Archive | October 2016

Waiting for the rain with the one I love..

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Waiting for the rain on Faro beach!

Señor Faztudo and I are simply waiting for the rain. So is the garden, it’s desperate.The long hot Summer means everything is hanging on in there, exhausted by the blasted heat of a relentless sun. I can’t recall a hotter summer in 25 years of my acquaintance with the Algarve and I’m very glad my garden is in its fourth year and not its first!

Lately, there’s a cooler breeze and some cloudier days and we did actually have a couple of hours of rain, which staved off the watering for a few days, but only really tickled the surface of the parched ground. But Autumn is definitely on its way.

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The parched garden

At this time of year, we’re  busy cleaning everything up in the garden  for the expected Autumn rain, which can fall in torrents or even stair rods. I’ve  been building up a compost heap, interspersing weeds with newspapers, leaves and chicken bedding, laced with their manure. It doesn’t rot at all throughout the summer and you can’t really water it enough, but as soon as the rains fall, the process will be quite fast. I have piled in the middle of the “orchard to be” where it looks like a great big stork’s nest. As soon as it rots down sufficiently , I’ll spread it out over the ground and let the chickens feast on the insects and grubs whilst they dig it in.  I get huge satisfaction in this use of all the waste from my garden and the thick mulch of bark I put on top of the orchard has already created a good, dark looking soil up to a few inches on top of the red clay. The worms and chickens mix it in and then it becomes a manageable tilth.  I did a similar thing in the vegetable garden a few years ago and when I went to plant some cabbage plugs recently I was pleased with how friable the soil was and how quickly the plugs grew. Here’s a photo of the bed, it’s one of the few things I am using water on, so that I can get a head start and have cabbages before it gets too cold, something which has caught me out in previous years.

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Our work in the garden has been punctuated by the “tap tap” of sticks  knocking the branches on the carob trees and the cheerful voices of the pickers as they harvest the black pods as they fall. Carobs are an important cash crop to the subsistence farmers, although it’s a tiring job picking them in this heat, but families have been doing it for generations and the carob harvest holds  great importance in the  minds and hearts of people in the Algarve, many remembering camping out under the stars in their youth, having travelled too far with donkeys carrying the carobs in panniers to return in one day.  Husbands and wives pick together, friends help out neighbours and there is a race to gather all the pods before the rain falls and ruins them.  We have two or three sizeable carob trees on the periphery of my garden and we pick up the pods to give to a friend.

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The carob harvest, although this looks like  Italy, not Portugal!

 I’ve been doing my own bit of harvesting too, of the seeds of various plants in my garden, both to replant and share with my gardening friends at a communal  “seed exchange ” in November.  I’ve harvested the seeds of gaillardia, delphinium, aquilegia, clary sage, calendula,  tree mallow,  leek, garlic and shallots. I am particularly pleased with the delphiniums, since my collection started with one feral plant growing in my garden and this year I had some lovely plants. I tried growing them in various ways, cosseting them in a pot, growing them in a seed bed and just tossing the seeds around. The plants that grew best were the ones I threw on a pile of garden rubbish, leaves  and loose soil under a tree. They clearly loved this habitat and lack of care and grew five feet tall!  They like dappled shade and I will be throwing the seeds here again this year. The tree mallow seed pods were full of little bugs that looked rather suspiciously like ticks. I didn’t enjoy winnowing them, so I only ended up with a small pile as I was somewhat hampered by the nasty looking things scurrying over my hands. I don’t mind bugs too much, but my garden teems with all kinds of unusual things I haven’t got names for. In  the UK,  I had the measure of harmful bugs and plants, but here  I’m never quite sure whether they are going to bite, suck or poison my blood!

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There has been some talk recently about Facebook and it not being “real” and whether it’s good for our soul, mind, the Universe or Margate,  but I must say, I have had huge benefit from being able to make contact with and learn from both gardeners and chicken keepers in FB groups such as “Gardening in Portugal” or “The Funky Chicken PT club”  or “Horta em Portugal”

I  value the quiet pace of my life in Portugal, but in London I was part of a vibrant community of gardeners on the allotment. I get that same support here from FB groups and although I don’t get to meet people face to face too often, I love being able to check  “over the garden fence” on FB and ask for advice or share progress with other gardeners in Portugal. I am a little shy to talk in the Portuguese group yet, but it is wonderful to be able to see what  people who live here are growing  and my Portuguese is good enough to understand most of the comments. I learn a great deal this way. I try to help where I can with advice on my  own mistakes and trials and tribulations, but there are a body of people with huge knowledge of plants, both cultivated and wild, and it’s a privilege to have access to their freely given advice on all kinds of issues.The first Algarve seed and plant exchange is taking place soon and I’m looking forward to meeting some of the people in the FB groups for the first time.

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https://www.facebook.com/events/1207835675946587/

I’ve been reviewing projects for the coming year and we’ve  got a few lined up. One side of the garden above the chicken shed  is still looking very ropy and we are planning to build a sitting area and a rockery. There are some fruit trees growing there, a cherry, a pear and a fig and I’m hoping this will become a shady area to sit and contemplate the garden in the Summer months.

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One day I’ll be sitting on a terrace  under this fig tree, looking over a rockery!

I also need to do something where the backwash of the swimming pool comes out as it’s causing quite  a bit of erosion. Never having had a pool before, I didn’t realise that a ton of water cascades out, whenever you clean the filter. The water is useful and the chlorine doesn’t seem to cause a problem; in practice it’s probably not much worse than tap water, but I am thinking of making a sort of dry river bed with large stones, to slow the flow of the water down when it is released, which is about once a week.  I will plant conifers and succulents in between. Maybe…or maybe I’ll plant something else, my mind changes frequently!  But…and this is a big but, we need to get some stones, as unbelievably, on a hillside with millions of them, we have run out of stones of the right size. We are getting a bit old to carry such big stones, although we have done it in the past, so we are pondering where to get a supply.

Señor Faztudo has promised to build me a greenhouse for Christmas, but since I’ve nearly killed him in the garden already and his back is a bit dodgy, it might be a slow process.

As I have finished this post, the rain has started falling, so now we’re really in business!  I would be dancing naked around the garden in the rain if I didn’t live in full view of the rest of the village, and there weren’t so many snails to crunch underfoot!

Real chicken – how does it feel to kill, butcher and eat your own poultry?

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Please note: I am an omnivore. I respect people’s rights not to eat meat, but I do- and I want to be a responsible omnivore who celebrates healthy food, reared properly and killed with thoughtfulness. This article is about killing chickens and butchering them for meat and how I felt, doing it for the first time.  If that upsets you or offends you, please don’t read it. I am struggling with my own path on this and hope you will respect that.

It’s an inevitable fact of rearing chickens that sooner or later you will probably have to kill one. Whether it be sick, or whether it’s a cockerel you need to eat, the day will come when you’ll have to “do” for a bird. And it’s not something to be taken lightly, even if the gallows humour breaks through with the nervousness of taking a life of a warm blooded creature. I love my chickens with a passion and am soppy over them in a way I shouldn’t be.  They follow me round the garden whilst I’m weeding and digging, I watch them peeping out from under their mothers after a hatch. I rear them with all the love and tenderness  a menopausal woman has to spare. Killing them, plucking them and preparing them for dinner is the last thing I really want to do. However, being a chicken keeper or indeed, a chicken eater comes with its responsibilities and I intend to live up to them.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up for Julia’s chicken butchering workshop. Julia lives and works here in the Algarve and  is passionate about rearing healthy food for herself and her family. She  has come to terms with the fact that she’s  an omnivore and wants to be able to kill and prepare her own chickens. She understands the emotional difficulties we all face when we have to kill something, but she’s  committed to doing this in the best way possible and showing others how to do it too. None of the five of us who attended the course were happy with the prospect, but we all tuned up with the same intention, to make a commitment to the responsibilities we face as animal keepers and to do our best to kill them humanely and butcher them properly without waste. (Julia uses every part of the chicken)

It was an unusually grey day as we wended our way in convoy  up into the hills above Salir. The smell of pine and eucalyptus hung deliciously in the air and some of the cork trees had been newly stripped, giving them that wonderful red brown trunk. The dripping trees and the dark skies seemed to be in sympathy with the deed we were about to commit when we arrived at the farm where the course was to take place.

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Julia’s pumpkins, fed by chicken manure!

The course members had bought a chicken or even two that they wanted butchered. I didn’t bring one, as I couldn’t face killing either of my two beautiful bantam cockerels and am still looking for a home for them. I felt slightly hypocritical about this slight cop out, but every step you take along this path of admitting the truth about where meat comes from, needs to be taken at your own pace. Ironically, the yard was full of  chickens including a mother hen with eight babies, all hopping and  skipping about amongst the huge pumpkins Julia has grown this year. They looked like very happy chickens.

It was on the trunk of an old dead cork tree that Julia hung the “Killing cone” a sort of metal funnel used for managing the killing process with less stress to the chicken and ourselves.  The trunk was stained with a dark stream of old blood from previous killings and as we stood around with mugs of warm coffee against the damp, we confessed our nervousness to each other and our doubts about whether we would be able to wield the knife when the time came.

We all took the process very seriously, but the odd joke lightened the heaviness that “normal” people feel when they have to take a bird’s life.

The first cockerel up for butchering had a name, Jack. Jack had become very aggressive to humans and so it was time for him to meet his maker. The fact he had a name somehow made it worse. My father, who was a farmer in his youth, always told me you should never name your future food.   He was a big, strong bird, but when  Julia placed him gently upside down in the cone, he went completely still whilst she showed us where to make a cut on his neck, on the left side, feeling for the base of the skull and moving a little towards his feet,  to sever the jugular vein. He didn’t even wince as she made a deep cut and although it took longer than she expected for him to die,  it just looked like he was going to sleep. I expected there to be flapping, but this didn’t happen until he was completely dead. (This spattered us with blood, so I was glad I had an apron on, as I was holding his feet.)  I thought about how this has been the lot of unwanted cockerels from time immemorial, but how far removed we have come from this hot blood and mass of feathers when we buy our pre-wrapped, sanitised chicken from the supermarket.

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The plucked feathers

All too soon, it was my turn. I had to despatch a young, black cockerel that  Julia didn’t want to keep any more, a handsome bird. I looked him in the eye and thanked him for his life.  I looked brave, but my stomach was churning inside. Up to the moment when I made the cut, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But when the time came, with Julia’s support and a very sharp knife,  I was resolute and when my first cut wasn’t quite deep enough, I firmly and quickly made a second one. Then  I felt distressed and had to walk away to catch my breath and shed a little tear.  It isn’t easy killing any creature and nor should it be.

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As a group, we supported each other.  Some brought birds they’d  raised from chicks and swapped birds with others so they didn’t have to kill their own. One person decided she wasn’t ready yet, having never even held a chicken up to now but hoping to keep them in the future. But she worked to support her partner who was able to carry the process through.  After each bird had been killed, they were hung ready for plucking. If you pluck them immediately, then you don’t need to put them in hot water as they are still warm and so we plucked in a companionable way, chatting about our experience, relieved the birds were now dead and we could get on with the business or turning them into dinner.

Plucking wasn’t too difficult, and at this stage you should also remove the crop and the scent gland in the “parson’s nose” (chicken’s bum) and soon the ground was full of feathers, which Julia puts on the compost heap as they make great fertiliser.You just need to make sure you don’t pull out too many feathers at once and break the skin. We finished off by singeing off the last feathers with a blow torch.

A pleasurable break for lunch ensued, happily not chicken, but a delicious leek and potato soup with bread and local cheeses, whilst we got to know each other. It was interesting meeting other people who have made their home here in the Algarve and to learn about how they make their living, how they came to be keeping chickens and to swap their experiences of predators and chicken rearing, how to feed chickens organically and the different breeds they were interested in.

The next session we got down to the gritty business butchering the birds . We had to sever the windpipe at the neck  to pull it through with all the guts intact, literally with our hands inside the cavity of the chicken.   We were surprised at the bright colours of the viscera, the vivid maroon and yellow of the stomach, the emerald green of the bile sac (which you must not break at all costs as it makes the meat bitter) We collected all the bits good to eat, such as the heart, the liver  and even the cockerel’s testicles (which are huge and inside the bird) Julia says the head makes an excellent stock, although most of us were a bit doubtful and discarded  the head in the slops bucket, as though that would help us forget the deed.  I forgot to ask Julia what she does with the guts and discarded bits, but I expect she buries them somewhere under a fruit tree or adds them to the compost for fertiliser.

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Cutting off the legs-this is a breed of chicken with black meat.

Finally we cut off the feet and took off the nails and the chicken was dressed and ready to eat or freeze. When I put mine in the bag, it looked quite a lot like the chickens you buy in the shop, but what a journey we had come through to get to that!

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The chicken in the bag

I left feeling I’d  learned a great deal. I had killed a chicken effectively and more or less confidently. I had plucked it and butchered it, something I’ve never done before and I had shared what was almost a hunter and gatherer  experience with supportive and caring chicken keepers. I can’t say I was “happy” with the outcome, but I was certainly satisfied and went home bearing my chicken for our dinner, knowing exactly where it had spent its days and last hour and feeling I had taken full responsibility for the food I was about to eat.

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Dinner: Chicken, Lentils and Rice with clams