WHEN WE came to live in the Algarve many years ago, being country people, one of the first things we noticed was the earliness of hay time and harvest. The few farmers now remaining in our valley were cutting and turning their hay a couple of weeks back, and are still waiting for the baler to arrive. Apart from those who grow top grass, the quality of the crop is no better than 20 years ago, the rarely re-seeded local hay paddocks consisting of tough grasses, wild oat and perennial weeds. Never having known anything different, their animals subsist on this hard tack and, through the years, have learned to avoid all the junk that comes with it: plastic bags, discarded odds and ends, and sometimes even old dung.
Imported horses from temperate climates, accustomed to eating seeds hay or hay from permanent pasture, are reluctant to eat such fodder and fail to thrive. Further north, in the Alentejo, it is possible to buy bales of the right quality but at an inflated price – add to that the cost of transport, and keeping any but native breeds becomes prohibitively expensive.
Increasing in numbers, many of these homebred horses look well fed and in nice condition, but it is rare to see a working donkey or mule anymore. The few still remaining live out their rusticated lives tethered and alone, in some instances, with neither shade nor water in the summer heat. They have been replaced with 4x4s, or those small cars licensed as motorcycles which are driven, where possible, on the hard shoulder, out of consideration for the faster moving motorist.
Urbanisation is seeping into the biblical hinterland of the Algarve, as fast as today’s adult generation turns its back on the land worked by their fathers, ensuring the destruction of their heritage as certainly as continuous drought abstracts water. The two are related, and unless steps are taken to control profligate building and draconian measures used to preserve water supplies, the tourist goose will surely cease to lay its golden eggs.
Meanwhile, the farm of our near neighbour, who when we first pitched our caravan owned the biggest spread in the area, has diminished considerably. Parcels of land have been sold off for the building of single houses, their curtilage devoted to well irrigated gardens and in most cases a swimming pool. The hectares he still owns support a small herd of yarded cows and their calves, which only graze outdoors in summertime.
The farmer works alone from dawn until dusk and, for the past week, has been gleaning fallen seed from a recently harvested field of broad beans. The coarse blackened straw will be fed to his animals and the seed retained to sow the following season. Known as favas over here, apparently they were in use thousands of years ago having been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Used as a daily diet in some tropical countries, they are known to cause a form of paralysis called Favaism.
We have a smallholder neighbour who makes a delicious paste from the insides of cooked and peeled beans, pounding the contents together with lots of raw garlic and olive oil. Rarely is this vegetable eaten young and tender, as is our custom, and those sold here would be discarded as uneatable in an English shop. Given the opportunity, I would eat them every day during the season, and am wondering if the lethargy that overcomes me at the sight of a vacuum cleaner or duster has a medical cause and might merit a sick note?
Fred, who has no household duties other than to wipe his feet before supper, is displaying similar symptoms. Despite constant inspection and, where necessary, the removal of fellow travellers from his anatomy and regular applications of Frontline, he is suffering from a tick borne illness – no appetite and falling asleep wherever his legs buckle.
A visit to the vet, a painful injection and a course of pills should have boosted his immune system for the time being. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by farm dogs and a few strays, many of them being carriers of endemic disease of one kind or another, against which there is no permanent protection.
Nonetheless, having found a housesitter, we shall go away for a couple of weeks. The pain of parting from our pets will last only until we are a kilometre up the EN 125, just as it was in England when we left the children in safe hands. Booking flights on the net, searching for places to stay and trying to hire a car after the age of 65 years has been very difficult. At this advanced age, the elderly are considered an insurance liability and not fit to drive, experience being considered of little value when measured against youthful exuberance and instant reactions.
We have found one company, which advises those over 65 years to telephone before trying to book a car and, on two occasions, the Boss has been accepted without age discrimination, despite being an octogenarian. For some reason, I was denied permission, which has pricked my self-esteem, but, on reflection, I concluded that, as passenger, I am well placed to supervise the Boss’s driving and to remind him to keep to the correct side of the road if he has a senior moment.
By Margaret Brown