Tag Archive | figs

Preserving: the truth

 

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I find this time of year a tad depressing. The olives are swelling on the trees, ready for brining and salting, the plums have already been made into jam and the peppers are pickled. Well, in most people’s houses. I know it’s sour grapes and probably sour figs as well, but at this time of year, I’m faced squarely with my inadequacies in the preserving department. My Facebook news feed scrolls by with photos of delicious pickles and jams and burgeoning pantries filled with jars of lovely produce as people process their crops. I’m  not a Domestic Goddess. My pantry is full of grubby egg boxes, cleaning equipment and packets of dried foods from Lidls. Maya Angelou once said “Let me watch someone with a tangled pile of fairy lights and I’ll tell you want kind of person they are”  I’m the kind of person who jumps up and down in a flap when my hosepipe gets tangled, falls over it, breaks a few plants and stomps off to the house for a cup of tea leaving Señor Faztudo to sort it out. I’d love to have a pantry full of gorgeous preserves, all lined up, but my jam never sets, my jars are all different sizes and when I make pretty labels, the felt pen runs.

I’m not a complete failure however. I have learnt how to brine olives, preserve lemons and pickle peppers. But to be honest, anyone can stuff a lemon full of sea salt, change the salt water in a jar of olives ever day or boil some vinegar.

Even when I do succeed  in making a jar or pickles or some such, I live in fear of dying of some horrible toxin because I haven’t sterilised the jars properly. Botulism is my biggest worry and although it’s extremely rare, I never put garlic in with my olives, because of my fear of it. I think I’ve got a sort of cook’s hypochondria and lack confidence about the whole preserving game .

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Figs are all being dried around here at the moment, laid out on the top of cisternas or on the flat roof. I have tried to dry them in the sun a few times. The first year I left the out in the sun, I found them crawling with maggots from the flies that laid their eggs on them in two days. “Don’t worry about that,” said my Portuguese neighbour seeing my disgust, “just put them in the oven on a low heat for a long time  and all the little maggots will come out” I did and they did and the maggots  got fried, but that still put me off eating the dried figs a bit, although they were so delicious, I succumbed in the end.  Then I learned  about a  minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is symbiotic with the fig. The female wasp lay their eggs in an unripe fig and her offspring hatch and the females tunnel out to find another fig to lay their eggs where they deposit the pollen from the tree they were hatched in. Unfortunately,  the entrance to the fig is constructed  to destroy the wings of the female, so  she can never visit another plant and is entombed in the fig. So when  you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing those female fig wasps. A friend called this “The Ugh” and said she couldn’t think about it or she would never eat another fig. I’m inclined to agree.

Still, we benefit from all our friends’ offerings, the real Domestic Gods and Goddesses.  One of my friends makes the most delicious “English” marmalade. Funnily enough, although we live only a couple of hours from Seville here, the Portuguese don’t eat or make marmalade, even thought the word marmalade comes form the Portuguese “Marmelada” Marmelada is a sort thick quince jelly  you can slice, such as we serve up in the UK with cheese at posh restaurants. The Portuguese eat it a lot, as the fruit Marmelão or Quince grows very well in Portugal.

My  neighbour, Donna M, always supplies me with huge jars of newly picked and bashed green olives, bashed with a rock gently, to let the brine in and soften them more quickly. They are delicious and although I can’t eat too many because of the salt content, I enjoy them very much and look forward to the new harvest.

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We have a plentiful supply of wonderful sea salt here, from the salt pans at Olhão and Tavira, which have been producing salt since Roman times, so if I’m  feeling lazy, I just pack whatever I want to preserve in salt and then soak it out or use it later. My main success has been the preserved lemons, which just get better with age and make a great addition to tagines.

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One of the things I am trying to cast off in my retirement is the tyranny of “should do” and food processing at times is a tyranny to me. I put rather a lot of my last year’s preserves in the compost bin to my shame this year, having given away as much as I could, so this year I’m  going to eat what I have in the garden as I have it and only process when I get the “Domestic Goddess” urge which does happen occasionally. No,  I’m not going to give a fig, no matter how much it begs me to!

 

 

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Harvesting the trees: the fruits of the Algarve

“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”  Walt Whitman

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I was born in a Welsh valley, full of the most regal, powerful trees. It was my childhood playground. Those were the days of Famous Five and ginger beer drinking and we children often rose early, nabbing what we could get away with from the fridge  and escaping the house and our mother who invariably had some chore for us to do. Our roaming circle was as far as five miles and much of this time was spent making dens during the long summer holidays in the huge trees in the woods near our home. The most beautiful were the huge, dark barked beech trees, with their caterpillar  green, delicate leaves emerging in the Spring, diffusing the light and making patterns on the leafy floor and the great, gnarled sweet chestnuts, hundreds of years old and often hollow, a wonderful place to climb and make dens.

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So when I first came to the Algarve, I was a bit disappointed in the trees. In fact I couldn’t really see any. What there were seemed scrubby and blasted and there weren’t any forests, more large swathes of bushes with the odd straggly tree, which seemed to me to be struggling for survival.

Years later I realise how wrong I was! Trees are everything to the subsistence farmers here, their livelihood, their inheritance, their pride and joy. Disputes over inheritance of a tree or trees on a boundary fence can be fierce and occasionally violent. Once you get your eye in, there are useful and venerable trees everywhere.

The trees which are grown and farmed in the Algarve are Carob, Olive, Fig, and Almond with small trees such as  Pomegranate, Arbutus and Quince. Cork oak is grown for its bark. Kern Oak and Holm Oak prunings are used as fire wood. Eucalyptus and Pine is also grown, but are both controversial, as they are a fire risk and detrimental to more native species. Loquats and Walnuts also grow well where there is some water, but you won’t see them widely.

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The farming year is punctuated by the tending of the trees and the harvesting of the fruit. The pruning of almond trees starts in January, they are often cut back quite fiercely to the trunk so that fresh limbs sprout, bearing the almonds, which is encased in a green skin, which peels open in July to allow the almonds to be harvested. The women and older people harvest them whilst the men bang the branches with a big cane stick, which is both bendy and strong, known as a canna.  I used to wonder why the women were clothed in long sleeved garments, scarves on their heads and hats to harvest them, even though the sun was so hot, until I could speak enough Portuguese to understand that the trees are full of little mites which drop with the almonds and nibble the pickers, should they not be covered up. The almonds are dried in the sun in their shells and then are either taken to the one and only almond processing plant to be cracked, or else bshed open with a big stone, during the long summer evenings over a gossip with neighbours. These almonds are often ground into flour and made into the most luscious cakes, along with the figs which are also in plentiful supply. There are different kinds of almond, five varieties I am told, but the one you have to watch out for is the bitter almond, as uncooked it contains cyanide and can be deadly if too much is eaten. The blossom of the bitter almond is a much deeper pink than those of the sweet variety, so easy to spot amongst the beautiful Spring flowering blossom.

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The fig trees are very beautiful , their large hand like  leaves offering shade in the Summer. Figs were a common food source for the Romans, who probably brought them to the Algarve.  In Roman times the figs were used to fatten geese and in more recent times, the Algarvians fed the surplus food to their pigs, fattening them for a Christmas feast. The trees grow  happily in the red clay soil, especially in the river plains of the Algarve and although in winter, they lose their leaves, they tolerate even light frost and flourish with little care, except for occasional pruning. There are different types, early and late, but the green types are dried in the sun and used in all kinds of cakes and sweetmeats (doces)

Carobs are the trees which bring in the cash for subsistence farmers and as such are shown great respect. The carob harvest is a family affair, with pickers getting up very early to pick the blackened pods from the ground when they are shaken from the tree.  Travelling people come from both the North of Portugal and Southern Spain to pick from wild trees, as they have done for centuries. The carobs are processed at local plants, with the seeds being separated by the pods. The pods  are milled into carob flour, used in cooking and as a chocolate substitute whilst the seeds are used to make a thickening, used in the food industry.  The carob barns often attract rats, which is why the villagers often foster small colonies of semi feral cats, to keep the rat population under control. There are legends about the carob trees, which are very strange looking, especially when old and often have hollow trunks. In the area of Salir, the Mouras Encantadas, female enchanted spirits guard treasure troves hidden under the trees and bewitch hapless passers-by with their mournful songs.

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Last but not least, there us the arbutus or  medronho bush. This is a charming and almost completely drought resistant bush, which grows wild on the serra, with white flowers and strawberry like berries produced in the Autumn.  The berries are picked and fermented  in large vats, eventually being distilled over several nights of still-watching into medronho, a potent  local firewater. The berries are very slightly hallucinogenic, which makes for a rather spacey alcoholic drink, which may explain why many of the farmers around here seem so chilled as they go about their daily lives!