Saturday, 11 September 2021

Guest Blog - Lisa Rose Wright

Lisa and Mum in Galicia

Today, I have great pleasure in sharing the chat I recently had with a pal of mine, Lisa Rose Wright. As well as being a truly lovely lady, as you'll soon find out, Lisa is intrepid, a top cook and a wonderful author. As it happens, the timing for this blog couldn't be better as Lisa has just released the third book in her Writing Home series. I had the honour of beta reading the book and am convinced it'll be another winner for her. 

Here's what Lisa has to say about her adventures with 'S' in Spain!

1. I love the intrigue surrounding ‘S’! Can you tell us how you met and what led you to move to Spain? 

Thank you for inviting me here today, Beth. I’m delighted to be a guest on your lovely blog. I suppose I should start by explaining who ‘S’ is! When I first started writing down some of the stories which would eventually form part of my first travelogue memoir, Plum, Courgette & Green Bean Tart, all my characters just had initials. It’s how I write in my diary and in my letters to Mum. Then, I was told that people wouldn’t read something with no names in it. But my husband has always been ‘S’, plus our neighbours can’t pronounce his real name, so it seemed fitting to leave him as a slightly anonymous and enigmatic figure. There are actually clues to his real name throughout the first book if you look for them, and he is revealed in all his glory in Book two of the series, Tomato, Fig & Pumpkin Jelly.

So back to your question… I met S in a pond.

Imagine a very wet and cold day in the English Peak District, me just finishing my university degree (as a mature student, I have to add) and wanting to impress the company for which I’m hoping to work. There are six of us or so, all hanging around and waiting for the ‘boss’ to appear. That was my ‘S’. Turns out he wasn’t the boss at all, just the only person who knew how to set the traps for the great-crested newts we were surveying. Still, I’d already fallen for him by then! I like to say, given our first meeting, that if one kisses enough frogs, one finds a prince! And I guess I did 😊.

Our move to Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain was really quite serendipitous. Although we were both looking to move somewhere we could be more self-sufficient, even before we met in that pond, I had never even heard of Galicia the first time I set foot there; literally, as we were walking the Camino de Santiago at the time. I fell in love instantly and, as I happened to have a phone number for an estate agent in my bag, we started house hunting straight away. 

2. Were there any difficulties you had to overcome in finding a property that suited you? 

Oh yes, Beth, there certainly were. I’ve read (and loved) your Fat Dogs series, and know you will be able to relate when I say that our expectations of properties and those of the estate agents involved in finding a house did not always match up. The first house we actually fell in love with, high in the mountains in Ourense province, couldn’t even be sold as no one knew where the owner was! We saw houses no one had a key for, houses with no walls, and houses hanging off a precipitous cliff. But we did eventually find a ruinous property we loved with the amount of land we needed called A Casa do Campo, or the ‘country house’. All we needed to do was to renovate it. 

A Casa do Campo

3. I know that one of your aspirations in moving to Spain was to become self-sufficient. Have you managed to achieve your goals?  And if so, do you consider yourselves organic gardeners? 

It was indeed, Beth. One of our prime motivations for house hunting outside the UK was the ability to buy something with a decent amount of land at an affordable price. Anyone who has tried that in Britain will understand the virtual impossibility. In Galicia, the land is far cheaper though this meant we started off looking at properties with way too much land for our needs. We eventually regrouped and now have a lovely piece of land remote from the house that I use as an allotment for growing my veggies. We also bought an extra piece of woodland below the allotment for the wildlife, with chestnut and fruit trees (and rather too much bracken!). We were also lucky enough to inherit a mature garden with apple, plum, fig, cherry and peach trees, plus sweet chestnuts and walnuts. We would certainly do well as fruitarians over the summer months.

With the addition of the many soft fruit bushes we planted, our home-grown vegetables, and judicious preserving, we can keep ourselves and Mum in fruit, nuts, and veg year-round. We also have our own chickens for eggs and rabbits for meat. Each winter, we buy a pig from our friend locally, so that pretty much keeps us in meat too.

We don’t grow grain, and our chicken and rabbit feed, which supplements their diet of greens and veggies, is not organic, so we are not truly self-sufficient, nor can we call ourselves ‘organic’. But we don’t use chemical sprays on the land, and we mulch with our own compost, made from our food waste. Also, we have ‘green’ hot water. From our wood-burning stove in winter – thanks to S cleverly installing a back boiler, and in summer from his patented homemade solar water heater. So, all in all, I’m pretty happy with what we have achieved.

Our First Chickens

4. I love learning why authors decided to begin writing. Can you tell us what your books are about and what inspired you to share your tales? 

That’s a question that always floors me, Beth! Things just seemed to happen! I’ve always enjoyed scribbling, and when we first moved here, I wrote about our experiences daily just because I didn’t want to forget some of the things we had to go through. It’s so easy, once somewhere is comfortable, to forget the hours of hard work, and at times sheer agony, that went into our self-renovation.

I entered one of my stories in a competition, and it was selected to be published in an anthology of tales about Galicia. I then joined a writers’ group here, and with encouragement from other members, I started writing more and more. At first, I couldn’t imagine writing a full book’s worth of stories, but once I started, I found the words rolling out.

Then, I discovered that Mum had kept every one of my weekly letters home over the years. When I read them, they reminded me of other events that had happened to us, so I incorporated them into the stories of our life here in Galicia too. I’m really happy, and still a little awed that people have enjoyed my tales, and I love receiving emails from total strangers in all corners of the world saying they have felt enthused to try growing their own food or making some of my recipes. 

No key for this one, so a helping hand from our estate agent!

5. Huge congratulations on completing the third episode in your Writing Home series, it's such a lovely book and wonderful addition to your series. Can you tell us about any challenges you faced while writing the books? 

Thanks so much, Beth. Chestnut, Cherry & Kiwi Fruit Sponge; a final year to write home about – and Mother Makes 3 in Galicia will be published on October 1st, and the eBook can be ordered right now, so I'm pretty excited. The cover is, I think, my favourite of all!

I think my greatest challenges with all my books has been the internet. Really! Where we live is in a lovely peaceful valley. Unfortunately, the internet masts are at the top of another valley and the signals literally whizz over our heads! This means my connection is not only incredibly slow but only available in one room, which means a fair bit of toing and froing to sort out marketing and uploading files. I sometimes wish I had a better connection so I could spend more productive time online, but then I remember how lucky I am to live here at the end of the world, doing what I enjoy, and I realise it’s quite a minor irritation. 

6. What do you enjoy most about writing memoirs, and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I love the immediacy of memoirs – both writing and reading. I’m lucky to have found the wonderful Facebook group, We Love Memoirs, which helps me satisfy my thirst for reading about other people’s lives. I love peeping in the window at others, so to speak, and that’s also what I especially love about writing memoirs – the chance to tell my own story and give reader’s a glimpse of a probably different world to their own. It’s quite a pure form of writing because you are constrained by reality. It’s a challenge to make the often mundane interesting to the reader and to still bring to life some of the challenges we faced in a way people can relate to. I’m lucky that living in Galicia provides me with plenty of material for my books, and as little-known area it is often new to my readers.

Advice! Mmm, I’m hopeless at giving advice really as I probably broke every rule in the book with Plum; I was told I shouldn’t have a title which didn’t reflect the book – after all, Plum, Courgette & Green Bean Tart sounds like a cookbook (albeit a weird one, haha), that photographs were ‘in’ for travel memoir covers at the time rather than artwork, and that I shouldn’t have both letters and diary entries in there as well as narrative. I did all those things, and both Plum and the sequel, Tomato, Fig & Pumpkin Jelly have been very well received. So, I guess my advice would be simply to go for it. Find something you want to write about, and do it. Then get someone you trust to read it critically. Oh, and there was a reason for sticking with those titles, as readers will discover. 

This house would have needed a bit of work!

7. Back to your lives in Spain. What are the features you love most about your area? 

Oh, what do I love about Galicia? Where to start, Beth! The minute we walked into Galicia on that Camino walk in 2004, I felt like I’d come home. It was green, beautiful, peaceful and friendly. The food, wine and housing were cheap, the people were welcoming, and the scenery was just stunning.

One of the very best things about our area, the Ribeira Sacra, or sacred rivers, is the landscape. It is an area of chestnut forests, deep valleys, mighty rivers, and heroic viticulture, so-called because of the steepness of the hillsides on which many of the grapes are grown. Galicia itself has such a varied landscape in such a relatively small area that one of our best-known poets, Vicente Risco, called Galicia ‘a world’ in his iconic poem. TĂș dices: Galicia es muy pequeña. Yo te digo: Galicia es un mundo…’. ‘You say: Galicia is very small. I say to you: Galicia is a world’. Galicia has so much variety in such a small area. It really is incredible.

Added to that are the peace of a place with far less traffic than anywhere I’ve lived previously and the welcoming friendliness of the local people. I couldn’t have wished for a more perfect spot to make our home. The food is plentiful and delicious, the wine is cheap and local, and there were none of the hordes of tourists found in the more popular areas of Spain. 

Shell church, La Toxa

8. Do you have a favourite local wine and food/recipe? 

Much of the red wine that is offered in our local bars is made by the owners themselves. Luis, at our favourite local, Bar Scala, has hectares of vines on the edge of the Miño valley, the biggest river in our region. The wine from these grapes, which are a mix of MencĂ­a and Garnacha, is fruity and rich but heavy. It’s a perfect wine for enjoying with friends. We often help our local priest, Don Pepe, with his wine harvest in September. It is a lovely day of hard work and delicious food and a nice way to give something back to those who have been so welcoming.

Galicia is also a land of cheap, nourishing menĂșs and unfancy but delicious food.

My favourite Galician meals are usually the simplest: pork, roasted long in the oven, or octopus, boiled and sprinkled with salt, paprika and lashings of olive oil; or a very simple fried dish of PadrĂłn peppers (the Galician ‘Russian roulette peppers’ as every tenth one is said to be super spicy) sprinkled with sea salt. But I think my favourite recipe is probably the iconic Tarta de Santiago. A delicious almond tart made with just four ingredients; it can’t be bettered.

Recipe: (This makes an 8”/20cm flat cake. Simply double the mixture for a larger cake.) 

3 eggs

6oz/150g caster sugar

6oz/150g ground almonds

Zest of a small orange and a lemon

2 drops almond extract (optional) 

Whisk the sugar, almond extract and the eggs until thick, pale and mousse-like. As this cake has no raising agent, the whisking of the eggs creates the light texture, so don’t be tempted to skip the beating! Carefully fold in the orange and lemon zest and the ground almonds. Spoon into a round shallow cake tin and bake in a moderate oven, 170°c, for approximately 40 minutes or until just set. Allow to cool and dust with icing sugar.

Traditionally these cakes have the cross of St. James on them. If you wish, find a picture online of the cross, print it off and cut it out. Dust icing sugar around the cross, leaving a clear bit in the shape of the cross in the centre of the cake. 

Chestnut woods right outside our door

9. Is there anything about living in Spain that maybe you weren’t expecting? 

Oh, Beth! So much! I’m not sure what I was expecting from Spain really, as prior to our Camino, I’d only ever visited the Canary Islands, never the mainland. I didn’t know, for example, that there is not just one language in Spain, but many, and that they are all so very different. The Catalans speak Catalan, the Basques, Vasco, and the Galicians speak Galego, a mix of Portuguese and Spanish, and really quite different to Castilian Spanish.

In addition, the culture is totally different to the UK. It is much more laid back here in general, with none of the urgency to things that I was used to. It’s a delight now we are accustomed to it, but not so much in the early days when we had no windows, and the company were having another fiesta day or another ‘mañana’ moment.

The Galician day starts later too and carries on until the early hours. Fiestas normally get going as we are heading home, around 1.30am. Lunch is at 2pm, and dinner doesn’t start in restaurants until around 9 or even 9.30. I went to a Christmas lunch with my Pilates class one year, and by the time we were served, it was 11pm. My stomach didn’t appreciate that one bit, lol. 

The Castro

10. What advice would you give to others who want to up sticks and live in Spain? 

Oh, I hate giving others advice! Everyone is different, aren’t they?

I’ve always said that you need to be open and willing to be flexible to do well in any country; we are, after all, ‘guests’. It’s no good being rigidly British (or American, German…whatever) as you won’t enjoy the place as much as if you adapt and become ‘local’ in your thinking and habits. Embrace the unusual!

Research is also important; know what you are looking for from an area before deciding where to move. Living somewhere is very different to holidaying there! 

11. What is the most memorable experience you have had while living in Spain? 

Oh, that’s easy! My most memorable experience in Galicia has to be our wedding day in our local town hall. It was memorable for many reasons: family and friends turned up with flowers and champagne, our local restaurant, Parillada MencĂ­a, did us proud with a lunch to feed the 5,000, and locals all turned out to wish us well – and to pelt us with rice. We were even presented with a ceramic plaque from our local council! But it was memorable mainly because it actually happened – so many times over the course of the year I didn’t think it would! 

Our Wedding Day

12. And finally, what’s next for you? 

Our wedding adventures are the subject of my second book Tomato, Fig & Pumpkin Jelly. The final book of the writing home series, Chestnut, Cherry & Kiwi Fruit Sponge follows us renovating a second ruin for Mum, and Mum moving to Galicia to live at the age of 84 and eleven months. That was also the end of my letters home (which felt odd after some 32 years of weekly writing, I can tell you).

Although there are no more letters home, the three of us, known as Los Tres, continue to have plenty of adventures. When I was editing Cherry, I realised that there were many places we have discovered over the years which just didn’t make it into the books. Those stories form the basis of my next book. Pulpo, Pig & Peppers – travels around Galicia, and beyond. It is part travel guide, mainly a travelogue memoir, of places, fiestas and cities we have visited and enjoyed. Each place I wrote about elicited a memory, an anecdote, or a yarn that turned this book into a labour of love – for all the wonderful places in Beautiful Green Galicia. I do hope people will join us here at the end of the world.

Thank you so much for popping in for a chat, Lisa, I loved it and wish you great success with your latest publication. As a huge fan of your writing, I'm certain it's going to be another runaway success! 

The Writing Home series


Saturday, 7 August 2021

A Happy Ending


Nap is our much-loved Vietnamese Pot-bellied pig. Jack, my husband, and I rescued him in 2019 after we found him abandoned in our forest. A skinny, tiny piglet with superficial injuries, the poor mite wouldn’t have lasted long by himself. We caught him up and welcomed him into the family.


Since that nightmarish start to his life, Nap has grown upwards and outwards. He lives in an area with a spinny, grazing, and around thirty grapevines. Well, that’s how it was. Nap, our first pig, has taught us a great deal.


We knew that pigs ‘rootled’ for grubs and other earthy delicacies with their snouts. But we hadn’t realised that they are the porcine version of bulldozers. ‘Destroyers’ might be a more appropriate word.

Nap has systematically dug up an acre of grassland, felled a couple of saplings and played snoutball with the trunks. He has eaten most of my beloved grapevines and chewed the fencing.

Happily, there is an upside to pigly characteristics. It has been a revelation to discover how affectionate and intelligent they are. When Nap decided I wasn’t going to harm him, he started devotedly followed me, wanting lots of love. He’s the same today.


Nap trots up to the gate when I approach, joyfully squealing and grunting, ready to deliver a sloppy kiss to my boot or leg. He often brings a stick to play and will lumber around in ungainly circles before leading me to the feed bin.   

Once Nap has inhaled his meal (pigs don’t seem to have a ‘stop’ mechanism where it comes to grub), it’s cuddle time. The earth shudders as he slowly keels over, as it would since he now weighs over 100 kg (220 pounds). Nap closes his eyes and squeaks with pleasure as I indulge him with a back scratch and tummy rub.


Nap’s other great joy in life is wallowing in mud. And with the help of his excavation skills, one corner of the enclosure is now a dedicated bog.

Life with our amiable boy has settled into a comfortable routine. We sigh at the sight of our ruined vines, the grass that will never be the same again and a broken fence. Our reward is a loving, playful gallump, or at least he was.

Last week during my usual animal husbandry rounds, I strolled over to Nap’s pen, expecting his usual welcome. Weirdly, there was no sign of him. I immediately panicked, concerned that the fence had finally given way and he had pottered off into the forest. He hadn’t.

Nap was lying on the ground. Something was wrong. As I got closer, he grunted pitifully, clearly in pain. Wincing, he managed to stand but was wobbly. He ate most of his supper, which I assumed was a good sign, and then tottered off to bed. 


The following morning I checked on him, hoping he would be brighter. He wasn’t. He was worse. Nap’s behaviour was worryingly out of character. He was listless, limping badly and continually lay down as though his hooves were sore. There was nothing for it. I had to call in a farm animal vet, a French first for us.

As good as his word, Docteur Bayeur appeared a couple of hours later. A no-nonsense type, the crane fly-like man was deeply unimpressed by the rapturous ‘bonjour!’ he received from our Australian Shepherd, Aby. He was even less impressed by the welcome Wellington boot Max, our other Aussie, proffered as a special gift.

After banishing the dogs to the house, Jack and I took Docteur Bayeur down to the compound. En route, I anxiously briefed him on Nap’s symptoms, pointing towards the mound of animal lying on the ground.

“Aha, you see, Docteur? I said. “Normally, he would be up by now and trotting over to see us.”

Jack, who only interacts with Nap when he brings food sacks down, was looking sceptical.

“He’s just having a kip, isn’t he?”

“No, this is different. He has acute hearing and always jumps up when I arrive with the dogs.”


The men watched while I walked over to Nap. I was convinced our boy was at death’s door. With a pathetic squeak, he opened an eye, half stretched a leg and groaned. And then he saw the men.  

Docteur Bayeur, wearing an All Creatures Great and Small khaki lab coat, unfurled an enormous stethoscope as he came over to join me. This caused a dramatic reaction.

Nap scrambled up, turned to face the vet and lowered his head.

“You say he has a good temperament?”

“Oh, yes, he’s very soft and gentle, Docteur, no problem at all. And look, he’s unsteady. I’m sure at least one of his hooves is sore.”

Nodding, Docteur Bayeur reached out to touch his patient, which had an even more unexpected effect. Nap snorted and shot off like a racehorse. We watched as our vet spent the next ten minutes pacing up and down in pursuit of a galloping pig. Jack made the blindingly obvious observation.

“He doesn’t look that ill to me.”

“Honestly, he is. He’s just frightened. He could barely move this morning.”

“That bloke would frighten me with his morgue coat on. And the head of that stethoscope is the size of a dinner plate. Oh Lord, we’re going to be here all afternoon at this rate.”

“Be patient, Jack! I’m sure this is what usually happens with pigs. Possibly, anyway.”

As Nap zoomed past again, Docteur Bayeur, puffing a little, rejoined us.

“I am very sorry about this, Docteur. Perhaps he was maltreated by a man. Um, is there a special trapping technique used for pigs?”

“Yes, that is likely. Pigs are notoriously difficult to catch. Generally, a crush cage is used. The animal is driven in so they can be examined.”

“Ah, I’m afraid we don’t have anything like that. At least it’s given you a chance to see how badly he is limping.”

I ignored Jack’s incredulous stare and persevered.

“How about if I help by giving him some food? I’m sure that’ll calm him down.”

I filled the bowl and walked up to Nap, who was sulking in a corner. As predicted, he got stuck into his food while I chirruped sweet nothings into his ear. Meanwhile, Docteur Bayeur commenced a stealthy side-on approach. He got as far as touching Nap’s back, and that was that. Our invalid thundered off again.

“Oh dear, I am sorry, docteur.”

“Hmm, your pig is fat.”

“Is he? I thought they were supposed to have a big belly.”

“Yes, but he has a roll of fat on his back. What food are you giving him?”

  He grunted when I explained.

“This is used for fattening up pigs for slaughter, for eating.”

“Now, there’s an idea.”

“Do be quiet, Jack!”

“I’ll reduce his food straight away, Docteur, thank you.”

Our vet gamely resumed his pursuit with my impatient husband Jack becoming ever more bored. Sadly, matters took a turn for the worse. Nap performed a remarkably agile pirouette in front of Docteur Bayeur and started pawing the ground. Our vet frowned.

“Is his castrated?”

Jack raised an eyebrow.

“I’m starting to wonder about this bloke. If he doesn’t recognise what those whoppers are, he’d be better off looking after rabbits,” he mumbled.

“Ahem, no, Docteur Bayeur, he isn’t. Is it too late for that now?”

“Probably. There are problems with anaesthetic and adult pigs. How old is Naf Naf?”

It didn’t seem to be the time to correct his mistake, especially since I risked insulting the entire French nation by using his full name: Napoleon. I explained that he was coming up to two years old.

“You know, males can alter as they mature.”

“Perhaps, but luckily for us, Nap has always had an adorable, placid character.”

At which point, Nap turned to face his pursuer, stamped a hoof and let out a pigly roar.

“Not today, madame. You see his tusks?”

“Yes, they have grown considerably recently.”

“When they are angry, they charge and can inflict serious injury.”

“Oh dear, yes, I can imagine.”

And this was when we reached our lowest point. Nap took a couple of paces towards Docteur Bayeur, stopped and had a big wee followed by a giant poo. And then, to my profound embarrassment, he commenced an unmistakably male act right in front of us, to an inevitable messy conclusion.

Oh nooo, I can’t believe he’s doing…that!

“At least someone’s excited.”

Jack!

Our vet sighed.

“This is a typical display of male behaviour. It is common with pigs.”

“Oh, is it?” I said, trying to sound scientifically intrigued.

“I wondered why most of the fence posts were leaning at an acute angle,” Jack mused.

“Yes,” said Docteur Bayeur, “male pigs are extremely sexually active.”

“Huh. I’ll wear gloves when I make the repairs.”

Jack!

Having wasted an hour, we gave up and left our disgraceful boy having a triumphant wallow in the mud. I was mortified.


As we were leaving, we heard a familiar snort from the forest fringe. Tripod, our three-legged wild boar, had sauntered up looking for snacks. I don’t think Docteur Bayeur had seen an animal like him before. His veterinary interest was piqued.

We regaled him with Tripod’s life history as we hand fed our (not so) wild boar.

“I see. This boar would have died without your aid. Interesting, you anglais save animals with leg problems.”

I decided not to talk him through our list of able-bodied rescued family members.

Before leaving, Docteur Bayeur, who had not been able to examine his patient, prescribed painkillers and a course of generic antibiotics. As soon as he had gone, I rushed back down to the pen, and what did I find?

Nap, our very naughty pig, was lying on the ground, groaning like a tragic drama queen. He got up and staggered slowly over to his feed bowl, nudging my leg lovingly and ever so gently pushing his bowl in the direction of the feed bin.

As a postscript to this sorry episode, I can report a happy ending. Nap has made a full recovery. He is on a diet, but it hasn’t prevented him from being the soppy, sweet-natured lad we know him to be. And I hope it stays that way. I’m not sure any of us can cope with another visit from the vet!



Saturday, 3 July 2021

Guest Blog - Alyson Sheldrake

 



For this month's blog, I invited my lovely, incredibly talented pal, Alyson Sheldrake, to tell us about her life and work in Portugal. As well as being a highly sought after artist, she produces an award-winning blog and is a best-selling memoir author. Alyson is currently working on a travel stories series and has just published her latest book, Chasing the Dream. Feeling breathless already? Read on!

I was born in inner-city Birmingham in the UK and escaped there as soon as I could to the beautiful west country. After my time as a student there, I joined the police force and served for thirteen years, which is where I met my husband, Dave. Few people can say they met the love of their life in a Custody Centre! I then moved into the world of education and reached the dizzy heights of Director of Education, working for the Church of England and managing 130 schools. The job was exhilarating and challenging – but also exhausting. I worked at least 70 hours every week.

We have always been adventurous holidaymakers, preferring to avoid the package holiday or guided tours, and exploring on our own. We had a motto back then, ‘never go back to the same place twice’, and we enjoyed many exciting holidays to beautiful destinations. And then we discovered the fishing village of Ferragudo in the Algarve, Portugal, and we were smitten. We rented a little cottage off the main street, and I can still distinctly remember the first time we arrived in our hire car and saw the village reflected in the glistening water of the Arade river. Painted boats were tied up, bobbing with the tide, the houses seemed to tumble down to the riverfront, with the majestic whitewashed church sat proudly above them keeping watch. It was idyllic.


We loved everything about the Algarve - the food, the people, the stunning beaches, and wide-open blue skies. The pace of life was
enticing, and the area captured our hearts. We returned seven times on holiday to the same cottage in the ensuing two years – so much for our motto!

It wasn’t long before we were house-hunting and purchased a modern property on the edge of the village. We still had the slight problem of working back in the UK, but we spent every spare minute we could in our home in Ferragudo. Finally, after five more years, Dave retired from the police. I handed in my notice (a scary moment!); we packed up the car and moved to live in the Algarve. Our new life in the sun could begin.


That was ten years ago now. It seems hard to believe all that time has passed by. Not that I haven’t been busy! I had a dream of turning my hobby of painting into a full-time career as an artist, and I have been amazed and slightly stunned at how well this plan has progressed for me. To date, I have painted – and sold – well over 200 paintings, including completing over 100 commissions for clients, and my studio is my favourite place to be. Dave had always held a camera in his hands since he was a young boy, so it was a natural progression for him to hone his skills and take up photography professionally.


We adopted a beautiful rescue dog, who we called Kat the dog. She is a Spanish Water Dog and has the sweetest nature. My walks with her every morning are the highlight of my day, watching her happily sniffle and snuffle her way along the river bank here in Aljezur, where we now live.


We moved to live in a lovely peaceful town on the west coast, surrounded by Portuguese neighbours. They have all made us feel so welcome and part of the local community. It is a rare week that passes without someone knocking on the door with fresh eggs, fruit or vegetables for us, all grown locally. You don’t get much more organic or local than your neighbour’s plot.

I started writing a blog when we first moved here, initially just to keep friends informed of what we were doing. It soon grew into an award-winning blog with over 100,000 views a year. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing our articles, all liberally sprinkled with Dave’s photography.

Many of our personal stories didn’t seem to fit the blog format, so I put them all to one side, and then eventually realised that I had a lot of material sat on my computer. People kept saying to me, “you should write a book”, so I sat down one day and started writing. It wasn’t long before I had written almost 80,000 words, and ‘Living the Dream – in the Algarve, Portugal’ was born.


It was a steep learning curve from that moment. Self-publishing was a whole new world to explore, and I relished it all. Pressing the ‘upload’ button on Amazon and seeing my book go live was an exhilarating – and slightly scary – time. I felt the same nerves I had experienced with our first art and photography exhibition – would anyone be interested in our story? My fears were unfounded. In the nine months since I published the book, it has reached the #1 bestseller status in several categories on both sides of the Atlantic and has amazed me with the number of sales and the positive feedback it has received.

At the end of the book, I mentioned we were about to move to start a new life in Aljezur, and that maybe there would be a sequel. I had so many messages from people asking for a second book that I had to get on with it! The result, ‘Living the Quieter Algarve Dream’ was released in November last year. I have described both books as ‘part guide – mostly memoir’ and they are a refreshingly honest and often hilarious account of our life here.

My last project involved bringing together the stories of a fascinating range of other people that have also started a new life in the Algarve. ‘A New Life in the Algarve, Portugal’ came out in April, and showcases the lives of 22 different people that have all made the Algarve their home. I was thrilled that the British Ambassador to Portugal agreed to write the foreword to this book too.

That gave me the bug for bringing together people’s stories and I am currently working on a new Travel Stories series. The first book, ‘Chasing the Dream – a new life abroad’, was released at the end of June.


It combines the individual stories of 20 different travel memoir authors all sharing their unique journeys and giving a fresh insight into what it is really like to move abroad – and explores why so many of us long for a new life in a different country. It will be a great way for readers to find new authors and books to read too, as the book showcases a wide range of different writers, countries and experiences, with links to each author’s books. I’m particularly thrilled with the covers for these books. I worked with a professional designer to create the ‘suitcase’ theme that runs through the series, and I can’t wait to see them all in print!


When I’m not busy writing or painting, you’ll find me walking Kat along the river, enjoying the peace and quiet in the early morning, and trying to spot the local wildlife. Recently I was thrilled to discover we have a nightingale that has made his home in a tree nearby. It was such an exciting moment when I actually understood one of the local farmer’s telling me all about him in Portuguese. I have always had fun trying to fathom this difficult language, but finally, after ten years, I think I am making some headway – enough to have a proper conversation about the nightingale at least!


We really feel that we have found our own little corner of paradise here. It’s less about the weather – although the 300 days of sunshine a year certainly helps – but it is much more about the local people, the gentle way of life, the beautiful beaches and coastline, and tiny villages where time seems to stand still sometimes. It is certainly a world away from our time as police officers back in the UK. We have absolutely no regrets about our decision to start a new life abroad, and can recommend it to anyone that has a hankering or a desire for a different – and quieter – way of life.





To find out more about my art and writing, you are welcome to visit my website:
www.alysonsheldrake.com

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Saturday, 5 June 2021

Le Best Boulangerie

 

D’you know, I’ve always wondered how French bakers produce such fantastic bread. I decided to try and find out. I plucked up courage to ask Malik, an award-winning local baker if he would allow me a peek behind the scenes. 

He immediately agreed, although his response regarding timing did seem a bit extreme. I double-checked to make sure I’d understood his southwest French. 

“Yes, that’s right, I start work at 4 am.” “Ahem. Lovely, thank you,” I gulped, desperately wondering whether my alarm clock still worked. “I’ll…I’ll be there.” “Don’t worry,” he grinned, “come at around 5 am, that’ll be fine.”


I can’t tell you what time I arrived. My eyes wouldn’t focus on my watch. But it was horrifically early. I pulled up outside the bakery, which was bursting with homely cheer. Its lights shone like a beacon in the darkness, a haven welcoming insomniacs. And me. 

Still bleary-eyed, I opened the door to a deliciously enveloping ambience. That aromatic blend of coffee and freshly baked bread is a hard one to beat. I checked the cafĂ© and retail areas for signs of life. The display cabinets for pĂątisseries and the bread shelves behind had evidently just been filled, but it was too early for clients. 

Malik appeared from the back, waving ridiculously energetically.

“Here, coffee. And eat this croissant; it’s just out of the oven. Then we start work.”

It was precisely the perker I needed. Brushing an embarrassment of golden flakes off my jumper, I followed him through to the business end. First, I met Mikel, his fellow baker. 

Malik pointed to a machine in the corner, which Mikel was filling. “This is the mixer we use for making traditional French bread and Parisian baguettes. We will demonstrate the process of making the dough. After, you will see a different batch baked.” 

As experienced bread makers (unlike me) will know, the process follows three different stages. This is my interpretation of Malik's explanation.

1. Frasage/frasiage is the slow mixing of the main ingredients. The quantities must be correct using the best flour.   

2. Pétrir/pétrissage is the kneading/folding process. The time, temperature and humidity are all taken into account at this stage.

3. Lissage is the smoothing process. “It must be like the face of a baby,” said Malik, brushing a digit across his stubbly cheek.

I watched, mesmerised as the machine’s ginormous paddles slowly rotated the flour and water. When the mixture was resting, I asked Malik if he had any tricks to ensure that his bread was top quality. 

“Of course. The water, for example, must be cold, 4/5 degrees maximum. I have a machine that gives me water at exactly the right temperature. And just before the end of the preparation, I add 1½ litres of extra water, which makes the bread softer in the middle.”

“Interesting. Anything else?” “Yes. The dough must be resting at 22/23 degrees before cooking. It’s important. Oh, and some bakers favour fine salt. Not me. I use gross sel GuĂ©rande. This salt is unrefined and healthy. It makes my bread taste better.”

Malik showed me the oven, which had a series of deep shelves with intriguing steam-creating water jets. Apparently, they give the dough a kick start and help the crusts develop a sheen. “My pain traditionnel,” he said, “is cooked at a temperature of 260 degrees. In it goes, and after 18 minutes, voila! It’s ready.”

The timer dinged to signal that another batch was finished. I was dying to see it.

“Now, you will learn another trick. Humidity is critical. We open the oven shutters to allow the steam to escape. Sometimes we leave the loaves for five minutes, sometimes less. It depends on the weather. Our customers like crusty bread, so we must get this right.”

Malik stuck his head unreasonably close to the boiling hot oven. Nodding with satisfaction, he expertly slid the extra-long wooden shovel (which I’m sure has a special name) under a batch of loaves and drew them out. 

“Come here. Listen! The bread is croquant (crisp). It is singing.” It was, the bread was making crackly sounds. I couldn’t believe it.

Two hundred crusty traditional French beauties are made here every morning. Most are sold before lunchtime, and some go later via Malik’s self-service vending machine. I had never seen one of these before, so watched him refuel his metal monster.

The machine’s capacity is 72 loaves. Malik opened to restock and found some wedged down one side. Tutting, he muttered to himself. Convinced I had misheard, I asked him to repeat what he’s said.

“The engineer has not fixed my machine properly. I will pull his ears the next time I see him!”

Naturally, this has become one of my new favourite French phrases.

With so many loaves and pastries produced daily, I wondered about surplus food. He said there was very little, but any, such as the damaged loaves stuck in the machine, is given to farmers for their animals. Not a single slice is chucked away.

By now, Malik was dashing between his ovens and the front to serve customers. It gave me a second to digest everything I had learned so far.

Whilst some bits may have been lost in translation, I had a basic grasp of how two uber-popular French loaves were made. But there were others which had been brewing during my lesson. Each was baked in an individual foil container. I asked Mikel what they were.

“We bake about twenty different varieties of bread here. This morning you can see the maise, wholemeal and malt loaves. Malt is the dark bread; it has a stronger flavour.”

They all looked too good to be true. As fast as Malik stocked his shelves, the bread was sold. Worried I was getting in the way, I decided it was my cue to leave. As I thanked them for their time, Malik wagged his finger. “But you must come back. I want to show you how we make our croissants.”

It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. I left with two loaves of traditional French bread and more croissants. Only one of the loaves made it home, and yes, it was yummy!

My next visit was at the altogether more social hour of 8 am. I arrived to find Mikel looking fresh as a daisy, busily brushing the floor. I asked him when he had started work.

“This morning, it was 3.30.” “Gosh, that’s so early, Mikel. Have you worked as a baker for a long time?” “Yes, since I was fourteen. I always wanted to be a baker. Look, this is why.”

Smiling bashfully, Mikel beckoned me over to the oven, where an infinite number of loaves were waiting for duty. He picked one up with great reverence.

“The aroma of freshly baked bread, there is nothing like it. To make the best bread is a wonderful thing.”

That fresh bready scent, it was cosy, huggable, comforting. It was evocative of all things nice. I understood exactly what he meant.

With that, he began to load the ovens with new batches of loaves. Flawlessly formed and snuggled in muslin cloths, he scooped them onto a special spatula and in they went for baking.

A different area had crates stacked with bread rolls and bags filled with loaves. Malik caught my eye.

“We have baked 1,000 rolls this morning. We supply five schools, so these will be delivered soon.”

Just in case there was any doubt about their versatility, Malik told me they make various cakes and pastries, including Viennoise, Tresses au chocolat, Chaussons aux pommes and Chocolatine (a chubby little pastry with dark chocolate in the middle). It was the latter I believed was shrouded in controversy.

“Just what is the difference between Pain au chocolat and Chocolatine? Isn’t it the same thing?”

Malik roared with laughter.

“This is a long story to this, but you must understand that Pain au chocolat is what the northerners bake. They are amateurs! Here, in the southwest of France, we bake Chocolatine. We are the professionals.”

So French! I was dying to know the history behind this but would have to find out another time. Now it was my croissant-making lesson. Mikel provided the demonstration. And it was a loud one. I had no idea there was so much violence and frenzied activity involved in making a croissant.

Mikel gently placed a lump of chilled butter on his work surface. And that’s where ‘gently’ ended. Grabbing his rolling pin, he repeatedly bashed it until it was flattish. Once satisfied, he reached for the dough he had prepared earlier.

A cloud of flour was fanned onto the work surface. Mikel rolled out a fat rectangular wodge and placed the belted butter on top. He folded the dough three times, completely enveloping the butter. The result was a neat parcel with an overlapped seam.

At this point, he told me he would usually refrigerate the pastry to allow the butter to cool down again, but today he continued. We had reached the le feuilletage (puff pastry) stage, and it was a speedy affair.

Using rapid, rhythmic movements, Mikel rolled and folded his mixture several times, creating many delicate layers. I stared in wonder at the multi-laminated result. Another flourish with the magic dust, and we were into the final stage.

The elasticity of pastry always amazes me. Still working quickly with his rolling pin, Mikel expertly stretched the dough and cut out triangles. Each one was hand-rolled into a perfectly formed croissant. All done, they would be left in a temperature-controlled room to ferment before baking.

“Before the croissants go in the oven, we wash them with an egg,” he said. “It gives them that golden colour. Et voila!”  

As Mikel whisked away his newbies, I checked the time. Once again, it had flown. Despite feeling as though I needed to leave, I had a strong sense that Malik and Mikel were happy to continue sharing tricks of their beloved trade for as long as I liked.

The cafĂ© side of the boulangerie now had new clients, chatting happily as they tucked into a warm pastry. With so many bakeries in our corner of France, it was a familiar scene. But what sets this little boulangerie apart is that all the products are freshly made by hand. There are only eight others who do that.  

Malik has won several awards for his pain, and I’m not surprised. He and Mikel work incredibly hard, with a dedication and pride that is obvious for all to see. Baking different loaves, pastries, pizzas and cakes, their daily production rate seems endless.

I couldn’t have been more grateful for the time they gave me. I left with a million thank yous, and on my way out, I tried to buy some pastries. Malik refused with a hearty ‘Non!’ when I proffered my cents.

Later on, I savoured what was undoubtedly the best Pain au raisins I have ever tasted. My two visits had been a true privilege. For me, this really is le best boulangerie in our corner of France.