Monday, December 12, 2011

The hobby

So, do you have a hobby?  Not me, I don't, but I'm trying to get one....trouble is, I'm actually not that good at anything.  Despite still wanting to be a pop star (what do you mean 37 is too old even for Louis Walsh's X Factor group?), I cannot sing (didn't stop Two Shoes I know).   I cannot draw, cannot paint, cannot dance (well on my own it's fine, put me with a partner and there is a danger they won't come out with both feet), I cannot sew, I dig up things when I garden and kill you get the idea?

I know that at the start of a hobby you cannot be good at it from the beginning, but surely you need to have a flair?  Something which sparks and you think 'wow I'm enjoying this, I could really get into this'.  Alas, alas as yet that spark has not hit.  More Edwina Curry than Alex Jones (Strictly fans, that one is for you).

I recall, when I was about 11 painting a picture of our apple tree, at the time I thought it was great, looking back, well it was a poor effort!   My Mum is brilliant with arts and crafts, patience I think is important, but she does not have my dyspraxia (well I'm on the spectrum somewhere).  She makes cards...I tried, I was rubbish and I got bored - and it's really expensive!

I know that people play sport, but I'm pretty bad at that too! Peter is into darts at the moment (don't ask).

I've just made some napkins out of material bought in the bargain took bloomin' hours, the sewing is not pretty - yes I used a sewing machine!  The sense of achievement of creating something was overrun by the sheer joy of finishing it and not having to use the sewing machine again (why are they so fiddly?).

I like to bake, but cake makes you fat - well it does if you then eat all you create and quite frankly if I'm a-baking it, I wanna be a-eating it!

I made Peter watch Kristie’s Home Made Christmas the other night.  I got inspired, I made a Christmas wreath and dried my orange slices to make my glitter decorations...but after that, really I don't think I can cope with an embroidery needle on the borrowed sewing machine (it was hard enough doing a zig zag). Also, despite it being homemade crafts it is really expensive to do all of this stuff.  And I don't need shelves and shelves of nick nacks that are too bad to be given in gifts but I'm too proud of to throw away!

I tried crochet last year....does anyone want some jersey....after unpicking it all for the 1000th time I gave up!
So, with these past failures in my mind I have started to knit.  Now in the past I can claim to have knitted a number of items - all straight lines though!   But flushed with past success I have embarked on a knitting project.   So, off I went to Jackie’s for a knitting lesson - how to correct mistakes, how to change colour, how to pearl stitch (who'd have thought it was that simple).   So, I made a hat (straight edges but look at the pattern).   I made another hat for a neighbour (Peter calls it a tea cosy, and it does have a resemblance).

Next lesson needs to be in how to follow a pattern, how to work out my tension (maths never a strong point) and how to decrease and increase.  Poor Jackie, patience of a saint I think is the phrase!

So, my new’s a throw for the bed.  Straight lines again, but a nice big project to keep me going in these cold winter nights.  However, a week in and I've realised just how big a throw will be - yep ffffing enormous.  Two squares in.....a zillion to follow.  And it's going to cost a small fortune in yarn.  But I intend to keep going, just as soon as this shoulder injury from repetitive strain injury from the knitting abates! 

Monday, October 31, 2011

In celebration of the chestnut

In October the chestnuts start to fall (mind your head they are spiky buggers), but the whole village and beyond start collecting chestnuts, young and old alike, everyone is carrying buckets of them around.   As with all gluts, you do start to tire of them after having baked chestnuts the 4th night running!  But we’ve been collecting with the best of them, as the proud owners of one of the best chestnut trees in the village, we’ve been out there every day clearing up, throwing some on the bonfire (which has smoked away for several days now) and hearing them pop, preparing 100s of them for freezing.  I even made a chestnut flour cake (recipe below if you want to try it).

So, what better time to have a chestnut festival!   The village of Coentral hosts an annual chestnut festival, with music, dancing, food, drink and you guessed it...chestnuts.  Normally held inside due to poor weather, this year the sun shone and almost all the surrounding villages came out to celebrate this humble (but staple part of the autumn diet) nut.   Well, maybe it’s just an excuse for a party, but who cares!

Folk dancing in these parts is a big thing, at almost every event (before the modern keyboard players come on with their leggy dancers – remember Nuno and the Nunetts from last years blog?) the crowd are always treated to a display of local dancing.  Each region has their own style unique to their heritage, from the snowmen of Coentral to the fishermen of the west, folk dancing has its place at every festa.   

 Now, some of these characters may look like a local production of Bugsy Malone (check out the hats), but it’s a great tradition and something kept alive in rural Portugal.   Having said that, the music is OK, the dancing great, but the singing....oh god, the’s not all it should be in my opinion.  Have a listen

See what I mean?  After an hour or so, you just WANT IT TO STOP!   Now I love tradition and heritage but COME ON!

As the evening draws in the bonfire is lit and the chestnuts placed on dried grass to cook.  It’s a lovely site, especially with a glass on red in hand, tummy filled from roasted pork and sopa de pedra (soup with large chunks in).  

In celebration of the chestnut – long may it continue, but next year I might wear some ear muffs!

Chocolate, ginger and chestnut flour cake
5 oz of cooked chestnuts (without shells)
2 oz plain flour
1 large teaspoon baking powder
6 oz brown sugar
3 eggs
6 oz butter (salted)
2 oz chocolate chunks
1 oz stem ginger
Vanilla essence
Prepare the chestnuts
Score the chestnut shells and place your chestnuts into boiling water, bring to the boil on the hob then leave for 10 mins.  Drain then with asbestos fingers remove the chestnuts from the shells (easier to do when they are hot, but you do need to have asbestos fingers).  Leave to cool.
In a food processor shred the chestnuts until they are lumpy flour.
Make the cake
Mix the sugar and butter until it is well combined, add a drop or two of vanilla essence.  While still mixing add the three eggs and combine.  Add the flour and chestnut flour and baking powder and combine until it is nice a light but still a little runny (you can add more flour and a dash more baking powder if the mixture is too runny).
Add in the chopped chocolate and the chopped stem ginger (if you don’t like ginger then just leave it out) and mix until it is combined.
Pour the mixture into a prepared cake tin/loaf tin. Put in the oven for about 25/30 mins until the top is golden and when you insert a skewer into the centre it comes out clean.  Leave to rest for 15 mins then turn out onto a rack to cool.

Serve large slices with Crème fraîche!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Wednesday the 5th October was not a great day for Castanheira de Pera,  a small fire started in the woods sometime in the early afternoon.  By 2pm it was a pretty big fire with 30 firemen (Bombeiros) and numerous fire trucks.   

Coming home from a lunch with some friends, we got a phone call asking if we were OK.  Well, we’d seen the smoke from the road, but not realised it was happening so close to home.   

The village was out watching the fire, it seemed under control.  No one was worried, everyone just calming saying how awful the fire was.   

2 hours later the wind got up and blew the fire across the valley, on an on it went, along the top of the ridge through thousands of trees, covering miles and miles.   

At 4pm the helicopter came over head, dropping tonnes of water on a hotspot just at the top of the hill. Through the binoculars we saw the Bombeiros run for their lives as the down draft from the water dump and the helicopter moved fire and smoke into their path.  

The helicopters kept coming over until nightfall, but with the fire raging on many fronts and just two helicopters our side of the fire was not a priority.  We hear that the fire took hold just on the other side of the hill.

 As it got darker and more windy the fire made its way across the ridge, moving down the valley but creeping down the hill towards the village and our house.  At one point the fire was about 600 meters from the back of our garden !  Fortunately the wind was taking the fire along the valley, I hate to imagine the situation if the wind had been blowing in another direction.  

At 8pm we packed our bags, got the dog ready to leave and got our ‘important papers’ out.  Peter soaked the garden for 2 hours, dampening down the parched grass, trees and plants in a bid to try to stop anything taking hold should the fire make its way down here.  Also at 8pm, all the bystanders watching went home for some dinner – what’s wrong with these people!  Well, I suppose they’ve seen it all before!  

At 9pm the fire was at its peak, a small clearing in the hill behind the house took alight.  I’ve never seen anything like it – white hot only makes real sense when you’ve seen that.   

After that, we had a beer!  Well what more can you do?  We were ready to leave, we’d filled every bucket we could find, we’d got all the towels in the kitchen ready to soak them (should they be needed).   Time seemed to fly by, we could hear the fire crackling in the trees, watched as some trees ‘blew up’ and burned with a white heat.  

It must have been about 11pm when I feel asleep on the sofa, then at about 2am I went up to bed to try to sleep.  Peter stayed on the patio watching all night.  At 5am after numerous bad dreams (which included, me not being able to put the collar on the dog as we ran for our lives from the fire)  I gave up sleep and came down to make a cup of tea.  

6am and the fire was under control in our area, well enough for Peter to give up his vigil outside and try to get some sleep.

Unfortunately it wasn’t over.  All of Thursday helicopters flew overhead dumping water all over the hillside.  A flare up close to the house had me in tears as the helicopters dumped tonnes of water just 600 meters from us.  Flying directly overhead and so low they made so much noise, it was so intimidating.  With the smoke rising from all over the valley, the helicopters flying overhead I thought, ‘thank god our neighbour Jon isn’t here, it’s just like the Vietnam war and I wouldn’t want him having any flashbacks!’

Later, I walked the dog down the road, passing lots of Bombeiro trucks hurtling along for more water.  God only knows how much water was used to put this fire out!   The smoke was in pockets along the valley, but as the wind started to clear the smoke you could see the areas devastated by the fire.  Huge areas of the forest, gone.  

Even now, 7 days later there are still pockets of smoke coming from hotspots along the valley.  The fire was started, they think, by a carless cigarette butt!  

The really crazy thing, this wasn’t even a big fire!  Fires like this happen in Portugal every day during the summer.  No, hang on, the really crazy thing, is that the Bombeiros of Portugal is largely made up of volunteers....every year these people put themselves in harms way to protect people.  

Thank you Bombeiros.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It's just not romantic

I've never been grape picking before, not had the wanderlust need to fly to Oz and pick grapes with a lot of gap-year students and a couple of old hippies.  But when the grape harvesting season started recently in Portugal I started to feel the need to snip some grapes and become part of the wine making process.

So instead of the lush vineyards of Bordeaux or the stunning landscape of the Douro wine region in Portugal nor the far off general loveliness of Stellenbosch we plumped for Avelar.  Not somewhere (although it pains me to say it) where you would really go for a romantic image of grape picking, complete with wine lodge and Keanu Reeves (if you've never seen A Walk in the Clouds you won't get that).   No, Avelar has a good bakery, a hospital, a car show room and is the home of João, whose father in laws grapes we were about to pick.

Now, I do have to say that my knowledge of grape picking does come from the afore mentioned film - A Walk in the Clouds - a romantic image of a family picking grapes, living for the vine, large lunches under the sun, using your feet to crush the grapes and Sideways another wine film, but this includes men reaching a mid-life crisis, alcoholism and having a mental breakdown, so not something to aspire to.  Alas, grape picking in Avelar is a little more perfunctionary!

a)  As normal with things Portuguese, I seem to be the only girl

b)  I'm grape picking with car-mechanics not Keanu

c) It's September and it's still bloomin' hot

d) No one, and I mean no one told it, it's really hard work and there are spiders!
e) Wine no longer crushed by the feet, but through a machine

f) Wine in a vat, starting to ferment looks a bit gross (not quite enough to put me off for life)

However, having said all that we did have a lovely time, got a good lunch and went home with lots of grapes and two massive jugs of last years 'vintage' so it can't all be bad eh!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It's all about the food

It was about 9am when our neighbour Alfonso handed Peter a dead, but still warm rabbit.  It might not be how every day starts, but it works for me.    

This is the dish Peter created for our dinner by frying off the rabbit and some chorizo then adding everything (except the rice) to a casserole dish and putting in the over for a few hours, adding the rice in the last hour.

1 Rabbit (from the neighbours)
2 peppers (from the garden)
Tomatoes (from the garden)
Piri Piri (from the garden)

He’s also been using up some of our slight excess (is 20 kilos excess?) of tomatoes, by making gazpacho;

It’s so simple and really refreshing and surprisingly hearty.   Just wiz the ingredients together in a processor, then chill, chill the bowls you serve it in too. 
Just use
Tomatoes (from the garden)
Cucumber (from the garden)
Olive oil 

And as if that was not enough, he seems to have created the Aubergine fritter....

Grate the aubergine (note it does not grate in a food processor), add some corn flower and spices, add and egg then shape into balls and put in the fridge.  Then all you need to do is fry them!  They went down well at our neighbourhood BBQ.

Monday, August 8, 2011

a mans desire for chorizo

Inspired, somewhat, by Rick Steins trip to Spain, but more by the desperate need for pork based products, Peter turned to me at 6.30am on Saturday and said: 'fancy going shopping in Spain?'

How spontaneous. I love it.

Well, after we'd worked out that the reason it would take 4.5 hours to get to (the Sat Nav adds an hour as once you're over the boarder the rest of Europe is on a different time, durr) we headed off to Caceres.

We're told that many an ex-pat cross the border to stock up on food and drink, not because it's cheaper really, just because it's different and there is a lot more choice. As soon as you get over the boarder (now just a sign post saying Espana, the old boarder control and tourist office a relic of the past) (in the photo), you notice a change in the landscape. Gone are the lush hills and valleys of Portugal, and hello to the vast plains and burnt earth of Spain.

The boarder clearly follows the edge of the mountains, with Marvao the last bastion of Portugal, complete with a fortification set deep into the rock.

This region of Spain, Extremadura was dry....I know that that the rain is suppose to stay on the plains but at 30 degrees there was no rain today. So after a rousing verse and chorus of 'The Rain In Spain' I started to notice, there cannot have been rain here for ages, the ground is hard and unyielding, you start to feel sorry for the bulls resting under the cork oak and olive trees. The cork oak trees turn red, in embarrassment, where their bark has been stripped recently to dry out and make our wine corks. But at least the fields have animals in them, our region of Portugal has a distinct lack of farming animals. Like Londoners starved of the country side we pointed out sheep, cows and hurrah donkeys!

After just 3.5 hours driving, we arrive in Caceres, the World Heritage site, no less. Well a World Heritage site it may be, but parking is still a pain in the bum.

Heading straight for a butcher, Peter began the 'great pork purchase' with a cheeky chorizo or five. But adding that hour means that all the shops were about to close, ahh yes the
famous Spanish 4 hour lunch time when the whole of Spain closes. So, we did as the Spanish do - headed out for lunch.

You forget when you are in Portugal (or England for that matter), the Spanish eat differently to us, their restaurants are not sit down affairs (on the whole), but stand up tapas bars where you spend 20 mins just taking a drink and eating a tapas. Well, the beer was so cold (why can't the Portuguese get cold beers right?) served in chilled glasses (not sucked out of a bottle) that we stayed in the same place and ate some of the nicest jamon I've ever had.

We headed for the old town, where the towers from the Muslim period still stand. It was deserted...Of course it was only 3pm on an August in Spain - everyone was still at lunch! So we had the old town to ourselves more or less. Neater than Toledo, the city, set on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the plains is really impressive.

We've been told that recently the town has undergone a revamp with the main square being cleaned and repaired....well they did a good job. On top of the city looking over the plains you get a real sense of being in the middle of no where, in the middle of the plains with just land as far as the eye can see, with no other notable features on the landscape. Why put a town here in the first place - those medieval guys were crazy.

Tummy filled, heritage done, we headed for the modern equivalent of the church - the supermarket! The real point of the trip and a chance for Peter to wallow in the rows and rows of hams, cheeses and chorizos. He actually asked me to leave him alone for a while!!!

So, 124 euros down (yep we went a bit nuts) we headed home, back through the plains, across the boarder and into Portugal.

It is amazing what a mans desire for chorizo will do. 7 hours of driving for some tapas and a trip to a supermarket! But, for someone that's lived on an Island all their life (England and then Jersey) there is an element of making a trip across a boarder and driving into another country just because you can!