Building our herb garden

Herb gardens are delightful places, or so we thought even before we began to care of Corujas. Our first book on gardening was actually on herb gardens. Others followed, such as Jekka's.

Getting water to the center of the farm, from the existing water well that fed the main reservoir, was our first major work. From the reservoir we made a level waterway to get water near the house, and built a new reservoir in a small piece of land just below the house, the highest point we can get water to just using gravity. This place, organized with the reservoir and bound by a string of vines and an olive tree, was small enough to be manageable as a herb garden and we started the lists of herbs and the design of the patches and walkways. We used granite slabs, easily bought locally. We do not get English-looking red-bricked paths, but our plants can compensate for that.

The herb garden was first planned on paper, selecting the herbs we found more tempting. The design turned real after some visits to "Cantinho das Aromáticas", our supplier of all original herb material. 

The herb garden exceeded our expectations, both in the fast growth of the herbs, planted in groups of 4 in the 1.4m patches, and in the amount of weeding required to keep it clean. We have been improving it over the years. Some seasons we were patient and mended the place, replanting lost species and changing locations, others we just weeded and let them spread around, others we tried mulching. Overall we have reduced the watering to almost none, realizing that it was not possible to make biennials like parsley, requiring a fair amount of water, co-exist with sage, thyme and other more drought-resistant herbs. So we moved basil to the vegetable garden, encouraged parsley to get established wherever it likes by spreading its seeds in various places and made our herb garden the place for Mediterranean herbs that can endure our summer with only occasional light watering. 

The herb garden has its ups and downs, some years it is renovated and we try new species, others we just let them run wild. Some of the species we have tried have been propagated and now exist in some other corners of the garden. We regularly use herbs from the herb garden: varieties of sage, varieties of thyme, rosemary, chives, tarragon, lemon grass.


Really fast risotto in a pressure cooker

We've recently become huge fans of the book "Modernist Cuisine at Home". It certainly changed the way we cook risotto. It used to take over 40 minutes to prepare a risotto the traditional way (constantly stirring the rice and adding stock) and now it takes 10-15 minutes (including preparation time).

Today we made an improvised risotto recipe with frozen hake and freshly cut vegetables but you can cook any risotto recipe using this technique.

You'll need:

  • a pressure cooker
  • olive oil
  • 1 large or 2 small onions
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • frozen hake fillets (360g)
  • fresh vegetables (we used what we picked from the garden - small broccoli sprouts and a small cabbage)
  • salt
  • freshly grounded black pepper
  • frozen cilantro leaves (yes, we had fresh cilantro growing in the garden, but it was pouring rain outside...)


Gently fry the onion and garlic clove in a bit of olive oil (just enough to cover the bottom of the pressure cooker) until the onion turns golden (using the pressure cooker with no lid on). Add the rice until it looks semi-translucent in the borders (approximately 2 minutes). Add 2.5 times the amount of water, e.g., 1 cup of dry rice: 2.5 cups water. Add the vegetables and the frozen fish (fresh fish might overcook) and lock the lid securely using the pressure cooker's instructions. Set the heat on high to bring the cooker to pressure. You'll know this happens when the escape valve begins to release steam. Once it reaches pressure, immediately lower the heat to a setting that will just barely maintain pressure. Time 7 minutes.

Place the pressure cooker in the sink and run cold water over it until the pressure drops. At this stage if you remove the pressure valve there should be almost no sound of escaping steam. Once all the pressure has been removed it is safe to open the lid. Season to taste with the salt, peeper and cilantro. Gently stir the rice to avoid smashing the fish fillets and serve hot.

Other risotto recipes benefit from grated cheese added in the final step. We prefer this one cheese free but mushroom risotto calls for cheese. Just remember to close the lid after adding the cheese and allowing it to melt for 2 minutes before serving.


How we stumbled into becoming beekepers

When we got the farm there was an old bee yard an uncle used to run. It had been abandoned for at least a decade and yet there was still one surviving colony. We let it alone at first but then decided we wanted to turn the bee yard space into a plant nursery and move the bees somewhere else. We got a local beekeeper to come and do the move. He decided it was a good time to also do a split and try and turn the one hive into two. Both decisions turned out poorly. The split colony was robbed by other bees and the original colony eventually decided it didn't like its new home.

Fresh out of bees and empty new equipment we decided we might as well set it all up and hope a swarm would decide to move in. Neighbors had told us they had seen swarms moving about a couple of times so we had a at least some indication there were wild bees around. We put the hives we bought on the new stand, cleaned everything up, and just hoped for the best. Come spring we noticed bees coming and going from one of the hives carrying pollen. We knew that was the tell-tale sign of a working hive and were ecstatic.

After nervously opening the hive a little bit we realized we had screwed up. We had stacked all the boxes on top of each other and the topmost one didn't have any frames in it. Bees being bees decided to go ahead and build their home on the top of the cavity, hanging from the lid.

We scrambled for help and got a beekeeper friend to come over and help us correct our mistakes. We filled the remaining space with frames and waited for the bees to gradually move down until the ad-hoc comb was just honey and we could extract it. Eventually by late summer we got to that point  and had a working hive in a standard box. After a bit of feeding with sugar water to compensate for the honey we had extracted the hive overwintered fine.

By this spring we had read everything we could find online and a couple of great books on beekeeping and felt confident enough to try and get more bees. We decided to put out some swarm traps and split the one hive we had. It was a huge success. We ended up catching four swarms including one on video and one in an owl box we had built. We also split the original hive three ways. We ended up with six hives. For those keeping count at home we had seven at the peak but the owl box cut-out didn't go well and we lost that hive. It was a pity, it was a great swarm.

When we originally though about taking care of the bees we looked for a local beekeeper to take over. As it turns out this is a pretty low effort addition to the farm work. In less than an hour a week we can inspect the hives and do the occasional change (adding a box, feeding, etc). We've been taking notes and continuing to read up on the subject. The hardest part though is learning to read the hive. Finding the queen is always particularly hard. Anyone want to try and find it in this set of photos? We haven't been able to do it.

You can see higher resolution pictures on our Flickr if that helps.

We originally thought we didn't want to become beekeepers. It seemed like too much work and a little scary to be honest. As it turns out it's a pretty simple affair, at least in our location. We get bees for free just by setting swarm traps (a topic for a future post). And since bees are wild animals you don't need to do much if you don't want to. We'll expand on our management model in a later post but we mostly leave them alone. We don't give them wax foundation, we don't treat for any diseases and we only extract the honey they can spare to avoid having to feed them at all.

Using leftover olive oil to make soap

This weekend we made our first attempt at making homemade soap. It was pretty straightforward and a lot easier than we had anticipated. There was some leftover olive oil from 2011 in the bottom of the stainless steel containers we use to keep it. We needed to remove it to refill them with the new 2013 olive oil. The leftover olive oil had gotten cloudy and thick and although we didn't want to use for cooking we couldn't just throw it away.

So we looked up some online recipes and found a great DIY video of how to make olive oil soap.

We followed the recipe adjusting the dosages and confirmed the lye proportions using an online lye calculator (inputing 0% superfat and 0% lye discount). The only ingredients you really need to make oilve oil soap are lye and olive oil. Lye is produced by mixing together granulated sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda - available in any hardware store) and water and is very corrosive. You need to wear protective gear (gloves and protective glasses) to prevent chemical burns from splashes.

We had 1773g olive oil, so according to our calculations we needed 237g caustic soda and 663g water to make the lye. We weighted the olive oil first to be able to make just the lye we needed - you don't want to store leftover lye...

We used only plastic and silicone containers and tools because lye can damage glass and wood and react vigorously with some metals (like aluminium) to produce highly flammable hydrogen gas.

Then we weighed the caustic soda and water and added the caustic soda to the water (never add water to caustic soda!).

Mixed it well until it became fully dissolved and transparent. Making lye is an exothermic reaction and it really heats up! We did it outdoors because of the fumes that are released during the dissolution.

Gently poured the lye into the olive oil.

Gave it a mix with a plastic spoon.

And then used a hand blender to speed up the process of getting the soap to trace. Trace is a sign of emulsification, meaning that the oil and water are completely mixed together and are not going to separate again. It is called trace because when you drizzle a little of the mixture back into the container, you see a little ridge or trace of it left behind that takes a few seconds to disappear. Before hand blenders were available, it took 3-4 hours to thoroughly mix the ingredients; now it takes 2-3 minutes. We used an old blender since we wouldn't trust it inside a soup pan again.

We replaced the essential oils and dye with some fresh lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodorathat we shredded into the mixture with the hand blender.

Poured the mixture into two IKEA silicone backing molds to make it easier to unmould. You can also pour it into molds that will make individual soap bars.

And finally covered the molds with a chopping board and towels to keep it warm during the saponification process. Most recipes say you can cut your soap in slices after 24 hours but we will leave it a few days longer. It will then need to cure for about four weeks to be ready to use. We'll update this post after our first bath with homemade soap! Let's hope it's as good as the 8$ version.

Making our own olive oil

Our location isn't ideal for olives. We usually only have any meaningful quantity every two years. We've been trying to improve that by bringing in new olive trees of different species and watering the trees more. Two years ago we had a great harvest and made enough olive oil to last almost two full years. Last year was an off year and this time we've had a decent but not great harvest.

Harvesting olives is pretty simple. At the end of autumn when it gets cold and the olives are fully mature you set a tarp under the trees and wack them with a stick a few times to make the olives drop. Ideally you'd immediately make olive oil or cure them to make them edible (olives are incredibly bitter if eaten straight from the tree). Since we don't have a large quantity or the ability to harvest everything at once we first keep them outside in cold water to keep them from spoiling.

The day we had scheduled to make the olive oil we sorted through a few last olives to select a small quantity for salt processing to get cured olives. We'll detail that process in a later post.

Once we had selected everything we put them into plastic bags, roughly 30kg to a bag. We ended up having about 300kg of olives. We loaded all the bags into the newest addition to the farm, an electric utility vehicle. This made getting all the olives to the car much easier. Electric rear wheel drive works wonders for the steep paths we have at the farm. We need to write a post just about this as well, as there are plenty of pitfalls on how to choose and buy one of these.

We then loaded the olives in the car with a tarp under to try and keep it clean. All the family wanted to go and see the oil making so we ended up using two cars instead of dropping the back seats and loading it all into just one.

Once we got to the local olive oil factory we realized we were in for a wait. We had a scheduled appointment but they were running very late. After waiting for 2 hours we eventually got our turn. We unloaded the olives in the loading dock and they got transferred around the factory to the large containers at the start of the line. When it was our turn they opened our container and the olives started flowing.

The first step is to go through a washing stage. The olives are rinsed in water and then vibrated to dry them again.

Unfortunately after that step nothing is really visible any more. The factory is mostly automated. The olives are grinded into a paste and cold-pressed to separate the oil from the rest.

After running through the whole process a final tap releases the oil into a final tank from which they fill the jerrycan containers we brought. This year we produced around 28 liters of oil from the 300kg of olives. That's around half of what we got two years ago so we have to make it last longer.

At this point the olive oil is still pretty cloudy. We let it sit in the jerrycans for a while and only started using the oil when most of the solids had settled in the bottom. The oil tends to have a much stronger flavor than the store bought one. Because the olives waited for a week or two between harvest and processing the acidity levels are a bit higher than usual but not by much. It doesn't really impact the flavor.

When we have a lot we use it for cooking but since this year we don't have as much and since olive oil is very cheap in Portugal we'll probably keep this one mostly for dipping bread in and eating raw. Yum!

Summer recipes: gazpacho

One of our favourite summer dishes is gazpacho, the best cold soup ever. Come August the farm is usually producing tons of different kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and bell peppers and we keep trying to find ways of using up all of those fresh flavours. There's no greater luxury than being able to cook with ingredients freshly picked from the garden.

Our version goes like this:

You'll need:

  • 3-4 pounds of tomatoes (any kind - we usually mix several types)
  • 1 green bell pepper cored and seeded
  • 1 cucumber sliced and seeded (you don't have to peel it - the strong flavour is actually from the seeds)
  • 1 purple onion (or 2 small ones)
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon black freshly grounded black pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • fresh mint leaves as decoration
  • a food processor

We put each separate vegetable ingredient in a cup and use the food processor to chop everything up in turn. You'll need several cups for the tomato. 

The visual effect of adding each chopped ingredient to a big glass bowl is amazing. If you want to impress guests mix everything up just before serving - it looks gorgeous. 

After you do that, season with the vinegar, olive oil and pepper, sprinkle some mint leaves and enjoy!

To be completely honest, it will taste even better if you mix everything up 2 hours before serving and leave it in the fridge, but it's a little less spectacular to watch.

Summer recipes: chicken kryptonite

This is one of our favorite summer recipes when we have lots of basil and zucchinis. The name is self-explanatory once you see the final result - it looks radioactive green but tastes superb.

Ingredients for 5:

  • 1 cup of pesto (basic recipe or with nuts)
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 chopped garlic clove
  • olive oil
  • 4 chicken breasts chopped in cubes
  • 2 or 3 zucchinis unpeeled, chopped in cubes
  • 200g of fusilli pasta
  • salt


Gently fry the onion and garlic clove in a bit of olive oil (just enough to cover the bottom of a large pan) until the onion turns golden. Add the chicken until it is cooked, then add the zucchini and the pasta (add water as needed just so the ingredients don't stick to the bottom of the pan) and a pinch of salt. Let it simmer for 10-12 minutes and then add the pesto, and keep stirring while it cooks for another 2 minutes.


Summer recipes: traditional grilled sardines

Grilled sardines are a traditional summer food in Portugal. They're in vogue right at the start of summer when they're eaten in a bunch of traditional parties. In reality the time when they're really good is a bit later when summer is in full swing. You can tell because the sardines start to be fatter and that gives them a lot more taste.

Yesterday our local fish supplier had some really good looking ones so we bought 4 a person and asked her to prepare the fish. She takes out the entrails so you bring the fish home ready to cook. All that is needed is to mix them with some coarse sea salt and put them on the grill. We also grilled some peppers at the same time.

Both the sardines and the peppers are ready when you get the exterior looking toasted. The idea with both is that the outside layer (skin in the sardines and peel in the peppers) is removed before eating. The peppers can take more heat so usually you start them early when the grill is going strongest. That also gives you time before the sardines are ready to peel and slice the peppers and mix them with some olive oil and garlic. 

After everything was done we just ate the sardines together with what was fresh from the garden. Yesterday that was some padron peppers, the first tomatoes of the year and a lettuce and basil salad. A little olive oil and some red wine and we had a great lunch.

Summer recipes: pesto

We've been making pesto for a few years now and have tried every variation you can think of. This is the basic recipe on which you can experiment by adding extra ingredients if you like. We tend to prefer it simple or with macadamia nuts.

If you grow basil, it is very important that you keep the plants pruned regularly. We've managed to keep the same plants producing new leaves continuously throughout the summer and part of autumn this way. Basil plants need to be prevented from flowering until you are ready to collect seeds for the following year. Flowering means the plant is done with producing more leaves. To stop it you'll need to (at least) weekly chop off the top of the stems showing signs they are about to flower and any flowers already present. They should be pruned immediately over the place where you see two leaves sprouting, which will then grow into two more stems. See the photos for an explanation.

Basic ingredients:

  • Basil leaves
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Extra ingredients:

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Pine nuts
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Parmesan cheese (if you use it cut back on the salt in the basic recipe, parmesan cheese is pretty salty)


All you have to do is wash the leaves, add the olive oil and a pinch of salt and use a food processor to turn everything into a delicious mush. Just add the other ingredients in this stage of the process if you want. Just beware that macadamia nuts are a little harder and you need a little longer in the processor. As for quantities, we just fill the food processor cup with leaves, fill it to 1/4 with olive oil and add a few grains of salt. If you want a thinner pesto just add more olive oil. See the photos for the whole process:

We use pesto to season all kinds of salads as well as some warm dishes, like "chicken kryptonite" (coming up). We always look forward to the summer as it means pesto and basil every week.

Aerial firefighting, an unwelcome summer air show

Every summer we keep a close eye on the the other side of the valley for any new fires springing up. We have a simple telescope that we use to keep an eye on any suspicious smoke. Sometimes when we called to report a fire and gave a bunch of details (we were looking through the telescope) we got a suspicious vibe from the authorities, as if we were the ones setting the fires. In reality the summer fires are always a big worry for us as we have a bunch of poorly managed fields around us that are always a fire hazard. The upside is that we get to see the firefighting efforts as if it was an airshow. We've seen helicopters swooping in to drop of firemen and then go off and get water from the river at the bottom of the valley to come back and do precision drops.

A few years back we got to see a few Canadair airplanes do runs to get water from the river and then drop them across the valley. Their flight path went directly over the farm so we got good shots of them passing by:

We also got to see the spectacle of them dropping water right in front of us. I'm afraid we didn't get any video but it was amazing to see the airplanes pitch up when they started dropping the water on the fire.

As much as the summer fires are a horrible worry the aerial demonstrations were quite cool. Hopefully we don't get to see them in person again and get our fix from cool youtube videos:

Update: After I wrote this post I went and setup another small watering system (similar to the kiwi one) for some vines. As I was coming back home this was the sad view that was presented:

This fits the pattern we saw in previous years when right at sunset the fires would start. One of the theories around that was that at night the aerial means weren't available, so the fire would last longer.