welcome to emmas housethought

fig tree of the wines

The charms of your local tiny town can be easily trampled underfoot while pursuing the routine errands of an ordinary Thursday.  But if you do stop to look, you might be lucky enough to find a town as mildly amusing as Figueiró dos Vinhos.

Fig Tree of the Wines (adhering to the regional tradition of meaningless place names; see Chestnut Tree of the Pear) has forever been some sort of village, probably owing to the confluence of rivers, good soil and happy climate. It has had the Fig-something name since the 13th century, making it almost as old as Portugal itself. It had something of a boom during the 17th century, when it was a iron smelting centre. The remains of the smelters (check out this excellent collection of old pics) along the banks of the Foz de Alge are still there, drowned in the risen waters of dammed junction of the Rivers Zêzere and Alge.


The villages around the Foz de Alge look like they haven’t changed since then. Apart from a few specs of ugly modern development, this is still a very remote and poor place. It’s surprising that this was a hub of industry even up until the 20th century. The iron business in Portugal was introduced by the Muslims, who invented the geared and hydropowered mills that were needed to hammer the metal from one form to another. Here at the Foz de Alge and at the fishing spot of Machuca (in the north of the Concelho) there was both the flow of water and the forest of trees required to make charcoal for the iron’s furnaces. You can still see the wealth of iron ore in the earth when passing the magenta-coloured roadworks for the new IC2.


Figueiró (pronounced Figaro, of Marriage and Mozart fame) briefly became an art-world mecca in the 20th century when painter José Malhoa brought his entourage and set up a Naturalist school in town. Despite the style having already peaked in Paris just as he was getting started,  Malhoa nonetheless had been famous in Portugal for about 20 years before settling in the Fig de Vin. His school sheltered a small bunch of widely known and respected artists, by Portuguese standards anyway. He left behind the fanciest house in town.

A better museum to the era in my mind anyway is a little tiled cafe-bar that’s now for sale. I went there once, on the day I bought my house. My head was reeling and I drank a couple of ports and chatted to the owners. The pastoral azulejos and timber furniture are so classic Portuguese that I hate to think what will happen to the place if it goes to the wrong people. Tea room, someone?


The Estado Novo was good to Figueiró Vinhos. It developed during the mid 20th century, probably in the wake of Castanheira de Pera, where the factories were closing and the money going elsewhere. Typically of Central Portugal, people left in droves during the 70’s, and despite the influx of foreigners here to lap up the calm, the quiet and the cheap, the population of Figueiró decreases a little every year.

But not on market days. Figueiró has the best market around. It’s huge, and properly balanced between home-grown-free-range and festa de polyester. I like the 50 metre strip devoted to older locals and their farmyard produce. And wookie likes the all the chicks and ducklings.


Probably I like Figueiró dos Vinhos because it does good cake. There’s a old factory devoted to the worship of Pão de Ló, which… I’ve never tried. Tsk. But it’s a very serious looking little side street establishment that only the locals would know and therefore their sponge cake must be out of this world. Every year Figueiró has a cake-fest held in the town’s closed-silent-poor-and-shoeless carmelite convent, the church of which is unbelievably gorgeous. The cloister is also remarkable having been sliced on the diagonal by a ginormous wall in a sell-up of half the convent’s property. Tsk. On the final matter of cake, my favourite place in Figueiró is still the paved courtyard behind the câmara and in front of an unassuming little cafe called Pingo Doce. The pastéis de nata there are the best outside of Belém.

Your local tiny town will never engraciate itself to you unless it has a couple of decent places to eat. We have three. Which is a lot when you consider how bored we are with the monoculture of Portuguese food and that this here really is, to coin the Australian term, the boonies. Restaurant number one is the restaurant at the prize pony Schist village Casal de São Simão, A Varanda. It is great. Local and seasonal, authentic but not predictable, it’s a really nice space and not overpriced. Number two is your family-run fluoro lights and TV type place which serves massive helpings fast and the bill always looks like there’s been a mistake in your favour. Except here the food is way better than you expect and their specialty is a superb prawn curry. It’s called A Tricana. The third fav is Restaurante Paris and is half way between the two, with standards done well in a nice enough environment. It’s not pretending to be fancy, just like Figueiró itself.


in transit

I have a serious problem with missing flights. Even though The One can make me get to the airport on time, I can still manage not to get on the plane. One theory could be that because I’ve flown a lot, I’m lackadaisical. But I think it’s more serious than that. Firstly I think I might have a pathological fear of waiting at the gate, and secondly, in this case, missing the flight rather obtusely expressed the fact that I didn’t want to go.


I’m off to Sydney for work. My Portuguese neighbours see it as the sad but necessary eventuality of a peasant’s life, where one member of the family leaves the bosom to find work in the New World. I find their point of view comforting. Far better than the grim admission that something has gone terribly wrong with the status quo, with Portugal and with my whole entire life which has led to this drastic upheaval and my new identity as an economic refugee.

No, The One isn’t coming too. No, I don’t know how long I’ll be away. No, I don’t have a job lined up yet.

Lest we forget this is the plight of hundreds of thousands of people across the world today. Only most of them are prevented by immigration laws that discriminate against people leaving home to just to improve their lot. To compare mine with theirs just makes me look greedy. All I want is to be free from worry, not from hunger. Boatloads of people are drowning off the coast of Australia because of the extremes they are forced to take to feed their families. And I complain about economy class.


Indeed with one last brave flash of the credit card I made it out alive, reassured in my physical fitness as I made the 22km sprint from one end of Heathrow to the other in half the advertised time. I am now privy to the lesser known fact that gate 43a at Lisbon is actually located in the Algarve somewhere. I know that the people at the Vueling desk are helpful and the British Airways not. Sensible shoes and a backpack is my advice to anyone susceptible to flight tardiness. These simple props can stop a big problem from becoming a catastrophe. And watching a lot of action movies the day before you fly so you can channel some stunt girl energy and attitude – better to look like you are an undercover ag chasing bad guys than a teary middle-aged tragic who just fucked up final call by hanging around the MAC counter too long.

Don’t expect me to talk up Sydney like it’s a joyride. It could be raining money here (of course it’s not raining anything. It’s winter and 22 degrees and gorgeously sunny) and I’d still be miserable because where I want to be is at home, curled up with The One.


There are some amusements, I admit. The biggest of which is choking on the extraordinary cost of things, for instance. Coffee $4.50. So, a coffee, cake and loaf of bread? That’ll be $16.00. I was looking forward to eating some quality beef and lamb but at $45 a kilo I think I’ll become a vegetarian. And let’s not talk about wine, which I have most definitely given up.

Of course what I am here for are the higher wages. Minimum wage is about $21/hr and the average wage is around $1200 a week. That’s (at least) four times higher than in Portugal. So it’s no wonder then the coffee cups are lined with gold.

On other visits I’ve felt like the dark side to all this affluence was apparent in how stressed out everyone was, but this time I’m impressed by the friendliness of the place. Everyone is polite, cheery and overtly respectful of your personal space (which I’ve always thought of as a uniquely Australian character, given the vastness of this land).

I am delighted to be surrounded by noodles and bok choy. To have ten cuisines of the world clustered together on the same street corner and to hear a different language being spoken at every cafe table. Sydney is multiculturalism at its best.


Still, the noise and traffic and technology have my head spinning. I’m awkward in the unfamiliarity of urban life. I can’t work an ipad, I struggle to figure out the train ticket machines. I’m a country bumpkin, so messy and unstylish. I’m a fish out of water.

So no matter how intoxicating Sydney might become, I know I’ll always be on the lookout for nice flights to Portugal. As they say, home is where the heart is.

In the meantime, I’ll settle into being Aunty Emsy-Poo-Poo again. And a daughter, and the youngest sister. Family. And old friends. Again, I should feel blessed that this is the refuge for this refugee. Imagine being unwelcome?




the bacalhau conversion

Posting about bacalhau on your Portugal blog1 is about as original a subject as beaches of the Algarve. It’s lame. It’s beginner’s guide. But I’m not going to tell you how great cod is, I’m not going to write about how we should stop eating this vulnerable fish, nor attempt to explain the Portuguese obsession with it. Except to say, in case you don’t know, bacalhau is an fundamental ingredient of the Portuguese condition.


Bacalhau is not fish, my friend Isabel says. It’s altogether another food group.

And because this dried cod beast is so in your face – stinking out the supermarket, on every single restaurant menu, huge flanks of it at the Saturday market, plain boiled, served with cabbage and put in front of you to eat at Christmas – it rather polarises people.

The One hates bacalhau.


But I don’t mind it. I like how you can use it as kitchen decoration for a month while working up an appetite for it.

So I decided to see if I could change The One‘s mind. He has a few food foibles that he carries with him from childhood, as you do, but if I ignore his claims against aubergine (for example) and do something tasty and discreet he scoffs it down like he never really knew what an aubergine was.

A riskier mission with bacalhau. It looks like a big flaky white fish. It tastes like a big salty flaky white fish.

Plan One. I’ll call it fish and chips! His favourite!


Comments? “I hate Bacalhau”.

Result? Fail.

So in the next recipe I disguised it better. Shredded, mixed in a bowl with mash potato, rice, lemon, garlic & herbs, and then rolled into balls and fried. Fish cakes, we call them. But more like arancini than patansicas.


Comments? “Salty. Have they got bacalhau in them?”

Result? Fail.

Next I went for a radical cultural departure and made a Thai style soup. A tom yam soup base, with red chillies, lemongrass, lime and coriander, then loads of garlic, shredded carrot & red pepper, onion, chunks of fish, vermicelli noodles, bean shoots and topped with sliced cabbage.


Comment? “I like the soup, as always. But the fish totally spoils it.”

Result? Fail.

Perhaps bacalhau shouldn’t be used out of context then? Maybe the Portuguese like it so much because they’ve mastered it? Fancy that?

My friend Eric spontaneously announced his latest favourite weekly staple – bacalhau a bras! I’d heard of this thing but never known what it was, and by Eric’s reckoning, it’s an easy, yummy, one pan meal that a bloke would like. A couple of days of fish soaking later and I’m onto it.

Make French fries, as thin as you can, and violently deep fry them while trying to keep them from turning into hash cakes. Drain most of the oil from the pan and throw in onion and garlic and chunks or shreds of fish – however boneless – then beat up some eggs with cream, pepper and parsley, turn down the heat and throw them in the pan, followed by half of the fries. Turn it over once or twice then dish it up with more fries, some lemon wedges and, if you have an English husband to convince, one with a dubious culinary history, a splodge of tomato sauce on the side.


Comments: “Mmmmm this is goooood!”

I wait until he has cleaned the plate before telling him about the bacalhau element.

“I liked it anyway.”

“So it’s a pass?”

“Is there any more?”

Result? Pass!

Yay… it can be done! I decide I should cement this victory with another attempt. This time I go back to the English (where I started and failed) and select a recipe from Jamie Oliver.

It’s just a simple pan fried fillet in butter, with garlic, capers, coriander, parsley and dill.


Comment? “Yum. You can do that again.”

“It was bacalhau”.

“I know. It’s ok. I like it like that.”

Result? Converted!


The Bacalhau Chronicles is completely exempt from these comments. This is a blog only about bacalhau. And that makes it ok 🙂





the grand opening of the hallway


Since I’ve just spent 6 months holed up in a four-square-metre passage, I think you all owe me 6 minutes to read all about it in its painstaking detail.

Oh yes this blog has arrived at help-me-pick-my-tiles and let-me-talk-you-through-the-completely-boring-minutiae-of-my-DIY-renovation-fix-up-dream-home wank.

Excellent! Let’s go!


First, I’ll disappoint the reader by saying it’s actually not finished yet. That’s right, because DIY Dream Home House Project Fantasies never are. I was saving a bit of the budget for a big fat shiny new digital TV, me being news deprived for four years now, but dang world events! the hallway comes first! Useful ikea cupboard instead. Haven’t bought it yet so here’s some dodgy photoshop work. Time to phone in with your votes!


The Floor. Fabulous darlings isn’t it? This floor was first laid by our dear woofers, with flagstones found under the cement floor in a lean-to which houses the stone oven. But then we ripped it up again because the grading wasn’t right and laid it anew and in doing so stuffed up the entrance to the bathroom, and now The One can’t fit through the door without using his hands and knees. Yay.


Just so you know everything, beneath the floor is some hideous blue board and a chunky layer of limecrete with maltesers. Oh and probably a damp proof course. It was so long ago I can’t remember. Anyway, after being laid the floor subsequently endured splashes of cement render, lime render, limewash, plaster, paint, cat vomit, a smashed jar of pesto and a whole lot of dirty doggy footprints. So last week I spent three days and two bottles of ácido muriático (which doesn’t sound nearly as bad as hydrochloric acid) scrubbing it all off.


Also during those wire brush days I cleaned up this nice bit above the door which got roughed up when Penfold replaced the roof, last year sometime. So it’s been re-pointed in lime and the stone faces revealed using the Michelle Obama / Linda Hamilton arm workout video. While high on hydro gases I cleaned the timber with acid too and made the new pointing all dirty. The One didn’t know this was actually a mistake, and he complimented this accidental aging patina effect. And he’s right, it’s bloody lovely.


The Walls. I quite realise that six months seems a rather long time to spend on 4m2 (extrapolated this means the house will take another 5 years to finish) but there were these problems with the walls not being straight. This wall on the right is a brick wall I built myself, leaving me mystified why one face can be perfectly flush and the other not. Some time in the early months of year were dedicated to cement rendering both sides, the top bit being a bit fiddly as it been broken down and re-mortared a few times in the pursuit of electricity. I love rendering almost as much as plastering, although it does something weird to your brain. So fixated you become on smoothness that even one tiny rumple possesses me to do another coat. It’s not a job that manic perfectionists should be doing. It’s a bit like crack. Almost as soon as you’ve downed your tools you get the urge for more.

The entranceway needed radical rendering. It’s the doorway to the oldest part of the house, built in rough stone, a bit settled and as wavy as praia das rocas. It wasn’t working well for my obsessive compulsive need for straight lines and geometry. But after four weeks and 17 coats of lime render she’s lovely. Not sharp, but vertical and with all the nougat-ness that lime brings. Limewash over lime render looks dense and soft. I love it.


The entrance also needed a step so I knocked that up with leftover floorboards. Something went wrong with our new floor. We decided on oiling it with linseed but it never sealed properly and now we have a very dirty floor, which going by the 4:6 formula it will take three weeks to clean. So we’ve decided to stain and varnish it. Controversial, certainly, but one dog two cats building site practical. And this is the colour. No, there’s nothing to vote on here. Don’t phone in. It’s done.


The other wall wasn’t a big deal. So in between blogging, feeding the people, putting out the washing and taking pictures of cake I put up a timber frame, insulation and plasterboard and then plastered my way to bliss.

Picked up a dandy shoe cupboard from the Swedes and knocked that up in world record time, another thing I totally love. These days budget ikea may be as disposable as ever but the middle class stuff is superb. It fits, it works and in outback Portugal no one has seen it before.

The ceiling had been put up last year but still needed several weeks of plastering sanding painting filling sanding and painting. Bloody ceilings, we should just dispense with them altogether. Only where would the possums live, possums?


Bathroom door. The magnificent bathroom door has been covered in earlier publications but I still had to frame it up and hang the bitch. Never have I had so much agony as I have hanging every door and window in this house. It’s primarily the fault of the age of the doors and not being perfectly straight but I swear there is something wrong with the hinges I’m buying. Finally, after umpteen minor adjustments she swings and shuts. Mao just can’t get enough of it. He cries to be let in and then cries to be let out. I think he thinks there’s a very handsome burmese on the other side.


And finally, the front door. This was the original internal door from the hall to the living area. Fortunately protected from the elements and the neighbour’s pissing dog, it’s heavy and straight and not too eaten by woodworm. While sanding through layers of paint, including an insane turquoise, I found something written on the door in pencil. The words were illegible but the markings were obviously that of child’s height.

Old houses are so like people, don’t you think? So full of surprises.

chasing roman rocks

I can’t resist a brown sign. Especially the ones with the arch, symbolising an historic monument. The ones with the pillory symbol I can pass on, along with the beach ones and the water ones. If you followed all of those then you might end up at Praia das Rocas (beach), and that would be disappointing. On the other hand a brown sign saying Osso da Baleia(beach) – well that’s intriguing.

Thus, when I’m let out by myself I spend hours chasing brown signs. The One will not stand for my random turn-off adventures, and who can blame him when the monument in question might be 28 kilometres from the signpost and if you can actually find it it may only be a small rock covered in duck poo.

I’ve spent years chasing small rocks around the world. Greek and Roman rocks mostly, from Palmyra (Syria), Nemausus (France) to Bulla Regia (Tunisia). And now, just down the road.


Indeed the great city of Conimbriga is not far from here. But more interesting are the smaller ancient fragments scattered around, hiding under the stones of Portugal’s not-so-modern villages.


Take Condeixa-A-Velha, which sits in a deep gorge in the shadow of Conimbriga. It’s a classic Portuguese village with more than the usual dose of oldness. No doubt that the houses here would have been built with stone from Conimbriga. Indeed if you are renovating in Condeixa Velha an archeological team come around and dig a hole in your foundations. In an inaccessible alley crowded in by rough little houses and built upon by a large unused barn, are three roman arches, their purpose buried by time.


A few kilometers away another brown sign lured me to the village of Alcabedique, surely one of the best place names in Portugal. There, without a shred of indication are the remains of the Roman reservoir which supplied water to Conimbriga.

All around this area the landscape looks ancient, biblical. Especially in the dry heat of summer with crickets singing and vines heavy with fruit. The villa romana in Rabaçal sits in an olive grove with trunks as old and wide boababs. There’s really nothing left of this Roman house-complex except the shapes of the walls. Although under the sand which covers the internal spaces there are some fading mosaics.


Antiquity is best kept in the dark. The brutal exposure that most ancient ruins have to endure makes their deterioration inevitable. The older the ruin, the more it gets subjected to terrible restoration. Especially in the 20th century when tour buses and cement trucks collided.


The Residência Senhorial dos Condes de Castelo Melhor is a monument of the 21st century. A grand 16th century Manueline castle and villa of aristocracy was acquired by the council last century and left to rot until being made state heritage in 1978. Subsequently it slowly began to be restored and in 2002 Roman ruins were officially discovered in the foundations. Fortunately no one had listened to the plumber who worked on the tavern built in a part of the villa back in 1975. He discovered the mosaics entombed in the foundations, in rooms in which a family lived until 2002.


Had they been discovered in 1975, their rescue and preservation would not have been so sensitively managed, such was the politic and science of the time. Today, despite the imperative to preserve the 16th century building on top, these mosaic carpets might be exactly as they looked to 5th century Romans.


This Roman house was massive. It far exceeds the boundaries of the castle, where excavations continue. The foundations show that the Roman house was occupied over a few generations, with higher levels and differing styles of mosaic works showing renovations. Apart from the mosaics in the small subterranean houses in Tunisia, these are the most beautiful floors I’ve ever seen.


Between the Italian city of Herculaneum, the underground Bulla Regia and this single house in Santiago da Guarda, it’s obvious to me that the Romans built the most beautiful homes in history.

It makes renovating a place first built in 1937 somewhat bemusing.


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