How do you choose your olive oil?

During the June visit, my Dad and I did something touristy and went to visit an olive oil farm in Moncarapacho, called Monterosa. The tour group was shown around by one of the family and was of course  fascinating.

Olives have been cultivated for a long time – evidence of pressing olives has been found  in Mesopotamia and dated to 6000 years ago. The Romans developed and spread the cultivation across Mediterranean Europe and it continued from there with  different strains bred to produce different fruit.

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Monterosa is a very old farm. This columned avenue, on the edge of the farmyard, is part of an Arabic irrigation system. The Arabs were in Portugal for a couple of hundred years after the Romans left about 800AD.

Montarosa is a small-scale family farm growing olives for a high quality extra-virgin oil market. To achieve this,  they use a holistic management strategy that prevents any synthetic spraying and reuses any waste products, so for example the waste pulp is composted for fertiliser and the prunings are chipped down for mulch. All extra virgin olive oils have to be free from any defects and have low acidity (0.1 to 0.5) so a sample from each batch has to be officially tested and approved.

The level of care going into production is extraordinary. The olives are hand-picked off the trees by a team of 30 people over a couple of weeks, but only enough at a time that can be pressed the same day. They are picked over to remove any damaged fruit or leaves and then start the cold-pressing process.  This involves washing, crushing and spinning the pulp gently so that centrifugal force separates the oil from the water and solids. The temperature of the olives is carefully controlled using icy water (no more than 28 degrees) throughout the whole process. Hence cold-pressed.

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Modern day technology used to undertake an ancient process

After the tour we sat down for the oil tasting: sniffing and sucking through the teeth. Sea salt in between samples to clean the palate. The smell (fresh mown grass?) and the flavour (tropical fruits, peppery kick? Mild or strong?)

And so when faced with a row of different olive oils, how do you choose?

  • Choose Extra-virgin: best for salads. Not as important for cooking, although the different oils can impart a different flavour to food.
  • Choose one in a dark bottle. The light causes it to oxidise.
  • And choose one that has a country of origin. If it says EU, then it will have been bottled in the EU but might contain oil from anywhere in the world.

What is the next big thing in the olive oil industry?

Well, olive oil is already known to be beneficial to health and high in anti-oxidants but now scientists are creating an concentrated oil that acts like a medicine: one spoonful a day.

 

 

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Cryptic camouflage!

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Can you see what is in this pile of dead grass?

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Preying mantis. I’d picked up this pile of grass to move it and didn’t seen the mantis till I put it down again.

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Can you see it?

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A wall brown hiding among the stones. It was flying near me along the track and I saw it land but just had to point and shoot because it was too camouflaged for my eyes!

Warmer in Wales!

First week in June and it was warmer in Wales according to the pilot. Not that I begrudge Wales because cloudy skies like an English summer are a pleasant bonus while in the Algarve. It was mid 30s when I was there in June last year, so 15 degrees lower this week.

In people’s gardens there were apricots and peaches to pick and poppies, wild carrot, chicory and honeysuckle were in flower on banks. The three trees we put in at Christmas (quince, apricot and persimmon) and the small pomegranates we put in previously all looked well (they were not in leaf on our last visit). Lizards and geckos scuttled about, southern gatekeepers and wall browns were patrolling, and the golden oriole was very vocal. Wildlife highlight was a spotted fritillary that I saw while out for a walk up a nearby valley.

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Spotted fritillary

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Lovely meadow where fritillary was seen

Our land had had its summer disc-cultivation which turns the soil to a brown lifeless powder. I hate the fact that all the vegetation and its wildlife goes, but we continue the practice because the dried-out stalks would be a fire hazard for our house and the neighbours. They tend to cultivate their land in March or early April when the vegetation is green and puts some humus into the soil and it also gets some of the later rains penetrating. But what about all the butterflies, bees and moths in their main season?

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Our new apricot amidst the cultivated land

I hate the thought of visiting at prime flower season and only having bare soil. I have also asked them to do ours in late May because I want the flowers to set seed but I’m not entirely sure it’s the best practice: they too have diverse flowery fields in spring and I have a feeling our tall oat grasses are denser than they were before. Ideally I think we should strim it early to reduce its dominance but we don’t have the kit. The clay soil gets incredibly compacted where it hasn’t been cultivated, which may well then increase the overland flow of water when it does rain.

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My developing garden flowerbeds on the west wall, only remaining vegetation

By laying out posts and stones I have created some zones on slopes that I don’t want  cultivated. This year the tractor driver managed to avoid two of the defined areas (last year he ignored all but the posts which he thought were new trees) but he still struggled under an olive branch to do a slope by the stream which I thought was clearly marked to be avoided. He is far too efficient for my liking at getting right into corners and edges. The old man next door uses fixed tine harrows which I think would be more forgiving than discs, but my neighbour arranges it for me and my Portuguese isn’t good enough to ask the old man.

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The slope that wasn’t cultivated looked a picture with a thin covering of thistle plants  and was buzzing with life, but the clay soil was capped solid, so it will be interesting to see how it develops. I have planted some tiny native medronho (strawberry) trees on there and hope that some perennial native vegetation will develop. I would love it to look like the meadow with the spotted fritillary!

Wildlife in April

It’s so fantastic to walk out from the hovel and see so much wildlife. The flowers in particular are amazing in April and the hillsides are peppered with white gum cistus flowers. There were a few butterflies zipping about in the heat:  mainly Spanish Festoons, whites, Cleopatras and the odd clouded yellow, small copper and blue. Tricky identifying them when they fly so fast. At home I saw several lizards basking on my flowerbed rocks and the odd gecko hiding under tiles and blocks. No snakes for several visits now. The walling crew dug out the dangerous black-striped yellow-legged centipede Scolopendra cingulata, rearing and weaving about to protect itself. All 13cm or so of it. Pete had been warned about this species (this was our fourth) so it was good to actually see one!

 

 

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Spanish festoon, at dusk

Restoring the bread oven…and more

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Bread oven with its temporary roof

Project 2: continuing the restoration of the outdoor bread oven. Inside the dome, a few bricks had sunk down on the way to collapsing, and it was recommended that we jack up the dome to reposition the bricks and re-seal it with lime mortar. Last autumn we left it with a cement sheet roof on, having been excavated of soil down to the dome. The rose and vine had really appreciated the extra water off the roof and looked verdant!

 

With the bricks secure, the project was left with the mortar exposed to dry out and the cement sheets put back on. Next part will involve buying something light like vermiculite to put over the dome and then re-roofing with soil and roman tiles.

And since that job was also ticked off, and there was mortar to spare, Rob and Pete moved onto a repair on the well wall. A hollow block covered in cement had come loose and a crack was growing so a solution was found using old bricks reclaimed from a demolition job. Three jobs ticked off in a week. What’s left to do next year? (Joke)

Restoring a retaining wall

Project one for the regular April work party of Rob and Pete. Rob had prepared the wall by removing the old stone, most of which had collapsed in front, before Pete arrived. By the afternoon he had his boots on and they started. Four days later (with a walk to Santa Caterina in between) it was finished and just needing the Daisy touch on the new flowerbed, using some of the poor flowers that had been growing out of the rubble.

Project one: tick.

Fire prevention tree clearance

Following the tragic fires of 2017, stronger measures have been put in place to encourage landowners to clear their land or else face fines. I think generally there was an ‘amanha’ feel to this edict, until the tax office started sending out emails warning people that they would be paying fines through the taxation regime. The deadline for the work to be done was March 15th but it was only a month or so before the deadline that pressure was applied: advisory visits made by the local police and information appearing in the English language press. Not that our Portuguese neighbours were worried.

Among the ex-pat community there was panic; the guidelines were not entirely clear (or did we not want to really believe them?) but essentially there should be no tree or big bush within 5m of a house and the surrounding 50m should be managed to keep all vegetation under 50cm in height. Trees should be pruned of their lower branches to 4m in height and tree canopies should be 4m apart. All quite sensible, but when it comes to gardens, in a country that cultivates shade, quite devastating.

My Dad (not being on email) heard rumours so wisely or not, invited the GNR up to give him advice on his garden. It didn’t seem too arduous: clear out boundaries of scrub, cut away anything overhanging structures, remove all the climbing creepers from the hedge. He made a start but I realised on the phone that he was already in agony with his back (he is nearly 81) and I also recognised that some of my trees would need treatment too, sooner rather than later if I wasn’t to get fined. So Rob and I flew out on an emergency mission.

Weather was fairly wet (at last) and windy (not so good for ladders), rather like April showers. But work got underway and then we realised the mammoth task we’d taken on. The decorative vines climbing through the wild olive  hedge had created a dead wood centre, like a massive 5 ft weaver bird nest, unseen from the green curtains outside. And yes, a massive fire hazard up in the air. So sadly, it all had to come down.

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Having made a good start on my Dad’s garden, we moved onto our land. We had to start by clearing a wild olive that had fallen onto the house: one of its roots had been cut when the water pipe went in and the wind had blown it down, though it still had an arm-size root running along the top of the wall.

Ignoring the nespereira (loquat) at the front, we then cleared some scrub  from amongst the figs and olives near the house and moved round the back to address the massive holm oak which towers over the back ruins. Luckily I’d read that holm oaks, like cork oaks, are protected, so I’m trusting that we don’t have to remove it completely. What we did do, balanced precariously on a ladder overhanging the void, was to prune off the lower branches. And while there is still a bit of overhang high up, I think we did a fine job!

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The deadline having passed, word on the street (English language online press) is that a warning period is now in place and fines won’t be enacted until after 31st May if work hasn’t been done. Will our nespereira survive the rules?

Still parched

Another trip in Mid February with my friend Mel, staying with my Dad for a more civilised experience! Weather just perfect: 18-22 degrees, blue skies, warm Mediterranean light, and dry. Too dry though, the vegetation was still parched and the Algarve is still suffering drought conditions. Bermuda buttercup, normally a carpet of lush green and yellow flowers at this time of year, was shrivelled and thin. Nothing had grown back where the digger had driven at Christmas when he was installing the fossa.

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The scar of the septic tank put in 6 weeks previously

What was evident was the power of shade. Where the ground was in the shadow of the carobs (and not just immediately underneath), the buttercup was so much more lush. But it’s a catch 22 situation: we need water and shade to grow the trees to provide the shade. Our land must be particularly dry because even the figs planted before we bought the property haven’t done well. It might be something to do with the reach of the carob and olive roots – the arm-size root that was broken when the fossa went in was some 10m from the trunk.

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Cultivation – quince sapling, favas round the oranges and a pea support construction!

On the shaded lower terrace next to the still-dry stream-bed (what are those poor male midwife toads doing about the eggs they have carrying since November?), the favas were in flower but actually pulling towards the light. Excitingly the peas I planted at Christmas were up and healthy. The old orange trees one terrace up looked painfully yellow and the favas planted around them had been hit by blackfly. Two of the young trees we planted at Christmas (quince and apricot) looked alive but one (sharon) which hadn’t looked well at planting, didn’t look good. My little lemon tree still had tiny lemons on and perked up after a few days of watering. The garden lavenders were all looking vibrant and the rosemary was in flower and buzzing.

Narcissus (multi-headed native)

Down on the bank of the terraces, away from the cutting action of the tractor discs, some gorgeous narcissi were flowering. I remember being so pleased to see one the first time we visited but haven’t seen them since. Whether this was to do with timing or the thinning of the neighbour’s olives down there, I don’t know. The lesser spotted woodpecker was drumming on the telegraph pole and a few butterflies flitted about: whites, Spanish Festoons, small copper, and Cleopatras.

We had a lovely week of painting and odd jobs. Magic salads for lunch. Lots of red wine and eating out. A trip to Tavira with some gift shopping (there are now some lovely gift shops there) though we got caught twice queuing as 800 mountain bikers went past in their race! The storks, newly back on their nests and clacking in appreciation of each other, provided some diversion.

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Storks on nests near Tavira

 

Wildlife at the end of December

Having had one of the hottest and driest summers on record followed by a dry autumn, I was struck by how parched the Algarvian land looked as we drove back from the airport. Even the canas (river reed) was yellow and the water courses were all still dry. Although all our rainwater buckets were full, there was no lush growth of Bermuda buttercup in the fields and plenty of brown, vulnerable soils on slopes that had been cleared. It did mean however that unlike last year, I didn’t need to search out the favas (broad beans) from amongst the weed: in fact they were well ahead and doubled in size while I was there.

In the garden, the prostrate rosemary was in flower and the lavenders just beginning to put up flower shoots. The little lemon tree planted last December looked remarkably healthy and even had a few tiny lemons developing. The old rose looked sad and thin, having lost its root system from under the house with the underpinning: two years ago when my sister was out for Christmas, it was gloriously in flower. But while I was weeding around the roses a chameleon climbed out of the undergrowth!

Obviously this was the wildlife highlight of the holiday (I’ve only ever seen one before, years ago on the coast), they are a north African species introduced into Vila Real on the far eastern Algarve and now clearly dispersed some way inland. It walked very methodically up the wall and then perched on a branch keeping an eye on us as we pranced around excitedly with the camera!

It felt and sounded quite springlike in the low sunshine. The nespara trees were in flower and buzzing with bees. A pair of blackcaps were feeding on flying insects, great tits singing,  jays feeding on left-over olives and gangs of azure-winged magpies passing through calling. The soil heap attracted a  white wagtail, while lesser and greater woodpeckers were drumming and a green woodpecker was yaffling in the distance. We also heard a little owl and tawny owl (the latter is less common here)  and on a nearby walk we saw what I think was a hen harrier with its white rump. I spotted a fresh brimstone feeding on flower nectar and then dancing with a small white butterfly which was ferociously defending its territory. I also found a baby skink when I was digging a planting hole – and at night there was the occasional peep from a lonely midwife toad by the neighbours water tank.

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Lesser spotted woodpecker

Heart of a hovel

The house was a steady 10 degrees with a Mediterranean winter sun temperature of about 16 degrees. A bit chilly and in need of a working woodburner. So before Rob arrived, my Dad and I went to the builders merchants to buy the pipe for the stove in preparation for a quick fit.

Unfortunately – and typically – not so quick. Although we spent a good half hour with the helpful English-speaking salesman and even came out with what we thought we needed, it didn’t quite fit. The main problem was that back in October, Rob and I apparently bought a non-standard sized stove, the last one on the shelf. The flue pipe seemed to be 120mm, but actually it was 125mm and different to any other stove fittings in the shop. Also the pipe going into the wall, put in by the builders when they created a chimney, was 180mm and therefore it required several reducer parts to join it all together.

So once Rob arrived, we took all the parts back and started again. This involved going to look for 125mm parts in two other builders merchants (no joy) and then back to the original shop and home, armed with a collection of tubes, bends and tools that could be made to fit by a man good with metal. And joy of joys, with the judicious use of stove rope and jubilee clips, a contraption was constructed in time for Christmas and smoke rose out of the chimney!

 

All we need now is a sofa! And speaking of our collection of furniture kindly donated or re-purposed from the tip, we were given a traditional old bed (painted) which we put up in the downstairs bedroom so we could try sleeping in a new space. And we lived happily all holiday in the three rooms of the old house (plus the compost toilet) with our woodburner pumping out a very comfortable 18 degrees just on sticks.