months. Swallowtails and Hummingbird Hawkmoths visit our bougainvillea regularly. Our juvenile Red-rumped Swallows go on longer and longer flying trips, but still come home to the nest and demand to be fed, and if we are in the way – leaving our home by the front door, for example – we will experience flying passes at our noses from the parents until we drop out of view.

It was neighbour Maria’s birthday and I wanted to make her something sweet. I settled on madeleines, so easy to make, especially when butter can be creamed within ten minutes of being taken out of the fridge. First time round we got the date wrong. We turned up at their house with madeleines in a makeshift box and were met by puzzlement. Amusement swiftly replaced the puzzlement.

‘Does this look like the face of someone who likes cakes?’ Maria circled a stout finger around the circumference of her broad features as she asked. She has a face that, besides suggesting a love of cake, looks for amusement. I often see her features working themselves up to tell an entertaining story. Husband has to be around to understand the story fully, mind you. I still lag far behind in comprehension.

On the correct birthday, we turned up with another lot of madeleines.

‘Again?’ said Maria, looking pleased enough.

So it seemed like nothing at all that I should offer to make a load of biscuit dough for cooking up at the beach in a solar oven, the dimensions and capacity of which I knew nothing about. It was part of our next planned protest action, something for kids, to show them clean energy alternatives and have fun. (At least we dropped the idea of making human letters in the sand; that took a bit of the load off.)

I say ‘offer’ but it’s the sort of volunteering you do when an idea is proposed, left hanging in the air, and several pairs of wide eyes look at you expectantly.

I decided the best kind of biscuit dough to manipulate in unfavourable, sandy conditions would be the sort you roll into a sausage-shape and then simply slice. I settled upon pinwheel biscuits as an attractive option. I worked out quantities and made lists of ingredients and thought of all the tools I might possibly need at the beach. In short, I was making a meal of everything, all over again.

The capacity of butter to melt at room temperature within minutes began to be less of a bonus as I mixed, then rolled and cut eight mathematically exact oblongs of chocolate and vanilla dough. I made four stacks and rolled each one up, every piece of the equation that wasn’t in immediate use being put straight back in the fridge to firm up again. Next day I packed an insulated bag with rolls of newspaper, as though making a fire, and stashed every ice pack I could find inside. The chilled rolls of biscuit dough went in there. I filled another bag with Opinel knife, baking trays, palette knife, reusable foil, cooling rack, temperature gauge, tea towels . . .

The solar oven turned out to be a marvellous, well-loved piece of kit, like a Victorian display case with an angled, silvered flap hinged to its base. The newspaper-stuffed ice-bag did its job well; the biscuit sausages didn’t descend into the oily, softening mass I had feared. They sliced up perfectly like pieces of jewellery, appropriate for their display case. Then it was just a case of monitoring the temperature – thank goodness for that gauge I brought – while the solar oven’s maker/owner judged the angle of the sun and periodically moved the device around for maximum exposure. Whenever we opened the glass front to extract or insert food, the temperature dropped speedily. It crept back up again only slowly. Altogether at peak heat it reached 99°C, if I remember rightly. The cookies made by A turned out to have been a much better idea. They didn’t look as glamorous as my pinwheel biscuits but they achieved the right texture: soft and chewy. The pinwheel biscuits dried rather more than they cooked; they were edible but lacked crispness.

The pinwheel biscuits in the solar oven. (And my cowboy hat in shadow)

The pinwheel biscuits in the solar oven. (And my cowboy hat in shadow)


Next to me an ativista was cooking pancakes with great panache on a parabolic solar cooker. The solar cooking attracted so much attention that before long the trestle table on which petitions were signed was moved out of its customary shaded position and into the sun alongside the ‘kitchen’ to maximise the collection of signatures.

The pancake-maker-with-panache showed two boys of nine or ten how they could wave their hands under the pan suspended in the parabola and feel the heat that was magically there. She began to explain to them about clean energies and the need for them.

‘No, don’t talk to me about climate change!’ said one of the boys. ‘It makes me scared. I get goosepimples if I think about it.’

Ah, well, there you have it.

Tuesday’s (today, as I write) Público has an anti-oil piece by prominent Portuguese novelist and writer Lídia Jorge, who comes originally from the Algarve. She writes beautifully. This is my very rough translation of some of her affecting words:

. . . just when the realm of black gold is being shaken by the galloping development of renewable energies, just when everything is heading towards liberation from the dictatorship of crude, [Portugal] has handed its territory over for hydrocarbon exploitation . . . The oil companies are sweeping up the last of the fossil fuels from the backyards of the weakest. The concessions signed with Portugal can only be humiliating, blinkered, a compromise to be borne by the next three generations . . . The population is told that the wealth will be returned to the regions and to the country, but people travel and they talk to each other, and they know that the purse that holds the oil money will be kept far away from the hand that does the work. We are not a dramatic country, we are a lyrical one. Here there will not be blood. Here everything ends in saltwater . . .

Banners at the beach once more

Banners at the beach once more

Swallow family

Baby swallow: 'Where's my food?'

Baby swallow: ‘Where’s my food?’

Parent arrives with food, having decided - eventually - to ignore me and my camera lens

Parent arrives with food, having decided – eventually – to ignore me and my camera lens


A couple of days after the demise of the unfortunate baby swallow, an entire swallow family emerged from the nest: four fully fledged, perfect young birds. All the more reason to conclude that the dead one was the runt and considered superfluous to the survival of the family group. Nature takes no prisoners.

We think there are four juveniles. What with the occasional visiting adult of unknown relation, and all the fast and playful dipping and swooping done by the newly fledged, plus the fact that they are only just discernible from adult birds, it’s hard to be sure exactly how many there are. Nor have they completely left the nest. They spend most of their time back in there, being fed by the parents, and how they all fit inside is a mystery. They do not emerge at the entrance to the tunnel to take food but do peek out occasionally, then retreat if one of us is around.

The parents are less tolerant of us than they were. They endured the daily photography during the nest building. After nest completion, everything went rather quiet for a while. This wasn’t the loud, in-your-face hatching and rearing performed by the sparrows last year. Just the simple, sudden appearance after the appropriate amount of time – about five weeks – of a group of perfect young birds. Now that the parents have newly airborne young, if we stand too long at the entrance to our own home they are inclined to fly towards our noses then jink before contact. I wouldn’t say it’s aggressive, exactly. I don’t think it’s over-friendly either. All the same, we love them, the entire Red-rumped Swallow family, and it’s wonderful to think that they are likely to return year after year.

If we lie on the sunbeds in the garden at the end of the day (such as when a house-guest is taking care of the evening meal; see below), we can watch the parent swallows as they circle endlessly overhead, collecting food. We can also watch the Bee-eaters. They glide their fabulously coloured geometric shapes against the brilliant blue sky as they return to their roost in a nearby valley. Between long glides they will fast-flutter then brake and spin on the spot, perhaps plucking insects out of the air, perhaps testing and displaying their flying prowess.

A young visitor from New York stayed with us this week. She slept out under the stars, which is perfect in the month of August. I did it myself about ten days ago, to watch the Perseid shower at its peak on the night of 11/12th. I made a comfortable nest on the sunbed, gazed deep into the infinite stars and waited for the show to begin . . . then woke up as dawn was breaking, having missed it all. Our starlight-sleeper woke up after her final night with one eye half closed thanks to an insect sting. She googled a remedy, reluctantly concluded that sourcing it from the side of a hill in back-of-beyond Portugal was unlikely, and approached Husband for help.

Husband went to the knife drawer. This caused initial consternation.

He sliced a leaf off the Aloe vera plant in the garden and squeezed out some gel to soothe over the swollen eye. The eye was back to normal within a few hours.

‘Wow, you guys have everything here,’ she said. Coming from someone born and bred in one of the best-supplied cities on earth, this is something. And I think she might be right.

The googled remedy, by the way? Aloe vera.

Our next anti-oil action is scheduled for Sunday and is to involve kids. Among the activities there are to be human letters in the sand again, but I’m going to let it be more ad hoc this time. No more angsting over that for me.

I never tire of visiting beautiful Tavira. By the Roman Bridge at midday, low tide

I never tire of visiting beautiful Tavira. By the Roman Bridge at midday, low tide

Feathered and painted friends

Bodies wrapped in black shiny fabric crawled or were pulled out of the sea; yellow and green-painted bodies in torn clothing and gasmasks staggered between people reclining on sunbeds. Ilha de Tavira was the scene of Saturday’s art attack, highlighting the perils to humanity of the proposed extraction of oil and gas from land and sea. For the crowds of holidaying beachgoers this distraction from the work of sunbathing was entertaining, puzzling or, in a few cases, alarming. I’m sure I’d have been horrified if I hadn’t known what was going on, but then I am a cautious type, which was possibly why I landed the role of ‘preparation of the site for the human slogan’. The sensible decision was taken to keep the slogan short, and in English, since the equivalent in Portuguese would have been twice as long. It was to declare: NO OIL NO GAS.

I bore the responsibility for this small task very heavily. First I researched online the making of letters with the human body. The more professional versions not only made athletic demands of the participants but also, for some letters, looked more fitting for the wall of an Indian temple. I found what I thought were the more feasible ones and set about creating a how-to sheet for the gutsy volunteers. My main task, however, was to mark out the site, so I mentally roughed out a size – 2 by 15 metres would do it, I thought – then cut canes into short lengths and tied them together at the right intervals with string.

I was assisted in this by a visiting friend. Some ten weeks earlier she had broken both legs when her large and boisterous dog had miscalculated an affectionate greeting and bowled her over at about 30mph. She was by now in leg braces with a crutch, but still managed the trip from London to the Algarve. Let’s call her the Hobbler.

We took the ferry to the beach. The Hobbler managed to get on and off the wobbly boat. I was carrying the canes, a heavy rope to form a baseline, and a device for smoothing out the sand. At the entrance to the line of cafes and bars we bumped into A, one of the organisers.

‘The beach is crowded. You’ll have to manage the people there,’ she said lightly.

The Hobbler and I made our way slowly to the site of the action. The agreed spot was hard to find. Husband had to be called from his other responsibilities to get me to the right location. It was a blazing afternoon and the sand was difficult to walk on for the Hobbler.

I managed to find an area that, although obstructing many people’s route to the sea, didn’t actually require my asking anyone to move. I set out the canes, driving them in with my palm. The Hobbler helped where she could, moving around the area on her backside. My sand-smoothing device was a children’s plastic toy rake; I hadn’t been capable of carrying anything larger. It soon broke. The heat was intense. Tears of sweat ran into my eyes. Using a piece of cane like a rolling pin, I made out the letters in the sand. Beach-users were puzzled but fairly unimpressed. Both the Hobbler and I were beginning to feel quite wretched, albeit for different reasons.

Then the bodies started to arrive by sea and across the sands, and the crowds gathered. Photographers came and people grabbed their mobile phones to record the event. Actor-bodyguards pulled bodies from the waves and assisted the poisoned. As the bodies staggered over towards me, Husband – by now at my side having completed duties elsewhere – whipped away the canes. The bodies threw themselves into their well-rehearsed shapes, a photographic drone moving overhead. They held the letter shapes for a while then arose, gathered banners and formed a chanting semi-circle in the sand. They went on to perform other art attacks on the lagoon side of the beach island, culminating in swimming out to board a solar-powered boat, dismantling a make-believe oil rig on it and covering the deck in banners.


Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday

Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday


The ‘bodies’, all those uninhibited members of Tavira em Transição, were amazing. And the protests are gaining ground all the time. After Galp/ENI’s indefinite postponement of their drilling plans came the news this week that Repsol Partex were ‘indefinitely postponing’ their October plans too. They have the concession to drill in the sea off the Tavira/Faro coast.

But they also serve who only kneel in the blistering sand for an hour raking smooth an area of 30 square metres using nothing but a broken piece of plastic little bigger than a human hand. Afterwards I found that I had burnt both knees and taken a patch of skin off my right palm. O, the mortifications of that day.

We needed peace and quiet on Sunday. On the veranda I stooped to pick up a fallen hibiscus flower. Behind it was something mouldy-looking. I got closer. It was a baby bird, grey down waving above its incomplete flight feathers. A baby Red-rumped Swallow, fallen from the nest. Such consternation! Do we leave it, or feed it, or try to get it back in the nest? Swallows aren’t ground-dwelling birds. It wasn’t hopping about at the start of life, its anxious parents hovering nearby. Its parents were nearby but unconcerned. They had other chicks. They might even have chucked this one out as superfluous or inadequate. It did look a bit wonky, but then it had fallen from a height. The parents certainly weren’t wasting any resources over it now.

We dripped water on to its beak from a pipette. We caught insects and tried to get it to feed on them; it kept its mouth closed and shuffled into as inconspicuous position as it could find.

That night we drove out to a restaurant but our bird trials were not over. As we arrived in the almost full car park, I saw a rather odd-looking bird mascot on the grille of a Peugeot. It was quite realistic. No, wait, it was real. It was what was left of a dead bird. No, hang on, it was alive. It was the head and breast of a panting and panicking bird. Hobbler and I got out of the car while Husband went to find a space to park. We poked around in the radiator grille and got pecked at. Nothing wrong with the bird’s neck or beak then. To get it out without being savaged, we needed a tool. Hobbler withdrew a pen from her bag. I pushed the fingers of my left hand into the grille. I located a claw, which found purchase on my hand. I could feel the bird push its leg against me. On the other side, I wormed the pen in along the bird’s back. I gently pulled, the bird pushed, and it burst out of captivity and flew unevenly across the car park. It had managed deftly, ungratefully, to stab me as it escaped. I don’t know if it had a bright future or was going to be an easy meal. Either way, it had to be better than a slow death in the grille of a Peugeot.

Our fallen bird at home was still alive that night, and the following day. It shook barely perceptibly and made feeble noises when it could hear its clutch-mates calling to their parents. It was breaking our hearts.

Monday night was a thunderstorm and heavy rain. In the morning, the bird was gone. It had been assumed* into heaven by some agency, perhaps Little Owl.

*This is for the Catholics.

The doomed baby bird

The doomed baby bird


Beach work

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of 'paper' to the nest

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of ‘paper’ to the nest

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

The gin-and-tonic spot

The place to view the meditation hill, and perhaps drink a gin and tonic

washing line

The swallows enjoy the view of the meditation hill too


Galpgate has opened, and doesn’t look like closing any time soon. This is the revelation that the oil company Galp – who recently postponed ‘indefinitely’ their drilling plans off the coast of Aljezur in the western Algarve – have been mining Portuguese politicians for human resources to add to their bookable reserves.* A privately chartered aeroplane took, among others, three secretaries of state to France for the Euro2016 games: all expenses covered and tickets to the games supplied, including, in the case of Rocha (‘Rock’) Andrade, secretary of state for fiscal affairs, a seat at the final. That particular Rock was no doubt well worth drilling, since as fiscal boss he is in charge of Galp’s many and large tax debts to the state, which the oil company is refusing to pay. The other two grubby-handed secretaries are Jorge Costa Oliveira and João Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos looks particularly grimy because he is in charge of Galp’s application for public subsidies for the building of an oil refinery.

Once the bright light of publicity shone on them, the three secretaries of state claimed innocence of any unethical behaviour while simultaneously offering to repay some or all of the expenses. No doubt these men still remain highly ‘bookable’ in Galp’s terms.

Here on the ground we keep up our fight against all the oil and gas companies. In preparation for a beach event this coming Saturday, a discussion and rehearsal group gathered one evening on the sands. Saturday’s event is an art attack, requiring creative, devil-may-care, outgoing types, of which we have plenty in the group. Feelings, however, were running high. What is at stake – the health and wellbeing and livelihoods of the many against the destructive greed of a tiny few – would make anyone febrile. Add to that some anxiety about how things will turn out – the human chain event was a huge success, but who can guarantee the same again? – then toss in a few unpredictable aspects of the artistic personality, and fissures start to open up. We ended up with some constructive decisions, plus a whole lot of hurt feelings, and a few people wondering whether they can even participate. The price of activism. It’s worth it, but it’s a difficult journey in so many ways.

Meeting on the beach

Meeting on the beach


Sunset at the beach (Ilha de Tavira)


Against all this, there is such joy and peace to be found at home. We have two new chairs, hand-made by Robert Harris. They are on the front veranda, from where we look out at the meditation hill as the day fades, watching the tree-spotted, straw-blonde earth turn slowly to rich ochre and then eventually to grey. At the other end of the veranda, the swallows are as happy in their home as we are in ours, and sometimes like to sit on the washing line and enjoy the same view that we do. Still no sign of chicks being fed, but so much activity in and out of their mud house that surely it can’t be long. Just as I was about to post this blog, Husband came dashing in. He’s heard the sound of chicks, he says.

* An oil company’s market value is enhanced by being able to lay claim to oil/gas reserves still under the ground – known as ‘bookable reserves’.

Oil and gas – good news

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze


The Algarve is bursting with fairs and festas at this time of year, but I don’t seem to be able to make an appearance unless hanging off a banner. The mountain festival in São Brás de Alportel was one such event, big and well-organised, with much speechifying broadcast over speakers placed around the venue. Our friend Nemesio had organized with the local authority to have a stand collecting signatures against oil and gas prospection. This was specifically to add to the numbers of people objecting to Galp/ENI’s plans while the public consultation period, ending on 3 August, was still under way. It was a huge success. I only managed to appear for a couple of hours, but I found, as I have before, that the process of mustering support is a fascinating one. Most people need just a little encouragement to sign. Other people come up of their own accord, sign with determination, take out their ID and carefully record the digits against their signature, and then, when thanked, say, ‘Thank you.’ Almost nobody bats you away when they realise what you are asking for. There’s no doubt that the fossil fuel industry’s plans for the Algarve – and other parts of Portugal – meet with minuscule or zero support from the people. It’s all about a few corrupt politicians, most of them in the previous administration.

Anti-oil and gas stand at the São Brás fair

The stand at the São Brás fair


Two things from last week’s blog have not come about. (Three, if I include the swallows.) This is part of the great fun of writing a blog. One was my confident prediction that I was entering a period of work-free clear blue space. I imagined the hours spent in the glistening water of the pool beneath the glorious azure skies. Then I got a horrible, monstrous flu. This is the first time I’ve written this blog from a sickbed. The sun is blazing away, the pool is glistening, but I’ve been wrapped up in the dark for days. It’s fading away now. (And it’s why there are hardly any pictures this week.)

Much better, however, is this. The relentless pressure by activists is paying off. On 29 July, Galp/ENI announced the indefinite postponement of their plans to drill exploratory oil wells. Not only that, they did it in a marvellously huffy way. ‘We had everything ready to start operations and we had to stop,’ said chairman Carlos Gomes da Silva, blaming the hard-won extension of the public consultation period for his woes. Another reason is the belated force given to an EU directive requiring enhanced safety measures for such operations. Forcing Galp/ENI to do their work properly was obviously too much to ask of them. The chairman suggested darkly that Portugal was missing its chance to become Norway. The suspension has no recommencement date.

The mayor of Tavira has given a brief interview to the press in which he reiterated his absolute objection to the presence of an oil and gas industry in the Algarve, whether onshore or offshore. This is more progress, because for a long time he was apparently only concerned about what would happen on land. He also confirmed that the mayoral group has filed two injunctions against the activity. We can have oil, or we can have tourism, he said. He knows which side his bread is buttered on.

Earthquakes of 3.4 and 4 on the Richter scale were registered off the coast of the Algarve this week, in the areas identified for exploration; just another reason why offshore drilling is madness.

The Red-rumped Swallows still do not have hatchlings. They are continuing to bring in soft bedding material to the nest. And we’re rather puzzled by the appearance of a third adult; we haven’t been able to establish its sex, or its role in the current set-up. It’s all terribly modern. We continue to wait and see.


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