Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sweet things

What is it about nuns that they feel compelled to mix eggs and sugar and pastry together and invent sweet treats?  Convent sweets (Doçes Conventuais) are a big thing in Portugal, each region has its own specialties, but it is all versions of a theme.

 Mix egg yolks and sugar until a yellow paste forms and then shape, then that yellow paste is either encased in pastry or dough.

Convents and Monasteries  started to churn out sweet treats in the middle ages, when sugar was made available in Portugal through the Portuguese world-wide trade routes.  Eggs play a major part in the cake making process, as egg whites were used to starch clothes, nuns habits and alike.  Egg whites were also used to clarify home made wine and beer.

 What was left over was the egg yolk.  So what do you do with all that egg?  You simply add sugar. 

Nuns used their initiative and in the spirit of making money for the church started to sell sweets.  It has now become part of the Portuguese culture.  Coffee shops have a bewildering array of cakes on offer, there are the staples such as a Bolo de Berlim (a doughnut with the yellow stuff in the middle) the Pastel de Nata (a pastry case with a thicker bit of yellow stuff in the middle).  There are regional treats such as ovos moles (translates as soft eggs) available in Aveiro (it's yellow stuff in rice paper)....there are Tentugal pastries (it's the yellow stuff in filo pastry).......But there are lots without the yellow stuff, such as beer cakes or bean paste cakes. Whatever they are they are intensely sweet and give a great sugar rush.   Here is a lovely summary of sweet treats on offer in Portugal.

Each year a town close to us has a Doçes Conventuais exhibition, where local suppliers show off their sweet treats.   We took a visit this year and sampled some of the pastry and yellow stuff delight and experienced the sugar high.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Autumn's on its way

There is a slight chill at 8am when I walk the dog these mornings, that and the acorns falling, the blackberry is out and the wasps are starting to get drunk on the figs fermenting in the trees...It's Autumn on its way and my favorite season.

 This year there has been no veg patch work, a month away in the key month of June put stop to any ideas of growing our own vegetables this year.  The raspberry, white currant and black currant  all died off due to lack of watering, so this year there's been no making jams, juices or cocktails. 

There's a tree in a neighbour's patch which produces some of the best figs, I like them just as the bit of juice starts to leak from the underneath and the wasps are circling the tree.  It's then they are at their best I think.   So I scrumped some today to make fig preserve and fig roll. 

I've also started to harvest the walnuts from our tree.  It's a tedious job really (although not as bad as the chestnuts), this year I've decided to harvest them when they are immature.  Which means that I have to go and shake the tree every day and process the handful which fall off.   Even then about half of them have bugs or some strange growth in the kernel!   Yesterday I stained my fingers black tearing off the green husks and cracking about 100 nuts.  

Shamed by my friends on facebook putting up images of their hard work preserving fruits and vegetables, shamed by my complete laziness to get off my arse and actually make something.

So today I've made:

1) Fig rolls
2) Fig and ginger preserve
3) Pear and walnut preserve

Fig rolls

200 grams of flour (use a mix on white plain flour and wholemeal)
50 grams of dark sugar
65 grams of butter and
1 egg yolk
1 pinch of salt

Make up a dough by mixing all the dry in a bowl.  Then add the egg yolk to bind it together (you might need a bit of water too).  When it's come together put the dough in the fridge while you make your fig jam.
Most recipes I found online used dried figs, so they were a more solid jam.  I used about 20 fresh figs and added a good squeeze of golden syrup (although honey would do just as well).  I cooked the figs and syrup on a medium heat for about 25 mins or until the excess liquid had evaporated. I then took the magic wand (whizer thingy) and just blitzed the figs a bit.
Next, roll out your dough into a nice rectangle, then cut off the uneven sides.  Put a good dollop of your jam along the middle then fold over one side of the dough to meet the other.   Slice up and put in an oven on 200c for about 30 mins.   

Fig and Ginger Preserve

20 figs (sliced into fours)
1 tablespoon ground ginger
Good shake of all spice
60 grams dark sugar
2 tablespoons of balsamic vineger.

Put it all in a pan on a medium heat, heat for an hour until the excess liquid has evaporated.  Turn up the heat for 5 mins at the end, just so it starts to catch the bottom of the pan and becomes very sticky.  Put into a clean jar.

Pear and Walnut Preserve

8 pears
8 walnuts
40 grams of sugar
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
3 springs of thyme

Peal and chop the pears taking out the hard core and pips.  Crack your nuts.   Put it all in a pan on a medium heat and leave it to slowly cook down.  There is a lot of liquid in pears so this does take about 30 mins.  After 30 mins add the thyme and turn up the heat, keep an eye on it now, because it'll start to catch quickly.  Don't stir it, just leave it to become sticky and the liquid is thick looking.....don't let it burn on the bottom of the pan.    Spoon it into a clean jar.

So, once I got off my arse and did something I was well pleased.  The bounty here in Portugal is amazing, and with limes finally coming on our new lime trees I'll have to have a think about my take on a Key Lime Pie!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Art vs Craft

A recent day trip out to an artist in residence village in the mountains has got me thinking…when is art, actually art and when is it a craft?  I mean knitting is a craft, but I think of my friend Jackie creating intricate patterns, putting these on paper then making them up into garments, I think that there is a real ‘art’ to that.

So, I looked it up:



the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.


the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art;

an art collection.


noun, plural


an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill:

the craft of a mason.


skill; dexterity:

The silversmith worked with great craft.

 OK so an craft is an art, but related to a special skill….hmm I am still none the wiser really.  I should know, I work for an art gallery and museum, but sometimes what is deemed as art is not what I consider ‘beautiful and appealing’ as per the description above - so who decides?

What promoted this question was a visit to ‘Art Meets Nature’ an artist in residence village in the mountains close to us.  Cirdeira Village is where artists can go to get inspiration and develop their skills.   


Visitors walk around the village and go into the renovated stone buildings to tour the arts and crafts on display and to watch artists work. 


It’s a fascinating place to visit mixing art and crafts together, in one room an old man shaved reeds to make baskets (surely a craft) while a young man was working on engraving a piece of wood (art). 

They are fundraising to build a kiln on site at the moment, so please do go along to the village if you live in central Portugal and make a donation.


In our village, every month there is an art and craft fair, where local artists display and sell their work along-side craftspeople who sell home-made soaps or make items from vintage fabrics.


I am amazing by the amount of arty/crafty people in the world, maybe us ex-pats coming to live in rural Portugal are a breeding ground for developing our arty/crafty side, maybe we have more spare time than most, maybe it’s a certain sort of person that moves here who wants to develop their skills – I have no idea.  But amongst people I know, I’d say the vast majority dabble in art and crafts.   From Peter, who has made tables and chairs and takes amazing photographs, to Jackie who creates patterns and knits, to Quinta da Fonte & Quinta Do Herio that make home-made soaps  to Anka who paints bold and
strong images to Laurel who is a sculptor.

I still don’t know what the difference between art and craft is…..

But I am not sure it matters, just so long as people continue to create then that’s OK with me.

The next art show in Pera is in the afternoon of 9 August, so please come along to visit if you live in Portugal and take a look for yourself…may-be you can tell me the difference between art and craft!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Never judge a town by its ring road

I’d judged Caldas de Rainha from the ring road surrounding it.  We’d passed round the town many times before on our road trips.  From the ring road, Caldas seems like a town in need of some love, large supermarkets of every brand, petrol forecourts, modern apartment blocks abandoned and large areas of wispy grass gone yellow in the sun.   

One day we took a detour from the ring road and into the centre of what is a charming town. 
The town (city in fact) was founded in the 15c by Queen Leonor because it has naturally forming hot springs.  Around these springs a hospital was built, where patients are still sent by their doctors to take in the natural healing properties of this water.  Back in the 15c the queen believed in the healing properties of this stinky egg smelling water so much that she sold her jewels to pay for the hospital.

Like so many Portuguese towns, the historic centre is in need of a bit more love.  The 1920s municipal buildings in the city park and next to the hospital are derelict and filled with pigeons.   

 But they are trying, the area where the fruit market stands has obviously had some funds thrown in to make it a vibrant and useful space.  The new fish market with its high ceilings has just opened following a delayed and over budget build!  

The surrounding streets are full of shops and cafes, giving the whole centre a vibrancy you normally only find in larger towns.   It’s a place where locals, tourists and the new ex-pat community gather to do their shopping and take a coffee.

The daily fruit and veg market would keep me coming back to the town.  It’s full of local produce, friendly stall holders and great prices.   

Surrounded on all sides by cafes and hardware shops, you can wander up and down four isles of seasonal vegetables and sweet smelling fruits.   

June must be the best time to go, with all the local peaches, plums and cherries on display.  In the sunshine with the defused light by the different coloured awnings, I cannot think of a better market.   

A walk around the edge of the market brings forward a couple of vehicles selling local chorizo, fresh cheese and locally made totally fresh bread.   

The Cafe Central by the side of the market was a hotbed for revolutionaries during the Salazar years, and it retains a real 30s feel – you might pay a bit more for you coffee and torrada (toast) but it seems worth it.

Caldas is also home to Bordalo Pinheiro a ceramics manufacturer famous the world over for their crockery based on fruit and vegetables.  I have long been a fan of the cabbage lead plate and bowl.   

The town is full of ceramic shops, using this design.  But for the real thing head for the Bordalo Pinheiro store on the outside of the city park.  Head upstairs for the seconds and bag yourself a bargain.

 The city park is lovely, with open spaces and tree boulevards.   

A museum dedicated to Malhoa (a famous Portuguese artist, who ended up living close to our home of Castinheira de Pera) has some lovely animal sculptures in the courtyard.  The lake still has 1930s looking boat house where you can hire a boat to take a turn about the lake.  

So, I’ll try not to judge a town by its ring road again!  I like it here.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

What you've made there is bread

The words of Mr Paul Hollywood ring in my ears as I write this post, as he said to a Great British Bake Off Contestant in 'Bagel Week' - 'what you've made there is bread'.

In the second edition of the Great Portuguese Bake Off, my friend and I decided to have a go at Bagels.   We took a recipe from Dan Lepard,  but I do have to say Mr Lepard is a little short on the descriptions of how and what your dough should look like to make it a good recipe.

So, half blind from the lack of descriptive text we started the test.  Old school vs New school.  I used traditional strong white flour, slow acting yeast and a lot of hand kneading and my friend used, ready to bake bread mix and a Kenwood and substituted the tablespoon of vinegar for bicarb of soda.


It started well, things often do.   Our dough looked similar.  Nice and firm although my friends was a bit sticky following the Kenwood.   We left them to rise.  Mine doubled in size in an hour or so, but my friends were a little sorry for themselves so they got put in the sun to help them along.

It came to the boiling of the bagel dough.  It turns out, this is quite important, as it stops your bagel becoming bread by stopping any rising in the oven,  Mr Lepard does not explain that, instead he says to boil your bagel for 30 to 60 seconds....which is quite a big difference in dough world. 

I was thrilled, mine looked shiny, risen and started to fluff up in the oven as they went golden brown.


 My friend had a different experience, following the sunshine the dough had risen well, but as soon as you stick a finger in to make the bagel hole the dough seemed to shrink.  Boiling them gave them too much brown colour (from the sugar in the boiling water) and in the oven the outside cooked too quickly making them very brown and underdone inside.

Despite the lovely looking display, the bagels were not quite bagels.  Mine had not been boiled long or hard enough so rose in the oven making a bread like bagel, nice but without the chew needed for bagels.  My friend's bagels went brown on the inside (white flour was used), they had a stronger malty quality and had almost 'shrunk' in the oven.

The shrinking was the over proving in the sunshine, the brown insides is anyone's guess....we don't know what caused this at all - the bread mix/the bicarb or the second  hand boiling water boiling to hard to give too much colour throughout.....I have not been able to find a reason for this online.

I suppose it does not really matter, sitting outside in the afternoon sun with a bagel smothered in cream cheese and a chilled glass or two (or five) of white wine, it seemed less important to have a perfect bagel but more important to have a good friend and a fun day of bake off!

Next time - Eclairs!!

Watch the GBB bagel episode here.

Mr Lepard has updated his recipe from his book and a new version is online http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2007/sep/15/recipes.foodanddrink1

Friday, May 1, 2015

The long wiat

Waiting for a doctor in Portugal is a bit of a pain.  Whether it's a scan, a check up, an examination or something else, the Portuguese wait for hours.

I'm not saying that the health service is bad in Portugal as the health care you receive as a foreigner here is excellent.  It's the 'service' element that needs some attention.

Portugal's health service has a real problem, especially in our central location.  A very aging population combined with a serious amount of chronic diseases, cuts in funding, doctors moving overseas to earn more money, all go to add up to a system which from the outside view is in crisis. 

As an EU Citizen living in Portugal, you are entitled, automatically, to the same care a Portuguese person would get.  This includes a family doctor, emergency service and hospital care should the worst happen.  

However, a visit to the doctor means at least a 3 hour wait in my experience and a visit to a health care service as an outpatient in the hospital is a whole lesson in patience.    

Our health service runs a 'triage' clinic for people who don't have an appointment booked (an appointment is booked 3 weeks in advance).   You turn up a the health center before 9am to find a waiting room already full of old people.   You have to find the nurse, she asks what's wrong, takes your blood pressure and weighs you, then tells you to sit down.   You wait.

You wait.

Finally the receptionist, whose job it is to hate people and computers, comes and tells you to pay.  This means you're in, you pay your five Euro and you sit back down.   If the receptionist is feeling friendly or you ask with the nicest smile you have in your repertoire then you can find out 'roughly' what time you'll get seen.  
You go for a coffee

You come back

You wait

You wait

Then you get in.  

The doctors are always nice, they don't rush you.  They give you a bit of a Portuguese lesson and thank god, often they speak perfect English.   You never know how awful it is to try to describe pain in another language. 

It's much the same when you have an appointment at a clinic.  You turn up on time, but this time is just a 'rough guide' often 50 people have the same appointment time as you.   At a clinic you need to watch for the 'ticket system'  some waiting rooms operate on a 'take a ticket and wait your turn' system, some don't.  Failure to notice the hidden ticket machine can lead to a very long wait indeed.  Other clinics just make you queue. 

Queuing is something the Portuguese and the English have in common - we do good queuing! 

The moral of this story is to take a good book - You're going to be waiting a long time!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

If you go down to the woods today

There’s a few things happening down in the woods at the moment.   Firstly spring has arrived and with that the procession of the killer caterpillars.   These processionary pine caterpillars live high up in nests on the pine trees.  The first spring we had in Portugal we were overrun by thousands of these, in recent years I have seen less and less as the weather has not been quite right for them (too much rain I expect), but this year we’ve had an increase.    

These little hairy things are trouble, their hair is very irritating and produces a severe allergic reaction.   So severe that it can kill dogs and cats and send humans into anaphylactic shock.  

 I have been told a way to treat a dog who has licked or trodden on one of these pests is to give the animal orange juice.  All very well but for anyone who has tried to get a tablet down a dog I think they know making a dog drink orange juice is nigh on impossible. 

Brighter, but as much of a problem as the killer caterpillars, is the Mimosa has started to flower.  This creates a wonderful yellow throughout the forest, vibrant, colourful and it tells us that spring is on its way.   

 But it is becoming a big problem…..having been introduced to Portugal (via Australia) as an ornamental plant, it has literally taken root and is now a real problem to the natural forests and woods in Portugal.   The tree produces seed pods which seem to grow in any condition and the tree has adapted so well to conditions here large areas of national forest are being ruined by this invasive species.   The tree grows in clumps, creating impenetrable areas in the forest.  Making song birds leave the area, making it impossible for deer and boar to pass and creating a major problem for the Portuguese Government who really need to act on the issue before large areas of natural forest are lost to mimosa for good.     

Mimosa clumping and nothing else grows

 Here in Central Portugal our natural forest of cork oak and chestnut are already threatened by the over planting of the paper producing eucalyptus (another Australian tree which does very well here).   On the Silver Coast of Portugal the problem is even greater with the National Forest being taken over by the mimosa.   

A more natural habitat

The final thing which surprised us in the woods recently was a great big digger coming towards us down the path.   I asked the Portuguese driver what he was doing, and in perfect English with a very strong Yorkshire accent (four years working in Yorkshire) he tells me that 41 pylons are going up in the forest to transfer the electricity from the wind machines.   

Looking up the mountain from the other side of town you can see the great scars across the landscape as trees have been cleared to make way for the trucks to dig the foundations for the pylons.  The trucks have made a huge mess on the local paths; tree roots have been dug up and dumped so walking across some of these areas is impossible.    It’s a real shame that the beautiful natural landscape is being treated so unsympathetically, but we all want to use the power generated by the wind farms so complaining won’t do any good. 

It seems that this spring if I go down to the woods I will always be sure of a surprise.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Peter has a new toy.   A video camera.  He wants to share the stunning landscapes and way of life here in Central Portugal through video.    He seems to be pretty good at taking some lovely images, but there is a lot to choose from round here.

This video shows the amazing landscape right outside our back door.  The clouds going by at a speedy pace (only one sequence was sped up)...

We've had so much rain recently, we must have had about three day's worth of rain in a few hours.  While that has caused problems for the river beaches, with car parks being washed out and whole trees making their way down the river to the river beach, it has made for some lovely tranquil water images complete with some plinky plonky music.

Finally, more water.   We took the dog for a walk up to the mountain top the other day.  I walked on my own as Peter was off filming waterfall footage and the dog ended up wanting to chase goats.   Not quite what I had imagined would be an relaxing walk with the dog....but nothing is ever really what you expect I suppose.   

I won't post the video here, instead take a look at Peter's You Tube channel.  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSeBPweNXlve9vBx9pgBTvw

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Comfort Food

Having seen Julie and Julia over Christmas we were almost inspired to devote this blog to working through the Piri Piri Starfish book by Tessa Kiros.  One of the best Portuguese cookery books available.

Instead I thought I'd pick one of my favorite Portuguese dishes and do a little research,  and by research I mean eating it in lots of places so I can tell you where to buy the best version!

Migas is a Portuguese side dish, made with cabbage, fried bread and black eye beans.   It's a simple dish but with the right amount of garlic, salt and pepper it is delicious. 

Often made with cabbage shredded very finely by the old ladies in the market (the same cabbage in another favorite - Caldo Verde Soup).   

It is fried in the pan with the seasoning and garlic then pre-cooked black eye beans are added along with cubes of fried bread (often corn bread).

The other way to make this, and something you find in a lot of traditional restaurants is to cut the cabbage in larger chunks and boil in stock for much longer than we would ever do in the UK.  Then add to the beans and fried bread. 

Both ways are delicious and I with all that cabbage surely it's almost a super-food?!

Having done some extensive research my favorite migas comes from O'Gill a restaurant in our nearest town.  It's crisp, garlicy and very tasty.  Last time I ate two helpings of it!

That's Migas from central Portugal, but just a few hundred kilometers away in the Alentejo region, migas means something else altogether.  A much heartier dish, fried together almost like bubble and squeak.  

Take a look at this lovely blog about Portuguese food for the recipe.  

I prefer the central Portugal version, and I will keep on the search for the perfect migas...it's a tough job but someone has to do it.