Accidents Will Happen (let’s blame the French*)

Accidents Will Happen (let’s blame the French*)

Beautiful smooth rocks on the all-time-low River Mondego

Beautiful smooth rocks on the all-time-low River Mondego

It’s been quite a week for a number of reasons. It seemed that almost everywhere else in Central Portugal was in flames except us. So many people lost homes and lives, it’s been quite unbelievable. We missed it all by a day as we had left for the UK. From seeing maps of the burned areas, it looks unlikely that escape would have been an option once the fire came close – our land was surrounded, but we weren’t on it. There is much written on the latest fires and their aftermath, so I’m not going to dwell on it here, but in reality my mind has been thinking of little else. Along with deep sadness for those who lost so much and working out how we can help them, I’m pondering how we can continue to look at ways to protect ourselves in the short term and reforest our land in the long term.

In a previous post I mentioned the increased likelihood of Keith sustaining near fatal injuries due to our increased tool collection and usage in our much larger quinta. He didn’t wait long to prove me right and it’s all the fault of French Air Traffic Control*.

One evening, four days before the fires, Keith and I were indoors. Keith was washing-up. Suddenly, he said: ‘Sarah, we need to go to a hospital. I have lost my thumb’. I turned to find him clutching a blood soaked tea towel around his right hand. It was 10pm at night and had no idea what to do. Amidst a heated, panicked difference of opinion about whether we should call an ambulance (me) or drive to a hospital (him), we called 112 to find out where the hell the nearest 24 hour hospital was. Utilising our not-now-wasted First Aid training we kept the wound wrapped with Keith periodically becoming minorly hysterical about life with a severed digit. The emergency operator told us to stay put and the ambulance would come. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could find us in the forest as we have no address, road or post box – our mail goes to a cafe in the nearest village – and was yelling all this to the probably long-suffering operator, convinced that Keith was going to pass out through blood loss at any moment and knowing I couldn’t life him into the car. Amazingly from a few basic details she told me the name of our quinta and my name: we were registered somewhere and they knew us and the house. Phew! There is only one route to our house in a non-4×4 so I drove us up to the edge of the village to save the ambulance time. This meant sitting in a forest in the car, waiting for an ambulance that I wasn’t sure would come, with a man with a severed thumb, who I was expecting to pass out at any moment. I was flipping terrified. As is always the case in Portugal, stuff always works out in the end. Our friendly bombeiros (firemen) arrived (filthy fingernails – definitely not paramedics) and took us to a hospital 40 minutes away providing me with the best opportunity for practising Portuguese that I have had in more than  year – I now know exactly when to pick our olives – whilst Keith sat in the back with an ice pack. Every cloud, and all that.

Keith looking pensive, sporting Portuguese NHS jim jams

Keith looking pensive, sporting Portuguese NHS jim jams post-surgery.

The Doctor at the hospital diagnosed cut tendons and nerves all around his thumb – it was still attached, but he couldn’t feel or move it – but didn’t want to operate and sent Keith to a larger hospital another hour away, straight into emergency surgery and two days in hospital. I returned home after a night sleeping in the car to what looked like a crime scene. Next time, he needs to maintain greater control of the blood I now know that blood takes off the top layer of terracotta tiles. That night is literally indelibly etched on our kitchen floor.

A picture of a mantis on the table rather than one of a blood splatted floor

A picture of a mantis on the table rather than one of a blood splattered floor. You’d thank me for it

Three days before Keith had his mishap, we broke the coffee holding cup from our coffee machine.

One day before Keith’s mishap, my brother and his wife were due to arrive with a replacement coffee holding cup which we had delivered to their house. Their trip was foiled due to a French Air Traffic Control strike; their plane cancelled – while they were sitting on it waiting to take off. Without a replacement part, we were using a cafetiere. Keith was washing up the cafetiere when he pressed – somewhat incredulously – too hard on the glass at the bottom and pushed his thumb straight through.

If you know Keith, you will know that this is a particularly typical Keith accident which involves testing items to discover their boundaries. In order to discover their boundaries, it is necessary to go past the boundary to know where it is. This explains why he breaks things so frequently. ‘I’m an engineer’, he says, ‘engineering is all about testing for the edges’. ‘You’re a liability,’ I say, ‘you nearly lost your fucking thumb’. Even he conceded on that point. At least, he now knows the boundaries of a cafetiere. And a thumb.

Beyond the boundary of a cafetiere

Beyond the boundary of a cafetiere

Keith is fine but one-handed for the next 3-4 months at least. He can’t drive, use a strimmer, a chainsaw or cut up his dinner. This may be a saving grace for his longevity, but it’s a bloody nuisance for making progress in our garden. After two days in hospital, he was so bored and so happy to be out, telling me how he could help again now. No, I said, kindly: when you were in hospital I only had one person to look after, now you are out, I have one and a half. It’s a jolly good job that I didn’t chose nursing. Pity him.

Hospital food, Portuguese style.

Hospital food, Portuguese style.

His stitches come out this week and physio should start soon after. He has no movement or sensation in his thumb. It’s a serious injury and it will be months before we know how much mobility and strength he will regain. He can still make tea and eat biscuits so he has retained all of the essential, life-affirming qualities. The tree felling and three hectares of strimming will just have to wait.

Bloody French*.

*None of this had anything to with the French. It was all Keith’s fault. If he had been consistently trying to find the boundaries of the original coffee machine since the day we bought it by cramming too much bloody coffee into it, the coffee holding cup thing would never have broken and we wouldn’t have been using the cafetiere. I love the French despite them screwing up my brother’s holiday, but hey, you gotta love a strike.

Living in a Box…a Tinderbox

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That’s our house, and those others things are trees. Loads of the buggers.

PLEASE NOTE: This is not expert advice on the subject of wildfires. This is personal perspective only. Please seek professional guidance.

The subject of wildfires is a sensitive one at this time of the year, mainly it seems within the immigrant/estrangeiro population. Our local Portuguese village neighbours appear largely unconcerned by the frequent water planes flying overhead and distant (so far) plumes of smoke that appear on a regular basis. Someone told me that ‘the Portuguese grow up with fire’ and so perhaps are a little more accustomed to its presence than some of us. My only experience of wildfire in the UK was the car journey to my brother’s wedding in Wales in 1976 when I can vividly remember driving along roads in the dark with flames on either side. I was 8 and terrified.

There are many political issues relating to eucalyptus planting, unmanaged land and climate changes playing a part in the prevalence and scale of the fires in Portugal. I am new here and no expert and so will avoid postulating on something I know little about, but instead share our limited experience and perspective of choosing to live in an arguably high risk area for fire. Perhaps it helps you to decide whether its an OK place to live or somewhere you’d prefer to avoid. Knowledge is power, so they say.

A number of people have said ‘why move somewhere with that risk?’ The truth is that we didn’t know we had done so. Not a clue. We viewed our new home in April when all was fresh and green and although had been aware that in 2016 Central and Northern Portugal had experienced multiple fires, we didn’t put two and two together and worked out that this might be a regular thing and might affect us living in a forest. We had no idea how many fires can happen every day in Central Portugal. Coming from the Eastern Algarve where fire is still a worry but far more rare due to there being fewer people and fewer trees, I suppose, we had lived in relative ignorant bliss. We thought it was wet and cold up here. We moved in during late spring 2017 and within two weeks came the horrific and tragic fire around Pedrogao Grande. It was a rude awakening and a period of wondering if we had done something really stupid. It’s fair to say that had we known about the fires here we wouldn’t have bought our house in its specific location, but we would have been wrong. Things can seem scarier from the outside than they actually are.

Smoke on the horizon

We decided that the only way to live with this without sleepless nights, constant sky watching and anxiety was to get educated and get prepared. Please don’t take my word for what you are about to read – this is just how we have made our relative peace with the risk of fire, please take your own steps to find out what is best practice for your area and home.

The first thing is perspective. 500 people were killed on Portugal’s roads in 2016, 4 people were killed in fires. It seems you are safer in a forest in summertime than on your way to Continente. That isn’t meant to scare anyone, just to put the risk of fire into perspective compared with an activity which most people don’t consider scary or worrying.

There is information provided by the local Camara (council) giving guidance about safe zones around property which should be free of ground cover and waste. I believe that the Camara can be asked to force neighbours to ensure that land which adjoins your property is also free of ground cover, although how likely this is to be implemented in reality I cannot say. There is also guidance provided on Safe Communities Portugal  on prevention and protection and a fire safety pdf put together by Quinta Vale Verde whose home was damaged by the Pedrogao Grande fire. You can read their account of their terrifying experience on that day here. An insight into something that I would certainly not want to go through.

Fires

We were fortunate that the previous owner of our home had kept the area close to the house strimmed and clean and so we haven’t had much work to do to extend that and do some further chopping. We learned that broadleaf woodland (oak, chestnut) is more fire retardant than eucalyptus and pine. We have a lot of woodland which is mostly oak and pine and in order to find out how best to preserve it, we enlisted the services of Marko from the Awakened Forest Project to advise us. It is worth mentioning that Marko is not a fire expert; his advice was more generally on the reforesting of our land with more native tree species, which by its very nature decreases the fire risk. It also saved me a lot of work because I was expecting to have to rake 3 hectares worth of leaves from the woodland floor, which I now learn is not necessary or desirable. Happy days.

We spoke to our neighbours and looked for evidence of past fire on the land and discovered that there has only been one fire here in at least 25 years and that was a long time ago. We can see charred roots which have many years of new growth on them. This may mean we are in a somewhat protected position, or may just be luck.

We also planned our actions should a fire rear its head in our vicinity. By considering these things at a time of calm, hopefully we will make a better decision if the time comes. Again, you must make your own decisions based on your setting, level of nerve and circumstances.

  • We have deep water tanks and cellars – sometimes staying put is the safest thing to do if you don’t know what you are driving/walking into. Putting a ladder into the water tank and ensuring there is food and water in the cellar gives us options.
  • If faced with a passing wildfire when you are stuck in a car – you may be safer in the car than outside of it. Only if you know of a safe place to go should you leave your vehicle. This link gives detailed advice: http://www.wikihow.com/Survive-a-Wildfire-While-Trapped-in-a-Vehicle
  • We have identified four exit routes from our property, two only accessible by 4WD, another is through a eucalyptus forest and the final one is swimming/canoeing across a river. Depending on the location of the fire, we can make decisions about if and when to leave.
  • We now have blankets and large water carriers in our car along with an evacuation bag with clothes, drinking water, snacks, phone charger, money and basic toiletries.
  • There is a list inside the front door to remind us what we need to grab should we need to leave in a hurry.
  • There is also a note to be stuck on the outside of the front door in Portuguese informing the bombeiros that we have left and that the house is empty along with our names and telephone number – we are in a remote area and would be unlikely to be evacuated or notified and don’t want them to waste their time looking for us.

This may all sound like a terrifying way to live, perpetually waiting to grab your valuables and run for your life, but its actually had the opposite effect. By knowing that our home is as low risk as it can be and knowing that we have options for staying or going along with provisions to do so quickly, we now feel quite comfortable living in a tinderbox.

If you are looking for a house in a region known to have fires and it worries you, you may want to consider a few things when you go to view it, such as access in and out, type of trees around the area, any signs of recent fire (charred roots) and how easy it would be to keep the land clean.

It goes without saying that its not for everyone and that if being so close to so many trees fills you with terror and you find yourself yelling ‘I smell smoke’ every five minutes, then I’d choose somewhere else to live if I were you.

It’s been a while

 

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I’m sorry, it’s  been more than a year, which is pretty poor in terms of contact even by my standards. It’s why I only have friends who are as low maintenance as I am. I should have said that the main reason that I stopped sharing our nonsense here in this blog was that I was sharing it elsewhere; in Standard Issue magazine, to be precise. Is that infidelity? Perhaps. If so, I’m sorry, but that fabulous magazine is no more and so now I’m back. That’s a bit shitty now I think about it: I’m back for you because the much more important people no longer want me. Don’t take it personally. I thought about you every day (I didn’t). If you want to read what I’ve been up to, check out the Standard Issue link above, it’s all there.

Anyway, I’m here now and stuff has happened. We have moved! We no longer stalk geckos in the Algarve, now we stalk mongooses (it’s not mongeese – I looked it up. Mongoose and goose have different linguistic origins, actually) in Central Portugal.

I won’t bore you with all the details but in brief we decided to work in France over the summer as we found the Algarve too hot. Keith got a job as bicycle mechanic, we both got qualified as bicycle mechanics and First Aiders and then the whole project he was due to work for collapsed, so we drove 5 hours north in Portugal and bought a house. Because. We are now qualified bicycle mechanics who live up the steepest hill known to anyone with no one stupid enough to cycle anywhere apart from us.

 

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So, now we live in the middle of a forest in 3 hectares of land – that’s 28 times larger than our Algarve plot – in a granite, totally off-grid house (solar, mountain water and compost toilet) with a couple of stretches of the Mondego River thrown in. We are 3km down an off-road dirt track and require a 4×4 to reach our house up a 1:2.75 (20 degrees) slope, which we now own. For information: Owning a 4×4 has not made Keith any more manly, although I’m sure he thinks it has, which is all that matters. I certainly feel more manly. My ankles are killing me and we’ve only been here 2 months. Pushing a wheelbarrow full of mud up that  slope is only a very special person’s type of fun (we love it). I now have biceps, which may explain the manliness.

Our nearest cities are Coimbra and Viseu neither of which you will have heard of unless you are familiar with Portuguese geography, but both of which you should have heard of because they are both fabulous and entirely untouched by hen parties and Costa.

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We moved away from the Algarve because of the heat or the summer meaning that we were more inactive than we wanted to be, wanting more land to keep ourselves amused, physically knackered and alive in my case (see About – PKD is kept somewhat at bay by good health and managing blood pressure), and the potential for some future income in the form of tourist accommodation, which our Algarve house didn’t have. That’s right – one day you can come and stay with us in our humble abode but don’t expect us to be interesting, because we’re not. We are some way from the brand launch of our boutique hotel yet due to our single compost toilet perched halfway up the garden hardly being anyone’s idea of ‘en-suite’ unless you plan to sleep in it. We are undoubtedly ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ given that everything that goes in that toilet will one day end up aiding the growth of a lettuce that we’ll serve our guests for dinner making sure that we share the provenance of their hor d’oeuvres just at the point that the first mouthful has reached their lips. Circle of life ‘n’ all that.

Please stick around. Keith can have 28 times more near fatal accidents with all this land. And you wouldn’t want to miss that now, would you?

 

 

Castro Marim on a Bicycle – one perfect day

Castro Marim on a Bicycle – one perfect day

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It was my final day in the Algarve. I would be leaving the next day for two weeks in England where the temperature is 14 degrees rather than 34 and where something called ‘rain’ is still occurring with frequency. So, what better excuse for a full day out on the bikes.

The 2nd Saturday of the month is Castro Marim market day, which is not vastly different to any other monthly market in the Algarve, but we particularly like Castro Marim; for its sleepiness, castles and the fabulous Medieval Days festival which take place each August. I am always astonished how such a small and sedate town can pull off such a brilliantly orchestrated event.

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We set off later than usual, as always full of good intentions and commitments to getting going before it gets too hot, but perpetually fail due to idleness, morning swims and lazy breakfasts on the terrace. It’s easy to slip into a slow pace of life when everything is just so damned good. We have recently taken to Instagram and so nowadays our every journey is punctuated by photo stops, where the ruined cottage is particularly picturesque and the flowers especially cascading. The usual route of choice is the Ecovia, a favourite place to cycle across saltpans and through quiet fields and trees, but today we are mavericks and took a turn off the N125 past Altura into the hinterland of Sao Bartholomeu towards Azinhal to sneak round the back, cut the corner of Vila Real and emerge in Castro Marim. It’s a lovely stretch of road for a bicycle – some undulation but nothing too painfully hilly. Whilst Keith loves the challenge of altitude with its steep climbs and death-defying downs, I prefer a more moderate terrain – too flat is dull and too much up and down is equally tedious. I’m not made for hills: I’m a plodder, a shire horse of the cycling world that can go on forever but not at great velocity.

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Due to our typically tardy departure, we fortunately arrived in Castro Marim in time for lunch, which in the market is restricted to the limited menu of olives, bread and chicken straight from the grill. Although we eat little meat at home because we don’t feel the need, we have yet to take the full plunge into the veganism we feel to be a better way to live. To be honest, the existence of grilled chicken is not helping. We make verbal justifications about ‘protein’ and ‘energy loss’ due to cycling and we sit back and tuck in. I think I love this place because it reminds me of Morocco, which I also adore and almost lived in. Whilst taking in the smells, sights, singing and general atmosphere, we talk about how maybe, just maybe, the Algarve really is the perfect place for us. It has all the best of Europe with a dash of Morocco. We ponder whether we really could make the move further north, as we sometimes threaten to do in search of more (affordable) land and rain to make the growing easier. That’s for another day. Today we are glad to be here.

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And then it is time for the beach on our meander home. The Eastern Algarve coastal stretch from Vila Real to Manta Rota really feels like a secret. I almost expect people to be whispering and tiptoeing around, just in case anyone else should get wind of the place. Today we stop at Altura and its beach, Algoa, but anywhere along here would serve us just as well. The sand, the sea, the long, long convivial lunches in the seafood restaurants; the mood is peaceful rather than hectic. Having transported our parasols in our panniers like masts this far, it’s time to set up camp on the sand for a snooze and a swim and to make some vague post-lunch plans about 2 month cycle rides around Portugal and lengthy trips to the Azores. Everything feels possible today.

Home beckons as I have to pack and the garden needs a watering, so off we pedal; a little sandy, a little sore and a lot tired. We have covered 60km in the heat, sometimes helped and hindered by a strong northerly wind. The final 10km are the hardest; the climb back up into the hills is too much for me at times. I send Keith off to make his way home at his own pace and I walk and freewheel my way back, enjoying it all in the isolation of the empty serra roads. It seems that today I may have enjoyed myself for too long because as I made my final approach to Casa Torta, I was met by Keith coming the other way in the car, having become worried about my extended absence, he having arrived home 15 minutes before. I don’t know what he was worrying about, I was getting there. Maybe he needs to chill out a bit.

Learning Portuguese

Learning Portuguese

We’ve been in Portugal part-time for a year now and for most of that time we’ve made learning the lingo a big priority, but it’s not easy. Keith, my beloved, isn’t the world’s greatest linguist, having sent our first teacher into despair with his incessant engineer/scientist need to know ‘why’ teacups are feminine and flowers are not. Our teacher said that one lesson with Keith was more exhausting that four lessons with other students. We, not feeling that this was a way to encourage a student, gave him the heave-ho and found someone with more patience (or Valium). I was doing a bit better and got to the advanced stage of being able to take a radiator back to the shop and tell them that it only had three wheels instead of the requisite four and negotiating a replacement. Our lack of any victims to practise on is out main problem. We live in a rural location and have no cause to speak to random strangers in public apart from at our local bar, and even then it’s difficult to strike up some small talk when the chance of me knowing what is said back to me is slim.

In a bid to get more exposure to listening to the language, I have been watching Portuguese TV on Youtube, namely Chef’s Academy, which is the local equivalent of Master Chef. I can’t work out why it’s called Chef’s Academy and not something in Portuguese, but there we go. It’s a vaguely familiar format, where a presumably celebrity chef demonstrates three dishes simultaneously whilst the contestants watch on scribbling furiously in their notebooks before having a go themselves and the  getting horrendously slated by the judges. What makes it useful as a learning tool is that it is very visual and relatively limited in communication with not much of a plot to follow. What makes it useless is that all I am learning is a wide vocabulary of cooking terminology. Well, it’s a start.

Weirdly, I feel more comfortable here than I do in the UK. It’s almost as though there is liberation in not knowing what the hell is going on, which, rather than get anxious about, makes me brave and fearless. I am undoubtedly more sociable and willing to speak to new people in Portuguese than I am in English. Poor buggers.

This past week, I have taken my efforts to have something useful to say to the friendly people at our bar rather than the bog standard greetings to a new level. I have been at the Cial Language School in Faro for a week studying Portuguese for 6 hours each day. I don’t recall ever being so uttlery exhausted, close to  tears, migraine and nausea. Don’t let any of that put you off – it’s been fantastic on all counts except those. The school operates a variety of options from group classes to individual lessons and I opted for a mix of both, hence the language overkill. Most people do a 3 hour group class in the morning as I did, but I added a 2 hour individual lesson in the afternoon, which with hindsight was a bit much.

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The school itself was a warm and positive experience with students from all over the world (me being the only British person there) and of all ages and levels each wanting to learn Portugues for different reasons – some just for the fun of it. I was the only person living in Portugal. I am told that in the summer the demongraphic is younger and groups are larger. I have spent the week with two Swiss people in my class, both older than me, both serious and committed learners but both happy to go out for lunch (still speaking Portuguese, which the youngsters appear not to to) and crack a joke or two.

I already had a basis in Portuguese from my Skype lessons with a tutor, but have found the opportunity to speak to a number of people in the group and the school has had an amazing effect on my ability. The lessons follow a course in the form of a book, exercises and discussion with opportunities for reading, speaking, writing and listening. All of the teachers I came into contact with were full of energy and interest. I can’t praise the place highly enough.

Next week I return home to inflict my new found grammatical abilities on an unsuspecting population out in the hills. I can start asking questions about growing vegetables. Now what is the word for aubergine…

Darling, Bring Me A Pan, It’s Raining In The Kitchen

Darling, Bring Me A Pan, It’s Raining In The Kitchen

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Well, it’s a bit different from last May (2015) when we were basking in 30+ degrees at this time of year. The rain has been incessant this past week. Heavy, prolonged and at times downright cantankerous: stopping and starting every time I go to put a welly on or take a welly off. We scoffed at how much use those wellies would get when we bought them last year and now we can’t leave the house without needing them as our path is 2 inches deep in water.

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Yes, yes, it’s good for the garden and given the drought in Portugal in 2015, it is certainly welcome and needed, but when exactly is enough? The tanks are full; the plants are happy – not all: the baby pumpkins have got rotten and shrivelled – and we are fed up of being indoors.

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We are partly fed up of being indoors because it is raining in here too. Our house is old and roofed only with some tiles, a waterproof membrane and some canes. The membrane has holes in places and therefore naturally fails to live up to its ‘waterproof’ status in those parts. It’s strange that if in England our flat were to have water dripping through the ceiling, we would panic, believe the roof be about to fall in and rush to find a person to rub his/her chin thoughtfully and charge us a considerable amount to fix it. Here: we just put some pans under the drips and make sure we don’t leave laptops or phones on the kitchen table. We eat meals to the sound of the drips and casually mop up any that fail to hit the saucepan target. Why do we react so differently here? Is it just that we know the sun will come and dry it all up any moment now, or that our possessions and life here are so much simpler and smaller (no carpet, for a start) that a few puddles here and there are really not a problem. Or is it that we have changed just by being here? I have noticed other inconsistencies between our UK and our Algarve life: we are happy to live with geckos, centipedes, and ants on occasion, where in England we would freak out at sharing the bathroom with another pair of eyes. These things are just part of the deal in a rural setting and more than just tolerate them; we welcome them. We say good morning to Colin the gecko who lives in the bathroom and watch for hours the ants with their astonishing weightlifting capabilities. It was only the Yellow Banded Centipede who moved into the kitchen cupboard who met with a sorry end (they can cause coma with a single nip).

This afternoon between showers we ventured out, Vitamin D depleted and bored, for a walk in the hills. Usually silent, the sound of gushing streams and even waterfalls assaulted our ears and we were halted in our progress by a typically bone dry riverbed which had flooded the road creating a torrent. One of Keith’s wellies has a split so we couldn’t go any further. What a difference a few days downpour makes.

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So, whilst we ponder on the rain from inside and out, it serves to remind us that a few drips in a pan aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things, and that maybe this carefree attitude to the small things is a good one to take on board for life in general. We still have a roof of sorts, some wellies of a sort and a beautiful place to live. That is, until you realise that you’ve left your sandals outside, again and that you’d like to cook some dinner but there are no saucepans left.

And breathe…

Do Triffids Like Nespera Jam?

 

We have recently returned from three weeks away from Casa Torta to find that Things Have Been Growing. We’ve been away for this length of time before but I don’t recall such a rapid change in the undergrowth. It must be the time of year. The broad beans are now of a greater population than that of the neighbouring village, and almost as big as a person. After picking them all (except for a few left to go to seed), the total yield was over 43kg, that’s over 700g per plant. Articles I had read suggested 300g of beans per plant would be reasonable, so I am very proud. Given that this is  our first permaculture bed effort in a wintery Algarve, not known for its easy gardening. Phew! That’s a lot of soup/puree/ etc. Anyway, enough about the beans; I’m not obsessed with them, really. And I haven’t named any of them. OK?

Photo of a hand holding a large broad bean pod

 

Photo of Broad Bean Salad

 

The other major growth in the garden is this stonking protuberance from the centre of our largest cactus, which I presume to be an agave. This entire stalk has emerged over a three week period, which demonstrates a pretty significant growth rate as it is must be around 8m tall. I am convinced that if I stand and watch it for long enough, I should be able to see it move. Cue much standing and staring at a stalk. Rest assured, Keith and I have pondered how we might measure its rate of growth, but have failed to work out how. Marking the stalk was an option, but getting to the stalk is a less attractive prospect, given the spikes. We’ve no idea how long it will take to do its thing, but wouldn’t be surprised to wake up and find that it’s moved into the house and is making itself a cup of tea. We have seen others around the hills all producing similar masts. It must be the time of year that they take over. Triffid nightmares are expected.

Photo of agave cactus with flower stem

Aside from trying to harvest, eat and/or freeze all of the broad beans before they burst, I have also been keen to use up the nespera on the tree, as I hate things going to waste and I love food that is free. Salt of Portugal tell a lovely legend/tale as to how these Chinese fruits came to be in Portugal. Much as I love to eat these little plums straight off of the tree, we are talking 100+ here and even I would struggle to get through that many – in between trips to the bathroom, I should expect.

 

Photo of nespera in a bowl

 

So, jam it is, then. Having searched the internet for recipes – it’s a simple process involving fruit and sugar and nothing else – I came across Azores Gal’s recipe for Nespera Jam and her tip for using the hand blender to mush them all up before sieving the skins out. It worked a treat – no pectin needed as you don’t peel the fruit and it thickened easily and within half an hour post sieving. I shan’t bother to replicate her instructions here as she has done such a great job of explaining – with images – how to do it, I shall let her get on and do so. The resulting jam is simply beautiful to look at and really delicious; a kind of cross between quince jelly, marmalade and mango chutney. It could be eaten with both sweet and savoury accompaniments or just straight out of the jar with a spoon.

Photo of two jars of nespera jam

 

Perhaps the triffid would like some. I come in peace.