Monday 30 December 2013

A month in books - December

We've been at the same campsite in Ourique for a month now and I'm running out of promising-looking English titles on the book exchange shelves.  This is the only thing I REALLY don't like about Serro Da Bica - the vast majority of the books are in Dutch! It is a Dutch campsite so understandable, but there are half a dozen whole shelves of books that I can't read. And it's so frustrating! So I've done something I haven't done in over twenty years and picked up a book in a foreign language! In lieu of rapidly learning Dutch, I chose to brush off my A Level German because there are about as many German books as English ones so immediately my choices are doubled! I initially and optimistically started with Cheng by Heinrich Steinfest because it had a great cover. Ten pages in I put it aside in favour of Die Bande O.N. by Hans Pille, a novella for older children. I'm progressing much better with this one and hopefully my vocabulary will be enough improved soon that I can restart the Steinfest.

Totally unintentionally I've read or listened to sixteen books again in December. Managing to complete two audio books is an achievement because, while they're great for commuting, they are so soporific when lounging in the sun! 

(All the titles link to their relevant pages on

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith **** 

Having listened to Child 44 on audio, I was pleased to pick up a copy of Agent 6 in a campsite book exchange, not realising that this is actually the third of the trilogy. I don't think it mattered that I've missed the second volume as the story flowed well on its own and the background narrative felt comprehensive without being awkwardly presented. I was interested in the range of venues visited - a truly international novel - and their historical setting. Agent 6 seemed to me to be less violently descriptive than Child 44, the first book making me feel quite nauseous at moments, which I did appreciate and I must now keep an eye open for the middle volume, The Secret Speech. 

Prophecy by S J Parris *** 

Historical mystery with a good sense of place and atmosphere including real figures from Elizabeth the First's court together with fictional inventions. The storyline was good and moved along at a good pace, but I found myself enjoying the book more for its setting than its plot. I would pick up other Giordano Bruno novels when I found them - a nice holiday read.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo **** 
One of my WorldReads from Sweden

At first read, there's nothing particularly amazing about this novel - the characters are well-rounded and come across as genuine people, the plot is winding and tricky, the writing is swiftly paced and draws you in. The surprise came when I realised that this novel is nearly fifty years old and, apart from the lack of technology, it hasn't really dated at all. Thanks to an interesting introduction by Val McDermid, I learned that its authors, Sjowall & Wahloo, were the trendsetters for the current way of writing crime novels. There are ten in this series - I'm going to track down them all.

Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt ***** 

Wow, this is a brilliant book! The device of 'notes for a novel' was a little offputting for the first few pages, but then it began to make sense and adds a feeling of immediacy and truth to the whole book. The narrator, a complete lost cause himself, is recording and judging those around him in a fascinating portrayal of despair and desperation. A lot of small things happen, most of them violent, and there isn't much of a storyline in an action sense, but the characterisations are perfect and I was gripped from start to finish. Easily as good as The Sisters Brothers, maybe better!

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido ***** 

This book is one of my WorldReads from Spain.
I read this on Kindle so didn't notice that the book was in translation from Spanish until I caught up with all the notes at the end. The translation is an excellent job - there's no sense of clunkiness or bizarre phrasing at all and the text flows fluently. It's perhaps no surprise that forensic science was first practiced in China and many great discoveries hail from there, but to understand that this kind of work was being done so many hundreds of years ago is pretty amazing. Garrido has done exhaustive research into medieval China with the result that The Corpse Reader totally immerses its readers into the culture and beliefs of the times. This is a fascinating read both as an exciting novel and as a glimpse into a fascinating hidden world.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn *** 

I loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which I read recently so I had high hopes for Dark Places too. However Dark Places for me was disappointing. The book is ok but I didn't think that it was in the same league as Gone Girl. Libby is essentially an unlikeable character and I didn't feel any particular sympathy with her so the will for her to succeed is lacking. Plus, the story itself wasn't a credible, perhaps because the main characters weren't as fleshed out. Runner and Libby seemed to be the only ones we really got to know. Hopefully, as we've already got it on the Kindle, Sharp Objects will be better!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green **** 

I saw 'romance' and 'young adult' in the descriptions of this novel before I read it, so was expecting a fairly light and schmaltzy book. The text is pretty simply written which belies its heavy subject matter and I liked the way the storyline emphasis is put on the blossoming relationship between Hazel and Augustus, rather than their suffering from cancer which is given a pragmatic approach. Hazel's level headedness in particular, raises what could have become a mawkish and sentimental book into a strong emotional novel. I enjoyed reading The Fault In Our Stars right through to the end and the only thing I wish hadn't been done as it was, was the Author's Note. In the Kindle edition, this rather blunt declamation of 'it's only fiction' is on the very next page to the moving end of the story and it felt a bit like a slap in the face! Perhaps this should be moved to the beginning of the novel or a blank page be inserted first to allow the reader a moment to adjust?

Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel ***** 
One of my WorldReads from France

Beautifully atmospheric evocation of a small town in First World War France, initially shielded from the immediate outrages of war, but as the fighting drags on, the town finds its own horrors. I love Claudel's writing although I am not sure I would rave about Grey Souls in the same way as I did Brodeck's Report as I thought it missed the otherworldly aspects of Brodeck. Interestingly, Dave preferred Grey Souls and cited exactly the same reason but from the alternate angle!

The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning ***

Not the standard plot for a detective novel but the sprawling storyline made it difficult to remember who everyone was and why or whether they mattered. From the synopsis on the back, I was expecting more of a literary novel. However, it's only the subject that leans towards literature, the writing itself is standard for the mystery genre, complete with some pretty gung ho dialogue at times. While Dunning spends a long time building up his plotlines at the expense of rounded characters and, although this book passed a couple of days reading time ok, I found it ultimately to be unsatisfying.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury **** 

Hard to believe this book is over fifty years old! I loved the imagery, especially of the scenes with the carnival folk and the frightening descriptions of the Illustrated Man. The story rattles along mostly at a good pace although I did find the more intense segments of moralising slowed the tale unnecessarily. The Sound Of Thunder very-short story is also included in the Audible download I listened to. This was also interesting, but obviously not such a developed work as Something Wicked.

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld ** 

Sadly a rather dull thriller which I found to be neither 'elegant' or 'spellbinding'. The patronising misogyny throughout is infuriating and the main characters are so two-dimensional that I didn't really care about them from half-way onwards - I just hate to leave a book unfinished! Perversely, several supporting characters are well-presented cameos. With sharp editing, the premise of The Death Instinct could have been the stopping-off point for a much stronger thriller, but there seems to be so much extraneous history crammed in that its points are dulled. A shame.

Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews *** 

This book is one those that used to reliably fly straight out the door when I had my bookshop years ago. I thought it would be more 'chick-lit' though and never bothered to read it. I picked it up on the campsite book exchange yesterday and finished it this morning! Very readable, the story is bizarre and horrifying, and the only bit I really didn't like was the ending which was rushed with several far-too-convenient elements and yelled 'buy the sequel'. Unfortunately this spoilt the book for me as, otherwise, it would probably have got a Good four stars. Instead it's an OK three stars.

So that's my December! I've got a couple of English books on my shelf still to read - The Shell House by Linda Newbury and Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard - both of which I expect to be solid three-starrers but I might be pleasantly surprised. We've also bought a Kindle 'boxed set' of the first four Sjowall and Wahloo books. The one I've read is duplicated but it's still a great price for the remaining three. Plus, of course, I have the two German books mentioned above - will they be in January's finished list?

Finally, does anyone else follow +Mary Okeke's blog? She's a reviewer of African literature and has recently posted her reads for 2013. Top of her favourites list was Neighbours by Lilia Momple so I'm going to try and pick up a copy.

Friday 27 December 2013

A Dutch Christmas in Portugal

Several new motorhomes joined us since my last post so there's a bustling little community
A busy Serro da Bica 
of nine campers here now, 17 people including Herman and Albertje. Everyone is Dutch apart from us, one other English couple and Frithjof who is German, but all the Dutch people speak good 'Engels' and are more than happy to switch between languages.

I'm glad we didn't follow my whim of spending Christmas day on the beach though. I know the weather in Portugal isn't anywhere near as bad as it has been back home, but heavy rain set in at about 5pm on Christmas Eve and just kept coming - all night! We managed maybe a couple of hours sleep between us as, with the awning blowing around and the rain thundering on Bailey's roof, it sounded like a hurricane outside. The awning escaped most of its pegs before morning so water got in. However, Bailey coped just fine and we stayed cosy and dry, if wearied.

Christmas Day began with coffee and Buterkoek in the bar. One of the other campers, Peter, had his birthday and joining a group for coffee and cake is a traditional Dutch way to celebrate. We braved the much-lighter-by-then rain afterwards for a hour's walking which meant I got the chance to try out my new Marmot waterproof trousers. They're perfect - comfortable, warm and stayed completely dry throughout the walk which is more than my previous Peter Storm pair ever managed. Well worth the price!
The house at Serro da Bica 

Highlight of the day was our Christmas meal for which we (almost) all gathered in the bar at 5pm. The other English couple won't come to the bar because 'they all speak Dutch' but everyone else was there. Albertje and Herman had arranged the tables with cloths and candles, red and green Christmas napkins and it looked lovely. I wrote out the menu afterwards and all the courses took up two days of my pocket diary - coincidentally, we both felt as though we had eaten a good two days' worth of food! First course was Albertje's homemade Hummous with mini toasts. Then we had Herman's Soup which was similar to a minestrone but with chourico pieces and meatballs in it. Everyone had seconds. Then the main course was a delicious Hachee which is a thrice cooked thick beef stew, vaguely similar in taste to the Greek Stifado. Albertje had been cooking this over the previous two days so we all already knew how good it smelt! The meal is traditional Dutch cuisine, but not traditional for Christmas Day. However, with so many mouths to feed here, it has become the Serro Da Bica tradition and several of this year's guests have been previously and returned. The Hachee was served with roasted rosemary potatoes, rice, spiced red cabbage, pears poached in red wine, and stewed apple. Everyone had at least seconds of all this as well. Then, when you would have thought no one could eat any more, our hosts served a rich dessert of whipped cream with multi-coloured jelly cubes, topped with a conserve of Albertje's homegrown strawberries. Phew! The Dutch have a fantastic word (which I've probably spelt wrongly) - 'outbouken'. It means to sit back and let your stomach hang out after having eaten too much. We all practised 'outbouken' with a small liqueur to finish! Dave had a Portuguese cognac and I had a white port.

We rolled back to Bailey and slept for about ten hours!

Monday 23 December 2013

Bread Soup recipe

At the time of writing, on the Serro Da Bica campsite in Ourique, Portugal, we were getting a
 delivery of a small loaf of freshly baked brown bread six days a week. Most days we ate about three-quarters of the loaf so I started to look around for recipes to use up the remainder. Waste not, want not and all that. This frugal bread soup recipe is vaguely based on an idea in the book Portuguese Homestyle Cooking that I first mentioned when we tried its Baked Salmon recipe. The soup recipe in the book is called Acorda a Alentejana (page 44) although if you know the original, you might not recognise what I actually ended up creating here! The texture of my soup as I served it was similar to a coarse mushroom soup and it was delicious!


3 inch pieces of chourico (ends and curve of a ring)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried parsley
salt and pepper
1 vegetable stock cube
1 pint water
day-old brown bread (I had about half a small loaf)

Heat the chorizo in a saucepan until the oils start to run.
Add the garlic, herbs, seasoning and crumbled stock cube. Add the water and cover the pan. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.
When the stock is simmering, remove the crust from the bread and tear into roughly inch-square pieces.
Remove pan from the heat and add the bread, pushing it under the liquid. Recover the pan and leave for five minutes so the bread can soak up the stock.
When the bread cannot absorb any more stock, stir it to break up the bread into a thick sort-of puree.
Serve immediately while soup is still warm.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

We saw an otter!

A welcome sight at the end of a long walk 

We nearly didn't go for a walk today because, apart from a half hour of sunshine this morning, the sky has been overcast most of the day. The weather here has changed over the past week from practically guaranteed sunshine to anything between full sun and brief heavy rain showers. The two photos that accompany this post were taken only a day or so apart. It's still much, much warmer here than for the poor souls we left back in the UK though, so mustn't grumble!

Back to today. We set off for a little stroll about half past three and achieved an hour-and-a-half walk which took in tricky narrow goat trails high above the river Mira, rocky river banks, the edges of ploughed fields, and dusty tracks. I love how the scenery here can change with seemingly every corner. As we passed the abandoned watermill near our campsite, Dave stopped suddenly as he had spotted a ripple in the water. His immediate thought was turtle, but the animal soon turned out to be an otter. We were both delighted - neither of us is a particularly quiet walker so I think we often scare off potential wildlife sightings. I have never seen a wild otter before, only rescued captive ones in enclosures. We watched for probably five minutes as the otter dived and swam around, seemingly oblivious to us on the bank. Then, later in the walk, a second ripple resolved into a turtle who had slid back into the river at our approach but then took its time about swimming away under grasses.

I guess we're not going walking today 

Other walking 'triumphs' this week include discovering a new place to ford the river by improvising rock stepping stones. It was a bit scary at the time and I think we both felt euphoric afterwards! Yesterday's four-hour picnic walk enabled us to eat our bread and cheese lunch on the bank of a gorgeous babbling brook. This was all the more surprising as most of the route had been fenced-in dusty tracks, but just as we got to about half-past one, turning a corner revealed the perfect picturesque spot. I've improvised a way to attach our Picnic Rug to my candy-striped Picnic Set Rucksack - like the one linked, but PINK! (It's still that one you got from The Pier, Adrienne, do you remember?) So we can have perfect picnics with our gingham-edged plates and tartan rug.

And we went out for Sunday lunch this week too. Together with Herman and Albertje, and Fritzhof who at the time was the only other guest here, we visited the Cafe Central da Alcaria in the nearby village of Aldeia. There is a little bar area inside and terrace space at the side of the road, but once you walk through the bar, it is like stepping inside someone's home. Which is pretty much what we were doing! A back room is whitewashed and has large tables to seat maybe three groups of up to about six people each. The menu comprises of 'meat' or 'fish' and you need to both place your order the day before and specify what time you will arrive. Our table chose 'meat' and one pm. Fatima, the owner, had created a tasty kale soup for starters, followed by delicious slow cooked pork with chips, rice and salad. Dessert was a selection of fruits, fresh from the garden, and also a slice of Buterkoek (recipe to follow once I've made it myself) which Albertje had baked and taken as a gift but which Fatima insisted on serving some of too. We then sat out in the sun for coffee and I spent the rest of day dozing in my sun lounger with an audio book. Bliss!

Thursday 12 December 2013

A cloudy day in Ourique

In a "shock, horror" storyline, we were actually awoken this morning by a faint pitter patter of rain on Bailey's roof!

Dave walking the river Mira
on a sunnier day
I think this is only the second day we've had rain since we left Britain and it was only very light, so we carried on with our day's plans undeterred. First off was a visit to a little market in the village of Santana da Serra, about a ten minute drive away. Around two dozen stalls were set up selling a variety of fruits and vegetables, clothes, pottery, live chicks, plastic containers and tools. The clothes stalls were interesting in that they only had quite formal items including skirts, trousers and thick woollen cardigans. It's easy to spot the tourists in southern Portugal at this time of year - we're the ones in shorts and t-shirts while the locals sport scarves, gloves, hats and coats! Unfortunately we were too early to spot many of said locals. Unlike British markets which generally start at the crack of dawn, we learned that Portuguese ones don't really get going until closer to lunchtime.

After lunch, with the rain gone but the sky still overcast, we chose to set off on what was intended to be a short 'getting out of the house' stroll but which turned into a lovely two hour walk and explore along the river. We were musing on a our good fortune, sat on a large rock at the turn-around point and trying to think what we would have been doing had we been back home. Apart from my needing to be at work, it being a Thursday, we realised that even had it been a weekend, we probably wouldn't have ventured outdoors and certainly not set off across the South Downs. We can both be discouraged by grey cloudy weather and generally choose to remain indoors on such days at home, whereas here we feel 'outdoors' already, mainly I believe due to the fantastic surface area of our Bailey Orion given over to windows. Plus, of course, it's considerably warmer here. The blustery breeze of the past couple of days has faded completely and I don't think Bailey's heater even turned itself on last night. I'm not sure how we will adapt to this loss of activity once we get home again. Obviously a complete lifestyle-change would be the perfect answer, but financial considerations don't make that an easy decision on any level.

Sinterklaas gifts! 
On a completely different and less philosophical note, Dave kindly pointed out, yesterday perhaps, that there are only two weeks left before Christmas. Neither of us are feeling particularly seasonal - even less than we usually do! However, Albertje has put up decorations in the bar at Serro da Bica and we joined in the 5th December Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas last week. (The link goes to Wikipedia if you want to read more about the tradition and its history.) For us here, the day meant we got to try small spiced biscuits (I initially thought they were pepernoten but kruidnoten are more likely) which Albertje had baked together with slices of a spiced cake with a almond-paste layer in the centre. We also got given the pictured pottery bowl presents - apparently all children get presents on 5th December! The smaller of the two has made a perfect ring dish and they are cute mementoes of our time here. Perhaps when we move on, we should fill them with the profuse prickly seed pods that get attached to our clothes every time we walk along the river?

A sad note to finish as I report the sad demise of our slow cooker which chose to give up the ghost on Sunday, part-way through the cooking of Dave's not-famous-enough Rogan Josh curry. Fortunately, we already had our new Clatronic EKP 3405 Hotplate  so the curry was saved and Herman very kindly took the cooker surround apart the next day to see if he could repair it in his workshop here but to no avail. We've googled up and down the Algarve, searching out a replacement and have come to the conclusion that Portuguese people don't use slow cookers. There are a few pressure cooker-like devices but we're a bit wary of them, Dave having witnessed a pressure-cooker accident some years ago. Therefore, as I finally get to the point, if anyone is coming out this way in the near future (and doesn't have a baggage weight limit!), could they put this Crock-Pot Slow Cooker  in their luggage?!

Wednesday 4 December 2013

The first week in Ourique

Gorgeous view from Bailey at Serro da Bica
photo by Dave Greene
which rhymes so well I couldn't resist! We're staying at yet another brilliant Dutch-owned campsite, this one is called Serro da Bica and our hosts are Herman and Albertje. Again, we've pretty much got the place to ourselves - one other Dutch couple and a German man being our only neighbours - although Herman said that it's usually busier here at this time of year. Apparently tourist numbers are lower generally compared to previous years. Must be that recession still biting. Facilities here are a cut above the norm - there's even underfloor heating in the shower room for a couple of hours every morning. We also have a bar/library room where we all have the option to meet up of an evening. You'd like this, Dad! Herman rings a bell at 5pm, when he's got the wood-burning stove roaring away, which is our cue to trot over there for a hour or so of beer or port and olives. Last night was special because Albertje had baked delicious Sinterklass biscuits which are little spiced cookies to celebrate the 5th of December.

Banks of the river Mira,
photo by Dave Greene
Walking is the primary daytime activity here and there is a variety of maps to choose from in the bar, plus we also tried going off-piste - which nearly ended badly meeting a large dog in a farmyard! The first afternoon we explored a little of the gorgeous river Mira whose banks mark the edge of Serro da Bica. On the first full day, I packed a picnic lunch including a loaf of handmade fresh brown bread that is delivered daily. It's so tasty butter isn't needed with it. We set off on a 13km walk which doesn't sound too taxing except that the first half was mostly rock scrambling and following narrow wild boar tracks along the river bank in lieu of 'proper' footpaths. Great fun and the river here is beautiful. Rocks and autumn coloured trees, crystal clear water and red earth. Unfortunately most of the birds have gone south for winter but we saw azure magpies, red legged pheasants and evidence of an eagle owl.

Saturday night saw us going out to dinner for the first time since we've been away. Herman and Albertje drove us all to Café Restaurante O Novo Coimbra, a few minutes away. They had already got us salivating with much talk of the 'mirandesa' - a beef dish of the red cow which is served on vertical skewers with chestnuts and fried potatoes. Dave had this and was very impressed. I had javali, which is wild boar, in a very tasty stroganoff. I had not tried boar before. We're going back there on Friday and I think I shall have mirandesa then though - unless something else new catches my eye!

Do you remember my saying in a previous post that one of the problems we might face on such a long trip is only having British gas bottles which aren't compatible with those in ANY other country? Well to try and prevent this being an issue for as long as possible, we brought a camping gaz bottle that was still part-full from our last trip. It's done pretty well coping with most of the cooking outside in the awning until yesterday evening when it ran out. Replacing it was going to be expensive - 36 euros we think - so we have taken the advice of our Dutch neighbours at Evoramonte and have instead splashed out the princely sum of 17 euros on an electric hob. We generally have to pay a set amount for the electric hookup, regardless of how much energy is actually used so ... ! We are now the proud owners of a Clatronic EKP 3405 Hotplate which has just cooked an excellent Chicken Tikka Masala (recipe to follow) and fits neatly on the worktop in Bailey so no more chilly awning cookery!