Castro Marim on a Bicycle – one perfect day

Castro Marim on a Bicycle – one perfect day

Castro Marim on a Bicycle - 00a of 03 - RQ

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.

Castro Marim on a Bicycle - 01 of 03 - RQ
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.

Castro Marim on a Bicycle - 02 of 03 - RQ
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.

Castro Marim on a Bicycle - 03 of 03 - RQ

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.

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

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

Darling, Bring Me A Pan - 01

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.

Darling, Bring Me A Pan - 02

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.

Darling, Bring Me A Pan - 03

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.

Darling, Bring Me A Pan - 04

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.

21st Century Broad Beans

21st Century Broad Beans

Spring is a beautiful time of year here and the hillsides are ablaze with colour and the swallows and bee-eaters have returned. Our layered beds are planted, our fingers are crossed and we’re hopeful of some kind of harvest.

Photograph of colourful spring flowers in the Algarve countryside

This is our first year of determined growing efforts and we have bought/sowed one of almost every edible species going in order to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. It’s like the Noah’s Ark of gardening. Luckily, trees, plants and seeds are incredibly cheap in Portugal and so this feels possible without any huge financial risk. Our newly planted ‘vineyard’ (it is a patch of ground with vines in it, therefore it is a vineyard) cost €24 for 12 vines. They have more than paid for themselves already through the joy and anticipation we have had in peering closely at this pile of sticks protruding from the earth all winter pining desperately for a sign that reassures us that we are not the laughing stock of the market for having paid €24 for someone’s kindling pile. And that we are in fact, the Algarve’s answer to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the wine-making department (they make their own, but with considerably more staff, I suspect). Over the past few weeks our devotion has been rewarded and they all have sprouted.

Photograph of a young grapevine sprouting its first leaves
Broad beans have been the great success of early spring. We have observed that these are the crop do dia of rural Portugal and wondered why. My memories of broad beans are of pale minority members of a bag of frozen mixed vegetables thrown in a pan and boiled to death by my well meaning mother and the habits of 1970s cooking. To be honest, I only grew them because judging by their proliferation round here, they seemed like a sure fire success and I’m kind of desperate like that. I didn’t really expect to like them. Yet again, I was wrong.

We know now why they are so common: they are incredibly easy to grow and they taste amazing. Given the poverty in rural Portuguese communities in the past and to some extent in the present day, it is easy to understand why a twice a year, non-irrigated food source would become almost a national dish. From our perspective, they grow quickly, strongly and look like an impressive feat of garden expertise with zero effort. You get to see how the Jack and the Beanstalk tale originated when you see how tall they get in such a short space of time.

There are essentially two bean growing seasons in the Algarve – one sowing takes place at the arrival of the rains in the Autumn with a harvest around February and the second sowing goes in around February with a harvest in May before the heat hits. They don’t require watering or any assistance whatsoever. As an added bonus, the impatient gardener doesn’t even have to wait for the beans to reach maturity before reaping some free food from the plants: you can eat the plant itself. It is recommend by some that picking off the top shoots of the plants after flowering will stop the plant using its energy for leaf growth and instead focus it on bean growth, which makes sense to me. The tips are a pale, grey-green colour, but once wilted in a pan with a tiny amount of water they turn a deep and vibrant green and make a fine soup or addition to an omelette. Probably they could make a substitute for any recipe involving spinach or spring greens.

And if you end up with too many in your veg patch, you can always dry them and get fava beans, which should keep Hannibal Lecter happy should he ever pay a visit.

Photograph of a bowl of broad bean, courgette, and broad bean tip soup
Today we had them for lunch in the most delicious and pretty quick to make soup. I could eat this on a daily basis, it is so good, and so darned healthy.

Courgette, Broad Bean and Broad Bean Tip Soup
Makes 2 large bowls or 4 small bowls
Slug of olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large courgette, chopped
500g fresh broad beans in their pods (less if already de-podded). I leave the little jackets on, but if you prefer a creamier taste, take ‘em off
3 handfuls broad bean tips
1 litre stock – I used some boiled up roast chicken bones to make the stock but a stock cube of any variety will do
Slug of vermouth or white wine (optional)

Heat the oil in a pan, gently cook the onion for 5 minutes, then add all remaining vegetables and cook for 10 minutes. Add stock and wine if using and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Leave to cool for a few minutes before blending – either until completely smooth or leaving a few lumps for texture. Adjust liquid if required.
Serve with warm bread and some creamy cheese.

English Country Dustbowl

English Country Dustbowl

As I may have mentioned before: it’s hot, but let that not hinder the Mad Dog and Englishman mentality and stop us from gardening. Nothing much is growing as I imagine all of the poor plants are gagging for breath and water in a climate which provides little of either. The sweat that literally drips from the end of our noses is probably the most nutrition they’ve had for weeks.

Our garden, you may recall, was a pile of rocks and earth with a few neglected but flourishing fruit trees and flowery bushes dotted about. It looked something like this when we arrived in March after a typically soggy Portuguese winter:


As the weather improved, the rain stopped and the strimmer did it’s stuff, slowly the garden has taken some kind of shape.

Then, the inevitable happenned in an environment as dry in the summer as this – it turned into a brown dustbowl. Most of the gardens that are owned by immigrants (that’s expats to you) are beautifully tended with large cacti with heavily mulched (bark) or bare ground in between. They are a battle with nature won by the obliteration of all natural growth. The only lawn is made of astroturf or quenched by more water than our borehole could pump. The local Portuguese garden is a more simple affair, sometimes with vegetable beds, mostly just with a few chairs in amongst the scrub. When telling our Portuguese teacher that we have been garden she said (we have a new teacher after sacking the old one for being impatient with Keith’s difficulty in speaking any language at all, including English), that ‘You English love gardening’. So, it seems we are known for it and one does hate not to live up to expectations.

The garden was upsetting me. it was big, bare and overwhelming. I’d started to outline some beds but the rest was just an unfathomable stretch of dirt. I know nothing about gardening, but I do know about order. And order was what it needed for me to be able to look at it with a sense of calm rather than a jittery feeling. So, after spending many days shifting rocks in order to create structure into our own patch and therefore be able to tackle each smaller section individually, I realised that we have turned our dusty patch into an English country garden with winding paths and strictly defined areas. Just need a gnome or two and a rosebush and the transformation will be complete – if you can see past the complete lack of greenery and Sweet Williams. I was a bit put out by this initially as I would prefer not to colonise our tiny corner of Europe with British values, but actually, sod it, this is what my eye requires and I now look out on it with peace and joy rather than stress and anxiety. It’s not much to look at I am aware, but what I see when I look out there is ‘hope’ and promise. I have plans, dreams and a vision within those neatly defined borders.

You may also recall that I had started mulching some beds for growing next year. In our 36+ degree gardening frenzy we also finished those which are now awaiting a layer of compost from our bin and a layer of manure from the stables down the road. They will get these in the autumn ready for a good soaking over the winter. This method is called Lasagna Gardening and basically means that we are creating new sub-soil rather than having to did into the rocks that dominate the ground below.

As a small experiment, I planted a load of seeds just to see if we could get anything to grow – its too late in the year to expect much to happen. So far, so good. We have a few courgettes and squashes and a row of sweetcorn on which the grasshopper in the top image has taken almost invisible residence – his camouflage only dashed by the bloody huge holes he has left in the leaves.

This gives me hope that we can get growing next year. The lack of frost here means that planting can begin in January or February. The pumpkin and sweetcorn crops in neighbouring fields are already harvested now in mid August so we could eating our own this time next year. Exciting.

For now, our landscaping work is done and we will just sit and wait to see if a courgette turns up before the winter comes, whilst resisting the temptation to erect a flag in the midst of our barren, but neat, wilderness to declare it under strict English control, just in case some far more relaxed, Portuguese grasshopper had some funny ideas about whose territory this is.

Sub-standard Brownies – Learning Acceptance through Carob

Sub-standard Brownies – Learning Acceptance through Carob

Here’s a question for you: If a food is free, organic and widely available, yet takes a considerable amount of time to ‘process’ and after having done so can only be used as an ingredient in things that you may not have otherwise made (therefore forcing the purchase of the other ingredients and making you eat more), doesn’t taste that great and can actually be bought from Amazon for £2.50 for 500g, would you bother? I’ll fill in some details for your contemplation.

We’re talking carob here.

Sub-standard Brownies - 01

Carob is a hardy old tree that grows without any assistance, decent soil or rain. It doesn’t produce any pods for the first 15 years or so of its existence, but when it does they come in abundance. Spain, Italy and Portugal are the top carob producing countries in the world. The harvesting of these giant pods involves the highly technical process of whacking the tree with a stick and making them fall to the ground. The word ‘carat’ as a measurement of the weight of gold comes from the world carob as the seeds were used a means of weighing. The tree produces these dark brown pods (which are more correctly called legumes) that are used commercially to make something called Locust Bean Gum which is used as a thickener in yogurts and the like. It is what desperate vegans and super healthy people salivate over as a replacement for chocolate convincing themselves that they DON’T MISS IT AT ALL. It tastes nothing like chocolate. It’s brown and can be made into a powder and cooked with, like chocolate, but so can gravy, so the phrase ‘clutching at straws’ springs to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love a vegan. In fact, I know I ought to be one again (I was one many moons ago), but I would rather not bother with something that replace it with an unsatisfying substitute. I do not eat carob as a substitute for anything (although added to hot milk it does a fine impression of wet concrete), only because its free.

So, we’re surrounded by many of these trees, some clearly owned and harvested, whilst many others are just ‘there’ and nobody bothers with them – until we came along. I cannot, I repeat, cannot turn down the potential of free food. Cannot. It is free. We can eat it. It will save us money. It is good for us. There is no logic that I can apply to my utterly natural and deeply rooted foraging self that can resist gathering free vittles. It is irrefutable. It is pure primal nature. I am not far from our hairy stooping ancestors it seems. Cannot.

This leaves me conflicted about the carob foraging due to the reasons mentioned in the question above. Carob fans, and there are many on the internet, will tell you that carob is better than chocolate and makes ‘the best brownie you have ever tasted in the world!!!’ and other such superlatives. Yeah, well, having eating the stuff (in my vegan days) commercially produced and now my own best efforts, sorry, it’s not. It’s interesting and you can chew on the pods raw like a Mediterranean cow-person with a very healthy tobacco alternative. It’s extremely sweet and has a caramel kick to it, but definitely not chocolate. And as I said above, in order to do anything with it, you have to buy all of these other ingredients and then eat all the bloody carob-based cakes that you have created. In all ways, probably best to just leave them on the tree, go for a bike ride and eat an apple with all that time you’ve saved dealing with the carobs.

So, here we are with a lot of carobs…

It was a no-brainer. My evolutionary soul overrides modern day practicalities and economics. I’ve picked as many as I can and every time we drive past a tree where they have all been left to fall on the ground, it hurts, I tell you. Hurts. But I leave them be because I have another massive sack of them in the garage waiting to be processed when we finally run out of all of the carobs which have made their way through the system and await to be turned into sub-standard brownies.

You have to soak them for a day or two in a paint stained wheelbarrow to make them pliable enough to split in half in order to get out all of the rock hard seeds.

You then lay them outside in the sun (oven will do) until they are rock hard. After which you chuck them in to a food processor or Nutribullet and they turn into powder which you could have bought from Amazon for a couple of quid. But with added food miles and carbon footprint, of course. Sanctimoniousness is a under-rated quality which tastes a lot better than carob.

Then, oh joy, you get to make a whole host of delicious treats in order to try and get rid of the stuff…

I present to you ‘The best’ Carob Brownies ‘in the world’ (genuine quote) ( not very brown) and some Oaty Chewy Bar things. After eating both of which we wondered, if one had simply not bothered with the carob, would they have suffered in any way?

Which is a depressing thought that most of us, perhaps, can identify with which takes us to a place that I’d rather not go. Until then, the sub-standard brownie will remain a part of this household, loved for what it is and nothing more, something which all of us dream of.

Cracking The Algarve Feira Circuit – Available for Bookings

Cracking The Algarve Feira Circuit – Available for Bookings

Hello, hello. It’s been ages, months in fact. Where have you been?

What’s my excuse? Well, where to start… Since April, we’ve sold a house, put our vastly reduced stuff in storage as currently homeless in UK and are in the process of buying the smallest studio flat you could ever possibly imagine… no, smaller than that, really – 18m sq. We’re moving from a 4 bedroom house into a cupboard. And one of us is a hoarder. Don’t ask. Someone is going to have to throw a lot of their (his) stuff away and remind himself that this is all part of the plan to reduce outgoings. Oh dear.

Anyway, I’ve done a few stints of ridiculously full-on exhausting round Britain working stints to get the funds to hang out here for a while. So, we’re hanging here for a while. Oh, and I’m writing a (non-autism) book while I’m out here, so have been a but busy in between sweating. Sweating is the main activity of the day and I’m getting very proficient at it. It’s hot, extremely hot with temperatures reaching 40+C up here in the hills. Never had so many showers in my life, all of which have been rendered virtually pointless within minutes of stepping out from the water due to the immediate recurrence of the sweating.

We’ve had visits from family some of whom have been hotter than even they thought possible and not altogether well because of it. It is becoming clear that summer is not the time for people to visit us, unless their idea of a good holiday is sweating, sitting indoors and moaning about being hot.

There are many feiras – local fairs and festivals on throughout the summer in the surrounding villages and towns but all start at 7pm and later due to the heat. We have been to several of these feiras, which are quite low-key and largely local affairs which, along with some entertainment, appear to always involve cake, knitted dolls and killing things (hunting). The headline act comes on around 12.30am, or in other words ‘tomorrow’ and we have so far failed to make it through.

Cracking The Algarve Feira Circuit - 04

Please forgive me, Portugal, but given the posters, warm-up acts and parcel tape that we have seen, my suspicion is that we’re not talking quality here, but something that is rarely witnessed in the UK – small rural communities getting together and having a good time. We’re not even talking tribute band level here (come back, Worthing, all is forgiven). We spent one evening in the company of such a support act in the form of a portly gent in his 50’s with full moustache and checked shirt singing along in Portuguese to a Euro beat backing track and his own efforts on an organ. His early evening audience consisted of 3 middle aged couples – both male/female and female/female couples (the female/female couples I suspect were borne out of necessity from a lack of willing males, rather than us having stumbled upon a large gay community out here in the rural Algarve hills) waltzing. Sometimes switching partners between the six of them to add a bit of a frisson to the proceedings. Well, needs must and all that. He relied on songsheets throughout, which leads me to wonder if the real act had failed to show up and someone’s Dad who grows a fine pumpkin had been dragged in as a replacement. And nobody cared either way. I guarantee that had we made it to the end of the night, a supremely good night would have been had by all.

Cracking The Algarve Feira Circuit - 05

The number of chairs did suggest that things were going to hot up considerably later on, but our Northern European stamina was not in the same league as these guys and we wandered off into the darkness to stumble home (wine is 60p a glass) hours before the main event. Keith and I even considered that we could break on to the Algarve rural feira circuit and perform our own infamous (never-seen-in-public) acapella rendition of The Rubette’s Sugar Baby Love claiming to be related to The Beatles, or something. Surely being British has some musical clout and glamour that we could turn into a lucrative career on this busy and burgeoning circuit where the same name and face has yet to be seen twice? We would work for a bag of figs and a plate of chips, which is somewhere near the minimum wage in Portugal. We can even do the whole Abba songbook where we replace one word in each title with the word ‘spoon’: ‘Dancing Spoon’, ‘Spooner Takes It All’, Take A Chance On Spoon’. You had to be there. That’s a USP for sure, no one else doing that. Where’s Portugal’s answer to Simon Cowell when you need him? Anyone know the Portuguese for ‘Living On A Prayer’? I feel a new world opening up for us where we are celebrities in a land where we can only ask people their name and what subjects their brother and sister study at school.

Wake us up when it’s time to go on, will you?