Saturday, December 4, 2010

Missing central heating in central Portugal

A couple of things you are always asked (and ask) when meeting new people is' 'why did you choose central Portugal?' another is; 'don't you miss the UK?'. Well my usual response is, 1) why not, it's cheap and the people are lovely. 2) I miss my friends but not the UK. Now I can add a new response to question 2. I MISS CENTRAL HEATING. I miss it a LOT.

It is freezing up here in the mountains, the frosts and snow has started early, just like the UK - not half as bad as the UK, but you lucky buggers have central heating, me, I have a wood burning stove and a boyfriend that likes to 'air the house' and a dog that likes the door open to come and go as he pleases. I'm sitting here now with all the windows closed, the oil heater plugged in and under my legs....Yes, Peter's out!

Despite the cold weather, it has been lovely here in Portugal and we've been getting into the swing of Autumn/Winter and a little bit of Christmas. We've been out exploring the area again, and found some wonderful places and met some new people with Portugal Friends.

Peter has been getting creative and made some beautiful Christmas wreaths for our house and the social club. Made from vines to form the structure and then decorated with leaves and berries (I wanted to add some shimmer but was firmly told no). We've got two up at the house and we've also given one to our friends Jackie and Richard.

Now Peter is not a fan of the Christmas Tree, while I love a good tree (I recall fondly a wonderful tree that Jen and I had in Putney, decorated in white feathers and white lights, eat your heart out Linda Barker). But of late, such is Peters horror at the thought of a Christmas tree, he has relented.


But, it was to cost us nothing. We considered walking up the mountain to cut a pine down, but then hit upon the idea of using some of the branches of olive tree that have been cut for us by our neighbour when he collected our olive harvest. I made some dried orange decorations, raided the wood store for pine cones (collected in the summer as they make the best fire lighters in the world) and here it is:

But since then, our friends Jackie and Richard have bought us (well me, as they knew Peter would not get one) a fantastic tree! Peter has gone to collect it today and I'll have my very own Christmas Tree! Lovely lovely lovely gift.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Helen and Peter in Spain and France

Holiday time, a road trip across Spain into the Pryenees then across France to Bergerac. 3,000 kms, lots of wine and more chorizo than is healthy for you!

On day one we drove across Spain to Toledo, we left early (after an almost tearful farewell to the dog, who is being looked after by neighbours) and arrived in the city a little after 4pm. Just enough time to take a good look around this stunning and monument filled city. Despite being a heritage gal, there is sometimes just too much heritage to fit into one day.

So, after a disco nap, we headed out for the night of tapas and red wine. For some reason in Spain (well the cities we have seen so far) they will serve you a beer in a wine glass and the portion control on the red wine is harsh. To say I could have drunk all my glass full in one gulp (yes I'm a gulper not a sipper) is no understatement. La Mancha area is famous for Manchego cheese so we had a 9.50 euros worth (cites are expensive) along with my thimble of wine!

From Toldeo we headed out across the plains of Spain towards the Pryenees, boy oh boy that is a long journey! Pretty dull landscapes for much as the plains stretch out for miles and miles on all sides. Just a small town with a fantastic church or monastery thrown in for good measure on the side of the main road. As the Seat Ibiza ate up the miles we decided to stop for the night in a small town on the outskirts of Catalyuna. Barcelona were playing football and the streets were empty, the bars were quiet too, and when we tried to get something to eat the places were closed or dead. We ended up with a dreadful pizza watching the football.

I seem to just be eating bread, ham and cheese at the moment. Breakfast - cheese roll, lunch - cheese and ham baguette, dinner - cheese and ham on a pizza! Someone give me a proper meal!

We drove onwards through the top part of Spain passing Monserate, a very expensive place on the outskirts of Barcelona (where the city folk go for weekends in the mountains). After a lunch of (you guessed it) ham and cheese baguette (!) we headed for Mike and Jan's place just over the boarder from Spain on the French side of the Pryenees. Mushroom country!

Jan and Mike were great hosts, taking us on a tour of the Spanish side one day, then the French side the following day. I preferred the French side, it felt more relaxed than the Costa Brava side of Spain. Some wonderful areas to explore. More important that that though - I didn't have ham and cheese for dinner, instead we had some lovely food (thank you Jan and Mike).

We went mushroom hunting with Mike and collected some wonderful mushrooms. This area is well known for mushrooms with cars littering the roads as people drive up into the mountains to hunt the mushrooms over the weekends. Pharmacys have posters with edible and poisonous mushrooms on display in a bid to stop people killing themselves!

France is expensive! The local bar in the sleepy village on top of a mountain sells a beer for 2.20 euros (our bar here sells it for 70 cents).

Saying good bye to our hosts we headed across France (in the rain) to Bergerac where my step mum (Pat) had hired a cottage for a week. Pat's birthday was on the Friday and her close friends and family were there to celebrate with her in style. The low moment for me during the trip was stopping in a rain soaked lay by having to eat bloody ham and cheese baguettes, with the car steaming up as you couldn't open the windows as the rain would come through....if that was not bad enough I had to deal with French toilets...why oh why in this modern world do the French still insist on you squatting over a hole in the ground with your trouser legs pulled up so they don't dangle in the pee on the floor from many other weary motorists! I just don't understand why they cannot fit a normal flushing loo! Rant over!

We arrived in Bergerac with the sun coming to great us and found the cottage (despite the sat nav sending is round the back roads of France). Stunning, stunning place, with wide open fields surrounding us, and more importantly a well stocked fridge and enough red wine to sink 8 grown people! Pouring myself a decent (or should that be indecent) glass of red, we took a look round. Totally stunning, take a look.

Touring the area over the next few days we decided this area of France is very neat! Neat because it is so well manicured. Lines of vines surround you, trees planted in neat straight lines, clean, well looked after. The place is simply littered with stunning chateaux's, from large wine estates in St Emillion (where we decided we did not want to part with hundreds of euros for wine) to the country homes and holiday homes of Europe's rich people! All that wealth everywhere but it still has a lot of charm.

Deciding not to take out a mortgage to pay for lunch and dinner, we all took in turns to cook each night. It worked well. For a group of 10 people it was a great way of having time to yourself during the day but sitting round a big kitchen table in the evening, drinking wine and eating far too much food - which always included stinking cheese at the end! For some reason I didn't mind cheese baguettes here for lunch and dinner (fickle aren't I?).

After a wonderful week we left Le Brandau and a huge thank you to Pat for a wonderful time, and headed towards Portugal. We drove and drove then finally stopped in a place in Spain called Burgos. The rough guide told us it was a great place to stop, it was. We fell out a bit while trying to find somewhere to stay, but fell on our feet at the tourist office as they called a local Pension and we found a room for the night for a bargain 27 euros! Peter was well happy!

It was Saturday night and Halloween! Burgos was busy. We had a wonderful time going to bar after bar sampling the tapas on offer. From fried chorizo, to chorizo in red wine, to a bar that just sold mussels in three different sauces (packed to the rafters). As normal in Spain the football was on and the bars full of people eating, drinking, watching football and smoking! Ahhh to smell smoke in a bar again - actually it was not unpleasant until the next morning when I put the same jumper on again and the smoke was clinging to the jumper! At about 10pm with stumbling across the cathedral which is so famous in Burgos! Impressive! Not a lot more I can say!

Heading home the next morning the rains started. A massive low across Europe brought thunder, wind and rain. Home in good time to a ravaged back garden and a soaking wet dog who'd been well cared for by Ana and Joaquim.

Loved the trip, spent too much money, drank too much wine, lovely to be home!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bring in the harvest

Harvest time here in central Portugal, with harvest festival celebrations, regional food markets and general thanking god for the harvest. Our village is no exception, with the annual harvest Mass and procession through the village at the weekend.

So here we are, dressed up for once (yet un-ironed as we don't seem to bother with that anymore, in fact, Peter never did bother ironing, he told me only yesterday I didn't need an ironing board when I had a table to iron on).

We decided to see the Mass, standing room only at the Mass and to be honest, thank god (no pun intended), after 30 mins I was a little bored of it.

You think the priest would be a bit more engaging, but alas, alas he read from the bible without looking up, without emotion. Although top trumps gained by the waving of the incense, very cool and Gothic (well for me a non Catholic anyway). 30 mins passed and we hot-footed it outside to where all the men where (strange that the church full of women - maybe they just have more to pray for).

The harvest festival here comes with extras -
1) a procession through town of the icon with the villages walking on rose petals thrown down to celebrate the harvest
2) then a nice bit of commercialism as harvest donations are auctioned off to the highest bidder

Bags of home-grown onions going for 10 euros, squashed for 5 euros, bottles of olive oil for 15 euros and a bizarre (live) bunny rabbits in bags ready for the slit and the de-furring for the pot. Having said that, our neighbour Alfonso brought us round a (fortunately dead and skinned) rabbit the other day 'don't tell the neighbours' he sisaid 'they'll all want one' - quiet as the grave me - oh except this post! Our veg box and squash raised 7 euros and we donated 15 euros for various bags of veg!

Meanwhile, on the coast we recently saw a different sort of harvest being hauled in from the sea. Fishing with a large net cast out with a boat and pulled in by tractors. We arrived at the coast to see this going on and stood and watched for about an hour (strange, when food involved our attention span lasted longer than the Mass).

The time it takes to haul in a net this way is painstakingly slow. So, off we went for a coffee and some torradas (toast, thick with lots of butter) before returning to the spectacle of the nets being brought up the beach.

Fish everywhere, they throw out so many, mostly mullet, which a local chap said were 'not good eating'. The fish stew you could have made with the throw aways could have been wonderful.

The seagulls had a field day and all the dopey tourists try to save the half drowned fish being thrown out by chucking them out to sea (boy those seagulls can swoop). One lovely Dutch lady worked tirelessly to save as many of the fishes as possible.

Fish sorted, they sold them off. Bags of fish for 5 euros a bag (regardless of the fish). We didn't buy any this time. The car is stinky enough with the wetsuits festering in the bag, we don't need some warming fish to add to the stink!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Good Lord!

Meet Lord, our temp dog. We've adopted him until some neighbours return to Pera permanently in April 2011 or until some other neighbours arriving in October want to take him permanently.

Lord was living in the village with an elderly couple who both had to go to hospital in Lisbon. Their neighbour looked after the dog in the back yard, by feeding him and clearing up after him. This was supposed to be a short term solution, but the couple are still in hospital and will be for some time. Poor Lord was left outside on a very short chain, never walked and surrounded by his own mess. Lord was covered in ticks and fleas and his ears and eyes were very eaten by fleas.

In the end Jon and Laural cleaned up the area Lord was in, Joaquim and Ana gave him a new dog house and together he was bathed in de-flea solution. Peter and I started to walk him once a day and he was getting much happier, excited to see us, not nervous and really enjoying his walks.

Peter and I adopted him last week and it has been a trial by fire. First he was attacked by a dog of some Lisbonites here for the summer. I screamed in the street and this dog finally went away, leaving a puncture mark in Lord's neck. The next day I was out in the woods and saw a wild boar while walking the dog, then later that day the dog that attacked Lord got into the garden. Our garden is not very secure, with lots of entry points and our next door neighbour - Ameila - feeds all the local dogs which can come in. So, after a melt-down then 80 euros spent at the store, Jon and Peter secured our garden as much as they could. It's still not 100% secure, but it is the best it is going to get.

Lord lives outside, he is not 100% sure of coming inside, he is on a long chain now and he is walked twice a day (we've arranged that the attack dog goes out at 9am and I walk Lord before that). This week he has mostly been eating meat (refuses his dog biscuits) and learning to sit, fetch and return to his name. He's won the Lotto compared to the life he had before.

I always wanted a dog, but having one is not what I thought it would be. I worry too much! Still he is very very cute, although he has started trying to hump my leg - bloody typical, so much for being ALPHA, it would appear the pecking order in our house is : Peter, Lord then me! Didn't you just predict this would happen!!!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Surprise, it's Porto

It's been a busy time over here in Portugal. Peter surprised me with a trip to Porto, we stayed in a manor house castle which was at the top of the hill. We dumped our bags and went to explore this ancient and beautiful city, with small streets full of houses to the river front and the tourist restaurants and cafes with the bright coloured umbrellas and the ancient churches and buildings with litter the whole city.

First stop, as always with us is the local market. Here this subterranean space was full of vegetables, fish, meat, olives, bread, garlic and plastic flowers! Yep, plastic ... maybe for all the saint shrines?

Once the market was well and truly photographed we went on to explore the inner streets, it is totally stunning with the tram running up the cobbled streets. We had the trusty Rough Guide with us to help us, but as normal, hardly ever looked at it (only when we wanted a place for dinner really). Instead we climbed up to the look out point on the top of Porto. From here you can see for miles across the city, river and beyond.

From the top of the world you can walk across the famous bridge which gives you amazing views across the river. The Metro runs right along side, it would never happen in London, where you can play chicken with the Metro!

One thing we didn't do this time was walk over the bridge to the other side of the river where the Port houses offer tastings and tours. Far too many things to do in Porto, which did include sitting at a bar drinking beers and me getting too drunk too quickly. Never good I tell it ended up in a dash around town looking for somewhere for me to eat my dinner to dry up some of the beer!

Day two, rested (of a sort, just a mild headache) we toured on foot again and saw the smallest house in Porto. Built between two churches as the law stipulates that two churches cannot share a wall (this is the house in the photo below with the railings in front of it). We went into one of the churches, well you've seen one you've seen them all eh! This one had something I'd never seen before - a saint, a story and a collection box. So, you get to choose which saint to donate your euros to.

Of course any tour of any city would not be without a coffee stop (and a cake) every so often. Although Cafe Majestic is very famous, we were seated inside the fab building, with lovely linen and bustling waiters, but alas it was far to posh for us, so we headed to cafe up the road.

We both totally loved Porto, it is a great mix of old and new, city and river, cafes and bars. Next time we go I promise not to get too drunk too quickly and we can stay out past 10.30pm!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Community Project

Most of the year, Pera is a quiet village with 100 or so locals going about their business and drinking in the club. Local men don't really put a lot of work into 'best kept villages' over fact Peter and I walked past a dead chicken in a bag outside some old guys house that's rural Portugal for you!

Come August though the village gets busy, with Lisbon(ites) coming for their summer holiday, staying with family or in the 'done up' houses in the village. We have a few from America too, originally from here but living in New Jersey. The village is more vibrant and things get done.

In Pera we have a wall, it's a big wall, it's grey, not very nice and runs the length of the main village road. One of the ladies from Lisbon has been on at the local CAMRA (Parish Council) to do something about this wall. The CAMRA are not interested! After she went to shout at the men in the club drinking, telling them that they are lazy sods for not doing any work on the village, and being told to f-off by the men, she gathered a group of out of towners and the foreigners to paint the wall!

So with donated paint and brushes, about 15 of us got together over a few mornings (before it gets too damn hot) to paint the wall. Not quite sure if it is just bringing attention to something very ugly. But it does look better. Next year we tackle the large wall on top of the swimming pool in the village!

Felt good to do something for the community, even if the locals think we are crazy!

My next community project is a local dog called Lord. But more about him another time.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pasteis de bacalhau

Pasteis de Bacalhau are my new favorite things, they are a staple here in Portugal and every household knows how to make them. Except me, when I tried to make them they just weren't as nice as the ones we've had in the pastelarias. When I explained this in bad Portuguese to our neighbours, Ana and Joaquim, they invited us and the neighbours over for a lesson.

Bit of a shame that no one told me that despite the invite saying 6pm, they'd be making them at 3pm ready for the evening. At 3pm I was walking back up a mountain in blistering heat and my water bottle running low!

But we have such lovely neighbours, Ana and Joaquim photographed the lesson and here it is, how to make Pasteis de Bacalhau Pera style!
250 grams of bacalhau (you get it frozen in the UK, but here they soak it for DAYS)
200 grams of potatoes
half an onion and a clove of garlic
pinch or two of spice
one cap full of port
3 or 4 eggs
oil for frying

This is Joaquim, our neighbour - he starts by peeling the potatoes (having soaked his salt cod for three days or having got the frozen salt cod defrosted). Put the potatoes onto boil until they are soft.

Cook the salt cod by boiling it so it softens through.
Now shred the fish and mash it up a bit!
Now mash up your soft potatoes and add them into the bowl with the fish. Put your chopped up onion and garlic into a pan and heat through with some olive oil.

Add your warmed through onions to your fish and potatoes, then thrown in your salt, pepper, parsley, port and spice, mix it all in so it is well combined. Add it three beaten eggs and mix, your mixture should be sticky and still stick to the spoon and not be too soft. If you need another egg add it at this stage and mix well. Use your hands to do the mixing - it's traditional.

Now let the mixture rest for a moment, put it in the fridge for a while. Have a swig of the port.
Make some quenelles using the two spoons. Just move the mixture from spoon to spoon, forming a rugby ball shape. Traditionally a mans job!
Once you have made a few, test the oil by dropping a small amount of mixture in. If it bubbles around the mixture you are ready to FRY.

Carefully drop in your cod cakes, they shouldn't take long to cook, just a few mins. Turn them once so both sides are brown. Now you need to multi task (sorry), keep an eye on the ones cooking, keep making the cod cakes, take the cooked ones out and put them on kitchen paper to drain.

You should have enough mixture to make a mountain of cod cakes. So give some away to friends, or get a load of people round to enjoy them. Best served cold at room temp, with rice and beans and a salad. Totally lovely.

Oh and here we all are enjoying them!