This week I’ve recorded an audio version of the post for a change…see if you like it and please let me know if you do (or don’t!). It comes after a special request…listen to discover who from.
“You have the same rainfall as Gloucestershire” Ray told us when we first met on Zoom and were discussing when he’d arrive to volunteer in the valley.
But it was the mid-1980s when Ray Foster-Morison lived here in São Teotónio with his wife Lisa.
They came to the new European Economic Community (EEC) member country to set up a farm.
It turns out one of the biggest changes over the 35 years is that there’s now a lot less rain.
Ray has just retired from the National Farmers’ Union where he’d spent most of his working life post-Portugal, and so was keen to come back and poke around this little corner of the country which had been home for four years.
About 18 months ago we first appealed for volunteers to come to Vale das Estrelas and help us work on our current project in exchange for a free stay and a good meal each day.
For the last three weeks we’ve been lucky enough to have Ray with us, but the best laid plans to build a greenhouse and get some plants in were ripped up after the fire.
Top priority jobs became cutting down blackened trees, building and painting a new trellis for creeping plants, clearing debris and some much-needed dog sitting while we ran some errands in Lisbon.
Ray arrived in the aftermath of the fire with our old friends in town and so his time in the valley began with a flurry of dinners, drinks and chat, a tour of Medronho Jorge’s distillery and a trip to Dona Paula’s wild boar (wild boar) restaurant in the hills.
“She was great,” Ray said, of the chef in this fabulous little restaurant which specialises in the boar she sends her husband out to shoot.
“I think I could say it was the best food I’ve ever had in a restaurant,” he told me when we sat down for a beer to do the post-mortem on his stay.
“There were eight of us, we had the wild boar and the pig cheeks, the wine, the medronho, the desserts...it just kept going on and on...and it was €25 a head which was amazing.”
I would love to share this unremarkable-looking place with you, but it will remain our secret so the prices stay good and it doesn’t lose its incredible character...and we’ll be back there again tomorrow.
We then got down to some hard work for a couple of weeks, but the first thing Ray helped us with was our insurance claim – his job at the NFU had been an Agent which included helping people with claims, and so he was able to advise on the best approach after the fire.
The repair work has gone remarkably well with our amazing builders putting their backs into it: replacing outdoor floor tiles, building a new wooden pergola with a sandwich board roof, fitting new patio doors and painting the house which had been singed by the fire.
We were still one window short of a complete job when Ed, Rachel and Daisy arrived this week and so we had to do a little DIY before they arrived.
Ray whipped out his saw, knocked together a frame and thanks to some recent IKEA sofa bed shopping we had some double-glazed plastic on hand to build a temporary window to put into place and seal with expandable foam.
It was in the days of Wade’s visit when we discovered how handy Ray was with a chainsaw.
The first thing our landscaper-to-the-stars pal from LA said was “that tree has got to go” and Ray immediately offered to chop it down and cut it up into fire-sized chunks.
Next thing the ladder was up, the chainsaw out and the tree was down.
With a focus on the clean-up we often neglect, he also pushed us to get all the spare branches, leaves and masonry rubble from the old barbecue on to the trailer and out of the way.
Part of Wade’s big plan for “welcoming in the good fire to prevent the bad” was to scrap the planned wooded deck on stilts, demolish the BBQ and remodel the space we have to create an outdoor area under the shade of our pink pepper tree.
And so Ray set about chopping down any pine “smaller than eight inches” as per instructions.
It turned out to be quite a messy job amid some charred wood and ash, but every time he had a few hours spare he’d head off with the chainsaw...and what a fantastic pile of wood we have now.
Next big job was project pergola: buying wood, doing some complicated maths, sawing carefully, buying some bolts, painting the frame and creating the perfect trellis for our bougainvillea and passion flower plants to get to grips with.
We hope to guide the plants up and create a natural roof on the pergola to provide much-needed shade. Great job!
We planned the olive grove and the irrigation system, talked through the landscaping plans with Carlos, installed a couple of new sinks and listened to what life was like in this part of Portugal in the 1980s.
Ray and Lisa moved here to work for a Dutch-run company taking advantage of the new and generous subsidies courtesy of the country’s new EEC status.
“We grew soya, wheat, maize, flowers for seeds, asparagus and potatoes – all sorts,” said Ray of the 200 hectare farm which is just across the main road from us – only a few minutes’ drive away.
They also did some experimental farming of navy beans – the ones used for baked beans – built five dams, put in electricity and fenced the whole property.
“São Teotónio town has certainly expanded but there’s a real change in the demographics,” he said in reference to the migrant workers who look after the berry farms.
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Ray and Lisa built a new farmhouse but never lived in it, choosing to head back to the UK after four years to get the children into school – their daughter was born here.
“Sadly the house that we built was bought by someone who ran out of money, the bank foreclosed and it’s now empty. The farm is more like a ranch now with cows, but there are still people around who were here when we were.”
Ray introduced us to his British friend Ruth who moved here more than 30 years ago to create a fish farm and now runs a bed & breakfast place...again a stone’s throw from us.
With the arrival of new friends and guests we ended Ray’s stay the way it began – with a feast...this time of sardines, of good Alentejo wines and some crazy evening antics to send him on his way with a big thank you.
“After 30 years working in an office it was nice to get back to some physical work and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Ray said.
“I have dined like a king here – Ana made the most beautiful lunches and the Portuguese restaurants were as good as ever.”
“So are we mad, doing what we’re trying to do here?” I asked Ray.
“I think you’ve got the right approach,” he said.
“There will be bumps in the road, but I think your enthusiasm will get you through – I’m looking forward to following your progress and will hopefully come back with Lisa when it’s all finished.”
We are looking for volunteers to come and visit in February and March. It will be quite physical work planting trees, repairing paths, doing some concreting and rock wall building. Please use this form to get in touch.
Hello there, your voiceover gives double the enjoyment, thank you, especially as there is a howling gale outside here in Orkney.
Audio is perfect while doing physiotherapy exercises - anyone would think you had done it before. Blame a certain S Raworth for my eavesdropping. A current pleasure and indulgence is touring Portugal through wines back in blighty. The range and styles are breath taking in their difference from the mainstream. Your blog is a wonderful read, trials and tribulations included but audio adds another dimension.