Staining our extremities
...and recalling dangerous days in the Afghan desert
It was a week that started with stained red hands and ended with stained red feet.
But not content with immersing our extremities in this year’s wine grape harvest, we also stained our stomachs with some grapes picked and fermented a few years ago...and some blue gin that turns pastel pink with a tickle of tonic.
It’s been a busy week in Vale das Estrelas with two sets of visitors rolling up their sleeves to help us tackle some big tasks...but also to try some great wines, amazing meals and our best beaches to prove it can be a holiday here as well as a work camp.
But to begin with we needed more than sleeves rolled up when winemaking friends Niels and Sybille gave us all a practical lesson in red wine pressing.
One batch of their red grapes had been fermenting in a stainless steel vessel for a few weeks – skins and all – and the time had come to press the juice into an oak barrel.
I’ll write more about this and winemaking (which we are slowly learning more about) in The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure blog, but it was great to be part of the process.
After some scraping the bottom of the barrel, a little pumping, some gentle pressing and the occasional wine shower, the last job was cleaning out the press...hence the red hands.
After all that hard work (!) we retired to Niels and Sibylle’s patio for snacks and their wonderful gin, coloured a rich blue with a rare flower and transformed into a perfect pink once mixed with fruit and tonic. Another rubbish day in Portugal.
Our first guest was Peter Emmerson on his first trip to the valley having left the BBC after some 40 years as a sound engineer, producer, cameraman, editor, drone pilot and so many other things beside...all in the nastiest, war-iest parts of the planet.
Pete and I have done some crazy things together, but perhaps the craziest for me was driving around Helmand province in 2006 with the Royal Marines’ Brigade Reconnaissance Force which made a great Panorama programme.
That was the year British troops first arrived in Helmand and it had been a violent beginning.
Along with cameraman and general legend Fred Scott we had secured an “embed” with troops who were out in the desert for ten days “finding out what the Taleban has got.”
They provided us with an extra open-topped, unarmoured desert vehicle and used the opportunity to stack it with fuel and ammunition while they drove us at Taleban positions to see what kind of weaponry they had and how they would respond.
With little more than a flak jacket for protection we sat on a moving bomb as it was ambushed, shot at by snipers, mortar bombed and targeted with rocket propelled grenades.
It was such an intense trip that at one point my Panama hat blew off – I didn’t feel it was right to ask to go back for it and have always imagined a Taleban commander finding it in the sand and wearing it as some odd trophy.
It was an amazing assignment – the first real opportunity to see first-hand what British boots on the ground in Afghanistan really meant.
One night the Afghan National Police sent a mayday message requesting urgent help as their position was about to be overrun by the Taleban.
Next thing we were heading down “ambush alley” – the police flares lighting us up like a moving target – and one of the troops handed me his pistol saying “just in case...don’t use it until they are really close.”
I put it down and awkwardly thanked him. It was a false alarm - the police had been smoking something and hallucinating - anticipation is always the worst.
Pete and I have covered earthquakes, storms and tsunamis, but while I eased away from wars, dropping in on them from time to time over the years that followed, Pete kept going...to Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond...until he finally left the BBC this year.
He still takes phone calls from people in the field asking for advice and helps former colleagues with challenging mad-cap projects.
Audio has always been his first love and he is a genius...and so we’re so lucky he’s offered to master the audio on our wine podcast to make it sound amazing.
Pete spent the week in his happy place: headphones on, crafting away on his laptop to master Episode One...and I had to tear them off to get him to the beach in the afternoons.
All I have to do now is get the next nine episodes ready for him so we can launch them all later this year.
Our other guests were the wonderful Gledsons, and there’s nothing like a return visit from Alan and Margery to kick us into action.
As a former sheep farmer (and my rugby coach: see last week’s blog) who did a huge barn conversion virtually single handed, Alan knows how to do stuff and both he and Marge are made of titanium...even if their knees aren’t (yet).
Top of the list was cleaning out and painting the solar house: the little building next to our solar panels where our inverters, batteries and associated electricals languish alongside loads of boxes we still haven’t unpacked.
Before I’d even walked up to the solar house, Alan had moved everything out of it and was demanding cleaning supplies.
Within two days the walls and beams were white and the floor a tough, rubberised grey...ready for the big upgrade to our new huge solar system for the tourism project which I’ll be telling you all about next week.
Job two was revisiting the concrete outdoor kitchen we made months ago and mounting the new BBQ.
It needed an extra brick support which involved mortar mixing, sanding, sealing and putting together some adult Lego. ✅
Ana and Marge planted herbs and bougainvillea like demons. ✅
Over the week we rewarded ourselves (and our hard-working guests) with slow-roasted wild boar (wild boar) in Daniel’s wood-fired oven, multiple wine tastings and some fantastic Alentejo food...and all our best beaches. We want them all to come back soon!
But what about the red feet you may ask?
We’re still recording for the wine podcast and wanted to give Pete a sense of it all, so set off on a short road trip through inner Alentejo.
We had a fabulous few hours at Herdade do Peso, gave Pete a taste of Roman-style talha (amphora) wines over a traditional lunch and then stomped by Torre de Palma wine hotel to end the week as it had begun...crushing grapes.
The fabulous founders Isabel and Paulo Rebelo told us how they discovered a ruin and created something very special as I’ve written about before.
We’d been eyeing up the large pink marble fermenting tanks (lagares) for months, and now it was time to get down and dirty.
The huge vats were full of fermenting red grapes in need of some foot-trampling action and so we joined some of their guests to experience first-foot the sensation of silly-walking our way through a knee-deep bath of grapes.
More of that to follow on the wine blog, but Pete was happy to report it’ll make a great podcast episode.
And finally...the first Atlantic storm is due to arrive today, and so we spent a day getting Siouxsie the Suzuki’s top back on, everything perishable under cover and our rainwater collecting system ready to replenish its supply for the first time since the last April showers
Winemakers like Niels have been racing to harvest their grapes before the vines get a soaking and a battering, but having tracked the storm with increasing optimism over the last few days, the millimetres promised have gradually been decreasing.
And with tourists and guests hoping to hang on to summer, maybe our rain dance will be trumped by the sun dance kids.