Algarve Spring’s Gentle Unfolding

Unlike Algarveans, we Canadians don’t have a lot of experience of true Spring! We know all about snow and cold one week that changes to warm summer temperatures just a couple of weeks later. We aren’t accustomed to landscapes that lie unfrozen, yet fallow, for several months and then which slowly, ever so slowly, begin to come alive again. For us Canucks, ground is either frozen or is bursting with life. There isn’t a whole in between those two states!

I realized as January unfolded into February that the land wasn’t really changing all that much, although almond trees brightened the countryside and magnificent storks began to take up residence on chimneys, church steeples and the many platforms erected for them. But as the sun got stronger, the nights grew warmer and the days lengthened the land began to soften and to change. Wildflowers started to brighten the roadsides with pinks and yellows. Farmers began to till the land and plant seeds. Field started to sprout recycled 5L water bottles, upturned to make effective little greenhouses for tender vegetable seedlings.

And then one day as I drove slowly down a back road near Silves, windows down to appreciate the lively birdsong and soft breezes I was hit by the sweet, pungent aroma of orange blossoms. How heady is that scent; so indicative that spring has fully arrived, finally. Almond blossoms spent, small trees lining roadways were now sporting fuzzy, soft green fruit that would turn into almonds. I hadn’t really realized before this spring that when the Portuguese talk about ‘dried fruit’ they really are referring to nuts produced on fruit trees.

Next I became aware of tiny little figs beginning to develop, almost before leaves were fully opened. Patches of gorgeous Easter lilies adorned entrances of farmhouses, as did daisies, jasmine, and irises. And finally wild herbs began to bloom: sage that had run wild, thyme, lavender and wild fennel all began to add their fragrance and bright colours to the countryside.

Before I finally left for home near the end of April, I realized that this was the first time in my life that I’d been somewhere to experience a proper Spring. It was delightful to be present to this unfolding of life. You could almost feel the earth begin to uncurl, to rub winter’s sleep from its eyes, take a cautious look around and finally to sigh with renewed vigour before finally sitting up and announcing that a new year was fully underway. I can’t wait to have that experience again!

Hiking Rocha da Pena

The walking path is clear even through rocky terrain

The Rocha da Pena is a fine outcropping of rock outside the village of Pena in the Algarve, perfect for the serious hiker and some serious hiking.  The smaller settlement of Rocha lies at the foot of the rock, and is the recommended starting point of the trail.  The trail is a circular one of about 7 kms.  It climbs up one side of the hill, takes you across the top and then down the far side to Penina (“little” Pena), before bringing you on the road back to Rocha.  I thought I’d walk for about an hour or so and see what progress I was making, and if slim, retrace my route.  But I had all morning ahead of me.

So off I set.  Unless you are pretty fit, this is an exhausting climb!  It’s 2 kms to the top and it took me about an hour.  But I didn’t get to where I thought I was going!  I had reached instead the North Belvedere.  The view was spectacular, across the valleys and hills to the north.  But over the edge was the unmistakable “X” indicating “not this way.”

Route markings are clear but can be missed if you're looking down!

The signage in general is pretty good, but not always.  I retraced my path looking for the turning I had missed.  I found it, but not before seriously considering forgetting the rest of the trip.  The path almost doubles back on itself, and you have to look around the clearing at the top of the main climb to find it.

The views are stunning & the cliff drops can be dangerous

But once found, you are on a wonderful path across the top of the Rocha.  Far from easy to follow for the first part, though it is comforting to see the markers.  You spend a lot of time watching your feet to avoid the many embedded rocks and stones.  The path is narrow and winding through scrub, with some small climbs and drops, but then you emerge on the top of the cliff, looking out south over the parking lot where you have left your car, and beyond to the Atlantic.  To your right you will see the Iron age defensive stone wall, and in front, across the saddle you will clearly see the wider path you will shortly be following.  Kind of neat.  You have struggled and probably sweated to get here, and there’s the clear path ahead.  Not a soul around (nor another human being) and you are on top of the world!

One still has to watch one’s feet, but there is little doubt which way to go.  It took another hour or so following my feet, including a side trip to the very top, to return down to Penina.  The way I went, anti-clockwise, is probably the best way to go, since the down slope is steeper than the way up: going down is always easier than going up!

The village of Penina from Rocha de Pena

It took me about 3 hours to complete the circuit, at a leisurely pace.  There is a lot to look at as you climb if you are interested in flora, fauna and rocks.  The more you look the longer it will take you.  I didn’t see much: watching one’s feet means that all you see is the ground.

Ahh, but the pleasure of a cappuccino in the cafe in Rocha when you get there.  But if you want to discuss the weather or politics with the cafe owner, your Portuguese had better be pretty good, since the owner speaks no English!

This guest post was provided by Colin Griffiths, a fellow Canadian. Colin is a Brit, living in Ontario, who recently enjoyed a month’s holiday in the Algarve, walking here and there, drinking the wonderful local wines and eating their super cheeses, and revelling in the early spring bird watching.

Algarve Orange Grove Visit

Visiting an Algarve orange grove has been on my mind for a couple of years now. The winter of 2012 has been a particularly cold, clear and dry one in the Algarve and orange growers are very nervous.  After a few days of rain in early November the weather cleared and there’s been barely a drop since January. Indeed, there have hardly been any clouds in the sky most days. Days have required a jacket and sometimes a pair of gloves. Nights have been definitely nippy and frost has shown up on a couple of especially clear, still ones.

When I recently visited the citrus grove of Manuel and Joaquim Medeira Rodrigues near Silves they were assessing the damage of recent -0C nights on their crops.  As we walked their 3 different properties it was evident that Mother Nature hadn’t been in a good mood of late. The ground was littered with prematurely fallen oranges and clementines in a number of places. “Cold weather causes

Manuel Inspects His Crops for Frost Damage

the fruit to drop” Manuel reported. In other spots the frost burn to leaves and fruit was very clear.

Manuel, Joaquim and João are proud of their citrus operation which produces very high quality oranges, grapefruits, lemons and clementines for hotels, restaurants and fruit markets as far away as Lisbon. While it is extremely difficult to product totally organic citrus fruit, this father and son team do their best to use green farming techniques so that their customers get a high quality, pesticide free product. They leave grass and non-invasive weeds to grow between the rows of citrus trees. This not only conserves precious water but gives them an indication when a pest is invading. They keep their orchards well trimmed to allow as much air to pass through the trees as possible, keeping mildew and fungus to a minimum. When it does have to be addressed, they prefer to spray lightly with copper, a natural mineral. Mediterranean fruit flies are another pest that all citrus orchards need to deal with. These folks hang bottles of a sweet liquid that contains a pheromone or hormone that the flies are naturally attracted to. They fly into the bottle and then can’t escape to lay their eggs and do damage to the skins of the fruit.

Joaquim & Manuel Are Proud of Their High Quality Fruit ProductsJoaquim explained that many of the orange producers in the Algarve sell their crop to multi-national food producers before it is even harvested. Once ripe, the crop is harvested and shipped off to factories to make preserves and other citrus products. But for Mr. Frutas it is a very different strategy. Serving the hospitality and consumer markets means that they have to have product available year round. So they have many varieties of oranges, each that ripen at different times of the year so that the fruit is always fresh and newly ripened when it leaves their small production warehouse.

José Luis Hand Picks Oranges

Freshly picked fruit are taken in small batches for processing

I met José Luis Guerreiro as he was hand picking crates of oranges.

 

They are then taken to a surprisingly small shed where they are stored briefly and then gently dumped onto a conveyor belt which moves them into a unit that brushes off the field dirt and puts a nice soft shine onto the fruit. No waxes or artificial polishes are applied to the Mr. Frutas product so that it can be as natural as their customers wish it to be. The conveyor then moves the fruit along to a circulating table with a series of diameter regulated exits on it. The fruit is assessed on its size and slides down a short trough and into a waiting wooden crate. The crates are then labeled as to size, variety and company information and stacked until the delivery truck arrives to take them to market.

Not only did I get to sample many oranges, tangerines and clementines as we wandered the orchards, but I had the chance to pick the fruit as we went along. That may seem like a small thing to many, but when you grow up in Canada like I did, citrus fruit seems slightly magical.

Me happily picking oranges!

So getting to pick right off the tree made me feel like a kid on a school outing again!

I came back to my apartment ladened with fruit and have been cooking up a storm ever since. I’m experimenting with mixing local products to create some new savoury taste sensations.

So far I’ve made a spicy chutney with oranges, onions, lemons, honey, port, piri-piri and spices. I’ve also made a very different chutney of oranges, onions, dried figs, ginger, port, piri-piri and spices. So similar and yet so different. Each lovely to accompany a cheese tray to brush on pork or chicken before grilling or to serve along side sausages. I made up a batch of dry-rub, a spice mixture of sea salt, pepper, piri-piri, dried orange peel and herbs. I rubbed that on a chicken breast and let it sit in the fridge overnight and then quickly pan-fried it in olive oil. It was heavenly! Grilling would have been preferable but my little kitchen doesn’t have an oven. I’ve also made up a batch of pink grapefruit jam, even though I’m not a fan of grapefruit. And today I bought some sweet pumpkin at the market and made a pumpkin, orange & ginger soup for lunch. Yummy.

Some of these oranges are huge!

Next up is a wet rub that will have orange rind, garlic, piri-piri, herbs, olive oil and who knows what else that I plan to plaster on a nice chunk of pork. I fear that I have turned into a mad woman as far as savoury citrus is concerned. Thank goodness I don’t have an oven or I’d be making all kinds of savoury biscuits and breads too.

I can hardly wait until Mr. Frutas completes his plans to offer small group tours through his citrus grove. It’ll be a delight for me to send people in his direction, knowing that he and his Dad will be as gracious and informative with others as they were with me. And who knows how many more Canucks will get the pleasure of picking their first citrus fruit right off the tree.