The kitchen smells of fresh apricots. They are falling from the tree unless we catch them first. A nice but not especially productive afternoon would be to sit between the pool and the apricot tree catching the fruit as it drops. Life does not yet allow for such indulgences, so the other way to harvest the fruit at its ripest is to glide your hand as gently as possible under the soft warm bottoms along the length of each branch, see which ripe, speckled apricots detach themselves unresistingly into your palm, then eat them immediately. Overnight, unseen, about two dozen will fall and have to be sought out in the morning from among the bedding of Hottentot fig below the tree; these go into jam.
I turned to the cookbooks on my shelves for recipes for apricot jam and chose the one that rather pleasingly involved the use of a mallet. The tender, yielding apricots are easy to prepare: halve them with a knife and remove the seeds, which takes about 3 seconds per fruit. The seeds you wrap in an old tea towel, and this is where the mallet comes in. You bash the seeds to shatter the shells and extract the soft kernels. This is a recipe from the highly rated Australian food writer Stephanie Alexander. I found a similar recipe from equally highly rated Irish food writer Darina Allen, but she failed to specify how you get the kernels out of the shells. You cook the fruit down (I used 1.5kg for my first batch of jam) with a little lemon juice, add an almost equal amount of warmed sugar and a small handful of the kernels you have managed to extricate from the shards. Cook on a high heat until a sugar thermometer reads 104°C, which takes about 15 minutes. Pour into super-clean jars. It helps a lot if you have a funnel, and of course a thermometer, both cheap items.
The first jar of jam was opened the very next day, and is delicious. It must be one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. Cookbooks are generally resistant to recommending the use of thermometers – I know, since I’ve copy-edited hundreds of them – and it’s because you don’t want to make a recipe unusable to someone who doesn’t have a particular piece of kit, and because you don’t want to turn a kitchen into a lab. But actually thermometers are great and well worth having, at least until you have the experience that enables you to tell when ingredients are ready by sight and sound and smell alone.
Then I got curious about the apricot kernels and wondered whether they were added for flavour – they have an intense almondy scent – or because they aided setting. So I asked Mrs Google, and quickly found myself in a world of furious argument over whether or not apricot seeds cure cancer. It seems that some people sell/buy the seed kernels alone and eat them medicinally. I quickly turned away again, happy to rely on the sensible and practised recipes of cooks.
The swimming pool engineer came round to explain how to run the pool and how to clean it. He is Portuguese with good English, which he was kind enough to use for my benefit. I’ve become very fond of Portuguese English. (Or it might be Algarvian English, I’m not sure.) I love the use of ‘imagine’, which is part of any instruction. ‘Imagine you want to clean the pool, then you . . .’ etc. I also love the cadence, which rises and rises, then ends on a two-note rise+fall.
‘Imagine you want to use the hoover,’ he said.
I never imagined the use of a hoover in a swimming pool. Wouldn’t you have to empty it first? I looked at him blankly.
‘You hoover the dust when it falls to the bottom,’ he explained.
‘With the water still in it?’
‘Of course.’ (Imagine – imagine! – this being said with a rise then fall, opposite to the English rhythm.)
And so you do. There is a hoover attachment which sucks up the particles that settle on the bottom of the pool and miraculously doesn’t suck up all the water as well. Not for the first time I realise that I don’t have a brain for engineering.
The vox pop vote after last week’s TV debate ran for 24 hours after the show was broadcast and the vote against oil exploration in the Algarve crept up, so that in the end it was 72 per cent against and 28 per cent for. Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-minister for the environment and one of the grinning villains of the oil saga, took up (or paid for?) an opinion piece in a national newspaper on 23 May to declare himself the victim of a campaign soaked in lies. He listed his rather feeble green credentials and went on to say that the oil contracts were fine and were really only for mapping resources for the benefit of the Portuguese state – this is a lie, or at best an obfuscation. One of the contracts has been shown on television and we know it allows for subsequent exploitation of resources. He also posed a couple of rhetorical questions: should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of the Portuguese state learning about its resources? Should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of a law applied since 1994? (A law that allows the Portuguese state and environment to be ripped off for the benefit of business.) How the poor man must suffer for his beliefs! To be capable of such contorted arguments as this, you would expect him to have good debating skills. Yet he refused the invitation to appear on the television programme. The other grinning villain, Paulo Carmona, was there, and made a holy show of himself.