Tuesday, December 02, 2014

How to cheer the winter days; mushrooms, gardening, and volunteer helpers.

December is here, almost surprisingly; for the heat of late October transmuted into November and a cool to warm fug, with mists, and rain, dappled days of afternoon sunshine, occasional abrupt winds, which tore the last leaves from the chestnut trees, but real cold? Never.

Now the temperature has begun to drop, and we are promised a first frost, possibly over the coming weekend...so we must hie us to the forest once more to pick the last of the chanterelles and the saffron milkcaps/rovellons/niscalos, which have been abundant this month, so much so that chanterelles on toast with a poached egg, or chopped finely and fried with niscalos, chopped garlic, a little butter and oil, salt and pepper and a sprinkling of parsley....even these have begun to pall. I have been cooking them up for the freezer with sour cream and lemon and chicken  stock; ready for some spring Stroganoff of Iberian Pork fillet.

My seedlings are up and I have started to prick them out into pots.  (The first are for pink hollyhock, green aquilegia, white veronica, mixed vintage stocks, and  drifts and spikes of blue and white sages) - ordinary, I know, but perfect for adding to the borderts or for planting amongst the vegetables in the organic garden, to bring some colour and life, and swarms of pollinating bees, I hope.

I have a mass more seedlings to go, but am a little nervous if the frosts do indeed come. The greenhouse was savaged by the pigs a few weeks ago, and the shredded skirts of plastic let in a stiff cold breeze when the night wind blows. I shall have to try and find some more plastic, or some old window frames to fill in the gaps.

The salads are doing beautifully, even though one day last week one of my curly- headed lettuces had gone for a walk overnight, shifting out of its neat row and across the furrow beside it into the neighbouring row of straight ones. Although standing and looking happy, it was only just lodged in the earth and I had to move it back firmly and stamp it in. I don't think it is a walking or 'haunted' lettuce, but there might well be a mole or mouse in the soil, waiting to eat my beets when they are at their juiciest.

We are getting busy with booking requests for cookery courses next spring, and with young international travellers wishing to stop off and help us out from time to time on the farm or in the house. These generally find us through helpx.net and workaway.info, and the young people passing through the farm liven up those otherwise quiet winter days.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Moura Market, Beja district, Alentejo

Last Saturday, Jeannie, Charlie and I set off for the Moura market, just over the border in Portugal.

It’s held the first Saturday of every month, unless there is a national holiday to get in the way.

It’s a large agricultural fair, with cowbells, sheepbells and goatbells, leather boots, local sheep, goat, or cow’s milk cheeses and every kind of Portuguese smoked sausage and ham imaginable. There are stalls selling roast chickens with piri-piri sauce, grilled suckling pigs, and wonderful lemon-scented baignets or doughnuts and fritters dusted with sugar. Next to these are truckloads of farm birds, ring-necked doves,homing pigeons, fan tails, ducks of every type, dabbling and quacking, and disgruntled hens in small cages. There are turkeys, and partidges and quail, and rabbits with whiffling noses, and across the walkway, cages and cages of colourful parrots, squeaking and squawking.

Here you can find passion-fruit plants in pots, along with feijoa, figs, apricots, pomegranates and blueberry or goji berry bushes. Some of these, we can of course grow here, but many of them will not put up with our winter frosts. (However, in springtime we might be tempted to pop a passion-fruit vine into our van, and buy some marans for their beautiful speckled plumage and  nut-brown eggs, or a few guinea-fowl to squawk around the hen run!)

It’s a great opportunity for us to enliven the table with different ingredients, and also a chance to buy plants and trees for the orchards. We came back with plugs of leeks, cabbages, purple cauliflower, romanesco and broccoli, as well as onions and beetroot to plant in the huerta for winter and spring. We also bough 1Kg of broad bean seeds which we will sow this month so that we can harvest them in March or April.

I’ve rotavated the small poly-tunnel, which had been dunged with the straw and chicken poo collected when we cleaned out the chicken house last spring. It’s matured now into a calmer fuel for the plants, and in went three kinds of lettuce, escarole, and rocket, so that we will have some good saladings for Christmas and January.

The fridge now holds 4 or 5 different Portuguese cheeses, and painho sausages, gently smoked and essential with cabbage or cooked in a cataplana with seafood and potatoes.

We drove on from Moura market into town and found prize-winning Risca Grande specialty organic olive oil. They produce flavoured oils with their own lemons and mandarins; the first of which is sensational with fish or green beans, and the second will enhance any chocolate mousse, or citrus cake.

We drove north with a roasted chicken from the market, a bottle of local red wine, a freshly made loaf of bread and some small sheeps’ cheeses; picnicked in the last blaze of autumn sunshine on the shore of the lake created by the Alqueva dam, a masterpiece of engineering which has created a many-branched lake around 60 Kms long, perfect for sailing and mucking about in boats.

Back home to greet friends, and prepare for a busy week.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Gubbeen, the story of a working farm and its foods.

Loud hooting on the drive late yesterday afternoon, just before dusk; and it reminds us how life has changed over thirty years. A box of books has arrived thanks to Amazon. It actually comes right up to the kitchen door, imagine that; in rural Andalusia, a part of the country where citizens who live in the middle of the countryside are ignored as far as the postal service is concerned. The internet is miraculous!

Another miracle is the Gubbeen book (3 copies; one for us and 2 for friends), Giana Ferguson's story of family life on the raw edge of the Mizen Peninsula in South West Ireland. Well it's perhaps not so raw as Beara with its rocks rising to the sky, but it's still a place of winter gales and driving rain, and it's where the land has been worked and tamed over the centuries to create pasture from bog.

Reading through the book fills me with admiration. I'm a lover of Gubbeen Cheese, and I love these stories of the hard work, and the commitment to a project (or four!) and of how life has evolved at Gubbeen. I'm instantly pulled back to the place, to the warm and cluttered kitchen, the farmyard, the humungous pig which lay in state last time we were there; and the then newly growing charcuterie business which Fingal, Giana's son had started to build up. He showed us proudly around his new home, where, above his bed a small round window framed the distant view of the Fastnet Rock  like a vignette.

When we were there, Clovisse had just started out on her  project of a garden producing herbs, saladings and vegetables, grown in harmony with flowers, to attract bees for pollinating or flying predators to take care of the pests .

Having just written our own Buenvino Cookbook, which came out in April, I can appreciate the effort which has gone into the lovely Gubbeen book. Lord knows how Giana found the time to do it; at least here, where we live from tourism, rather than from food production (although these things do go on here on a small scale), we have downtime in the winter. It's a time for regeneration (the writing of  a book maybe), and time to touch up the paintwork and give the place a fresh look.


Yesterday morning I was up early to the small poly tunnel where we grow our winter salads and herbs, determined to give the new lettuces a gentle spray before the sun came over and raised the greenhouse temperature to something fierce; even though the door is open.

There was a gallumping sound of pigs' hooves galloping across our attempt at a citrus grove ( we are almost too high for citrus, with hard frosts on  winter nights).

The pigs had wormed their way under the fence separating their  cork oak enclosure from the struggling orange trees, and now one of the pigs had come to investigate, grabbing the rather shredded polythene of the greenhouse between his teeth and tugging hard. I turned the hose to the 'hard squirt' position and gave him one in the snout. Happily he drank and dribbled and then returned to the attack.

The pigs are used to an early morning bucket of grain, and of course they get any leftover greens, surplus quinces and pears, figs, cabbage stalks and so on, to supplement their diet of cork oak acorns. So I made off sharp to the shed and filled the bucket before there could be any more damage done to my precious plastic.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A year of Rush....Rush.....Rush! Now bucolic autumn is here, with fewer guests and time for blogging.

I'm horrified to see that I have not blogged for almost exactly a year, which must make our having a blog something almost entirely useless as far as publicity goes.

 It's good to be back with some time on my hands - enough time to sit and write a little once or twice a week - and it's strange to look at the images of last years' mushroom crop, when we are going through the same thing once more.

The weather pattern may have changed a little from 2013, with our relatively cool summer; but after September downpours and temperatures dropping, we  once again have a scorching October.

It's been almost 30ÂșC once or twice this week, and although our pool has theoretically been "closed" since September ( we put the sun beds away), and we have had the fires lit, and put the eiderdowns back on the beds (all that three weeks ago, with torrents falling out of the sky, and thunder blasting our telephone to smithereens....no internet....no phone), we now have this second burst of gentle summer-like weather; guests swimming in the pool, evening drinks on the terrace until it gets too dark.

The quince trees are heavily laden this year with the branches straining and snapping with the weight of the fruit, so we went down and picked crates and crates of lemon yellow fruit and Jeannie has been making jars of quince jelly,  bowls of carne de membrillo and we have been baking the fruit in sugar syrup and making compotes and 'quince snow'.

We were out mushrooming with Melanie Denny from La Casa Noble in Aracena yesterday, and in a moment of excitement when we were gathering some Caesar's Mushrooms I must have put down my blackthorn stick with the burr handle, and walked on without it.  I see from the link that I could buy a new one, but it's not as beautiful as the old one with the real sharp thorns on it.

I have since walked up and down through the cork forest several times and have not been able to spot my stick. Maddening as it is not just a trusty clambering companion, but a thing of beauty and almost 100 years old.

Mushrooming is a wonderful occupation; almost like meditation. You wander slowly up and down the forested hill, and you observe nature. The bracken has turned to yellow and rust. The new autumn grass is bright green, and the coloured leaves are dropping. The splash and gurgle of the stream tells you that the aquifer is replenishing itself; the rain has washed away the plague of late summer flies, and through the crystalline silence of the forest you can hear the sudden sharp pecking of a woodpecker. Now and then the thud of a chestnut falling, or an acorn dropping from the cork trees reminds you that the pigs have to be out to wander in the woods; but not until the chestnuts have been harvested and taken to the cooperative.

The sheep have started lambing, so we have fenced them into the fallow orchard, where they have plenty of new autumn grass, and windfall apples and pears. We miss the tinkle and clank of their bells as they pass by below the house, crossing the steep forrested slope to get to a warmer hilltop resting place at night, when the temperatures cool down.