welcome to emmas housethought

rustic recipes

The house came without an electric stove and in my new-found penny-pinching peasant state of mind I took to cooking over an open fire. Once I had worked out through trial and error just what this fire stove required to work efficiently (my happiness now depends on a secure supply of pine cones) I have really become addicted to the whole rustic gourmet thing darling…

I’m not new at this rudimentary cooking game. Actually I’m something of a connoisseur of roughing it. I love to camp but I have to eat well. I remember the first time I ate wild garlic. I was camping in chilly Tasmania and I made a lasagne using the whole head of garlic sliced like a (larger) vegetable between layers of tomato and bechamel. It was baked in the ground covered with coals – sort of hangi style. Later, tucked up in sleeping bag under the stars I was treated to a glimpse of a rare Tasmanian Devil when he came to clean up the scraps. Mmmm it was good. Garlicky little Devil.


I can almost still smell a delicious asian style noodle soup I cooked up in a trangia while sneaky-spot camping in a Roman ruin in Tunisia. My trangia and I had some great adventures on that trip. Cooking on the open deck of a ferry on a Mediterranean crossing. Making hot chocolate for new friends while waiting for the sunrise on Mount Sinai. And then entertaining the pilgrim masses with the Miracle of the Burning Wall when I decided to add more fuel to an already flaming canister – oops.

I was also once a cook on a safari through the oases of Western Egypt. We roasted whole sides of lamb, barbequed freshly caught fish, but also made simple pastas with olive oil, fresh local cheese and roasted pine nuts. Yum.

So just give me a pile of sticks and some matches, and I can whip up something tasty from whatever is at hand. Forget fancy pants recipe instructions like “gently simmer for 3 minutes” or “dry in a slow oven” and forget rare & exotic ingredients. No kaffir lime leaves or galangal in Central Portugal. Curry just comes as curry, not as 24 different endangered spices. One has to make do.



… is Cod. It’s an ugly meaty fish but inexpensive and versatile. They say the Portuguese have 365 recipes for bacalhau. It’s a staple, you might say. The national dish.

And it’s convenient! I still think it’s funny when I bring home a dried cod carcass and put it in the cupboard and forget about it for a while. There’s a fish, in the cupboard, for weeks. I think it’s novel.

Bacalhau Risotto.


Dried bacalhau needs to be rehydrated by placing it in a cold water bath in the fridge for two days. You should change the water at least 3 times each day, and if I forget to then I’ll leave it for a third day. Any less then your fish will be very salty.After the bath, I dry the pieces on a clean teatowel and cut them into large bite-sized chunks. Then I put the chunks in a bowl with garlic and olive oil.In a large frypan or casserole dish, fry a large onion. At the same time start warming about a litre of fish stock, hopefully fresh. If you only have cubes then you can improve them by adding sliced leek, carrots, onions and parsley to the warming stock water. To the onion pan I add the rice – I usually use carolino if I cant get arborio – and stir until all the grains are coated and transparent. Then I add the fish and garlic to the pan with the onion and rice, gently turning the fish so that it doesn’t break up.At this point I might add some vegies – sliced leek, tomatoes or carrots all work well. Also good in this dish are peas and beans – but I wouldn’t add these until the end as I don’t like them well cooked.

Add a cup or so of white wine and let it reduce.

Then gradually start adding the stock, a ladle full at a time until it’s almost completely absorbed. I check the base of the pan to prevent sticking, but otherwise I don’t over-stir.When the rice is al dente I then add some chopped parsley, piri-piri and lemon juice. And then taste for saltiness. I don’t add extra salt until I’ve tasted it as the saltiness of the stock and the bacalhau is variable.

Sometimes I omit the lemon and add a slurp of cream, for an extra decadent comfort-food experience. Yum!


Couve, a portuguese cabbage
More like a spinach than a cabbage, couve is one seriously popular plant. It is everywhere! There are hundreds of types of cabbages in Portugal but probably the most famous is the couve-galego which is used specifically in the classic portuguese soup caldo verde. Country people are passionate about their couve, and before I grew it myself the neighbours would proudly land huge bunches of the stuff on me. Generally speaking I’m not a big fan of green leafy vegetables, but they are one of life’s necessities and so I gave the couve a go. It packs a vitamin rich punch, (it’s actually one of the most nutricious foods you can eat) and now I like it so much I make this dish at least once a week. I’m converted.


This is my super-simple-fast-and-healthy recipe for when you can’t be bothered thinking about what to make. And one I always have the ingredients for as couve produces leaves all year round.

Pasta couve portuguesa.
While the pasta is cooking, fry the onion & garlic in a frypan with a generous quantity of olive oil. Place the finely chopped couve leaves on the top with a spinkling of salt and pepper and put on the lid. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan. Serve with grated parmasan. That’s it!

pasta couve

One thing I really like about Portugal is the variety of meat and seafood available at the local supermarket. I can’t get other things I consider ordinary, like fresh milk and peanut butter, but I have a choice of 25 fish varieties, rabbit, quail, turkey, game like venisen and wild boar, and infinite types of sausages and dried and smoked meats.

And there’s goat. There’s a traditional goat & red wine stew here called a chafana, but I don’t claim that this is anything like it, I just wish I had a more exotic name for this dish than Goat Stew.

Dredge the goat pieces lighly in flour and brown them on all sides in a pot. Add onions and garlic and finely diced carrot and let them sizzle for a bit. Deglaze the pot with 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar, and 1/2 cup of red or rose wine and let it reduce slightly. Add quartered potatoes, a tin of tomatoes and a maybe some water or stock so that the meat is covered at least half way. Season with salt & pepper, a bay leaf and some rosemary or marjoram and then cook slowly for four hours. I do the slow cook on the top of the salamandra (pot belly stove) in the living room, as then I can watch TV, work on the web site, nurse the cat and cook dinner all while keeping cosy on the sofa.When it’s cooked (the meat should be falling off the bone) I serve it topped with a pile of rocket leaves from the garden. A crunchy bread roll is essential for mopping up the juices. When you’ve eaten all the solid bits but there’s still some sauce left, it’s great for lunch with an egg tagliatelle or torn lasagne sheets. Mmmm, very wintery.


Peach Peru
While on the subject of stews cooked on the salamandra, this little invention of mine has become a bit of a favourite this winter. Turkey (Peru in Portuguese – interesting country name switch don’t you think) is cheap, but the cuts are chunky and therefore not well suited to pan frying or anything else really but a slow braising. My mother used to make a yummy apricot chicken and the morrocans are fond of fruit in a tangine (see, the arabs have pretty names for stews as well), so with these things in mind, here’s what I’ve come up with.

Have the butcher chop a couple of legs across the bone as in osso bucco. I usually remove the skin on turkey and chicken to reduce the fat. Fry onion and garlic with a few teaspoons of Caril (curry powder), a teaspoon or two of piri-piri (red pepper), a pinch of nutmeg, ground ginger and cinnamon, until the spices are well blended and darken slightly. Brown the turkey pieces and then add a cup of white wine or sherry. Let it reduce a few minutes then add a tin of peach halves. The liquid should be at least half way up the meat, but if not then you can add a cup of chicken stock. Cook slowly for 2-3 hours. I taste for seasoning at the same time as checking to see if the turkey is cooked through to the bone by inserting a small steak knife and watching if the juices run clear or pink. Sometimes I add little olive-sized new potatoes and carrots to the pot about a half hour before the end. Otherwise I serve it with with salad and rice and a blob of plain yoghurt.

pet profile

Mao is a 7 yr old brown Burmese and he is the love of my life.

Mao’s interests include chasing imaginary monsters, fetching small mice, smooching and sunbaking. Mao also enjoys travelling… I brought him here from Australia. He’s never been happier, fatter or smoochier.mao

The Wookies
…were born in December 2007 while I was on holiday in Australia. The day I got back, the neighbours appeared on my doorstep with this brown puppy wondering if I wanted to adopt him. Mao wasn’t even off the plane. There was no way I could consider having a dog until Mao was settled and happy. Just No Way.

But Mao did settle in, and the caffé latte pup was very charming. He clearly stood out from his brothers – more confident and outgoing. We liked each other. So when he was about 10 weeks, I took him home for a trial.

It didn’t go well. He cried constantly and pissed and shat everywhere. He wasn’t ready. I sent him back to his mother.

But then, after a couple of weeks, he came to my house all by himself. It’s about 250 metres over steep and winding cobblestones, but this little guy had the goods. He’d stay with me during the day, and then go home at night to his mum and brothers. It was perfect. I had half-adopted a little brown dog. I named him Wookie because he’s brown and hairy. Like Chewbacca.

After a while he gave up going home at night, and then a funny thing happened. His little white brother made the trip to my place and never went home. I took him home several times, but apparently my house, with Wookie, is where he was determined to be. He was the smallest of all the dogs in the village, and maybe he was tired of fighting for his food. I denied being his owner for quite a while, which is why Babywookie hasn’t got a proper name. But Baby has stuck, because he is one.

the wookies

Dingo is not my dog. He just lives here. Dingo comes from the next village, and when his old owners became ill and went to Lisbon, Dingo decided to come and live at my house. For the first 6 months I fought him. I shouted at him, I threw stones at him, I stuffed him in the car and took him back to his village. I tied him up. Nothing worked. He always came back and sat on my doorstep. So eventually I gave up fighting and realised that he was quite a nice dog. He’s a loyal and enthusiastic guard. No one gets anywhere near my door without a serious warning from him. If the other dogs jump on me he’s always there to make sure they’re not hurting. He sits on your feet. He leans on you when he’s cold. The Wookies love him.


living the life

Today I’m Living the Life.

I am lying in a hammock under the orange tree with the sun shining and a gentle swell on the breeze giving me a little swing. In the foreground the grey leaves of the olives trees look sharp before they give way to a soft sea of green; first of pine and oak then the dense forest of eucalypt beyond. There’s no sound except the quiet hiss of my thermos of lapsang souchong.

It’s a beautiful moment to give thanks…

To that filthy burrowing bastard who bit me on the little finger and put me in hospital – fearing of rabies and septicaemia and toxoplasmosis and leishmaniasis! Oh the scourging pain that rattled through my body while that rat’s poisoned sap leached through my veins and molested my glands. Infested, infected, inflamed!

Hang on, just have to reach for another shortbread.
live the life

I confess, I didn’t think much of the bite at the time. Yes, I washed it. Yes, I put iodine on it. But then I forgot about it. After all, it wasn’t the worst injury I’d had that day. The gouge on my right shin was far more impressive, blood, bruising, very nasty. So when Friday night comes around and I’m feeling all achy all over, I put it down to a week’s worth of shifting monster stones up a wall. But Saturday, it’s worse. I now have a huge lump under my arm and I can’t move I’m in so much pain. Sunday is also a lie-in-bed watch-movies occasion. The cat thinks it’s Christmas.

Monday I manage to drag myself off to the health centre. After an hour in the waiting room and one minute with the doctor, the next thing I know I’m being sent in a speeding taxi to the hospital. Rabies!

At the hospital there’s the obligatory lengthy wait during which all the very old and I play the silent game of what’s wrong with them then. When my turn comes I’m whisked off to a special exam room and treated to a scene of Grey’s Anatomy in which the handsome black chief resident and his gaggle of 20 something cuties all take turns in proffering a diagnosis.

Suddenly I’m waiting in line for radiology. The radiographers are a couple of clowns and their show starts with the cheekier one joining me in the single person changing room to discuss just which part of my single person requires x-ray. He examines my little finger up close. But they decide to x-ray my chest instead.

Por que? Rabies! Everyone is still worried about rabies. But, of course, they find nothing on the x-ray or in the blood. No rabies, no infection and no random virus to explain why I feel like I’ve been beaten with a baseball bat. It’s all just put down to inflammation.

They sent me home, to swing in a hammock. It’s not so bad. Thank you, little mole.

view from the hammock

my house plans

The old man who owned the house before me was born in here in the village. He married the girl next door – quite a feat in a village of less than 50 people. It could be a romantic story or it could be a scary one. Also scary is the idea of living within a stone’s throw of your parents AND your in-laws.

The house was built in 1939 by his father who was a respected stonemason. He also built the bridge and other houses in the village, and buildings in the nearest tiny town. My house is actually two houses: the white house is one and the ruin is another. There is also an annexe. A different family lived in the ruin. Apparently the ruin was a bit of a party house. Much singing and dancing and drinking went on there. Perhaps they shook the house down!?

my house

The houses are built in schist, the common field stone in central Portugal. Schist is similar to slate, it’s medium-dark grey with red, brown and terracotta clay colours. The stones are laid in a pure clay mortar which gives the house a very warm glow in the afternoon sun.

stone wall

The white house has a cement render. Historically, rendered houses denoted wealthier owners, but in a post modern twist whole villages with houses in bare stone have become a valued tourist attraction in this area.

the beirasthe beiras
Here’s the layout of how it is now:
existing plans 1st floorexisting plan ground

The idea of the building project is to unite the two houses to become one. The render on the white house will be removed, the stone cleaned and the mortar renewed. The metal windows will be replaced with older style timber windows and half-pipe roof tiles will reflect the local-traditional architectural style.

Here’s a crude photoshop impression of how it will look.


I love the look of stone on the outside, but the interiors of these local stone places are frighteningly troglodyte-like. Dark, rough and…dark. So, my interior walls will be plastered white, making the interior space new, clean, and open. The floor plan is designed around the enormous existing fireplace in the (old) kitchen.

first floor plan

The underground garage is missing from the plans.

While the exterior will hopefully look entirely traditional and old, the interior is modern. Modern in the sense that it will be a new blank canvas where I can insert old architectural pieces such as classic Portuguese azulejos (tiles), 18th century style mirrored doors, interesting antique coat pegs or other small details.

architecture details

While the fireplace is the focus of the house in the winter, the summer hub is the outside terrace, with a large dining table under a vine covered pergola. The stairs to the first floor link the outside dining area to the kitchen.

By locating the kitchen and living areas on the first floor, these spaces benefit from the views outside, and the cathedral ceilings inside. My aim is also to maximise the appeal and comfort of the house in the winter months as well as the summer. As it has a south-western aspect, the winter sun reaches all the way to the back walls of the first floor. The alternative of having the living area on the ground floor would’ve resulted in a cooler winter living space.

The house has four bedrooms which all have flexible usage. The bedrooms on the ground floor are partitioned only by sound insulated cupboards, once removed enable the two rooms to convert into one 25m2 space. The bedroom on the first floor, adjacent the living area could be a study or nursery. The annexe bedroom benefits from privacy and natural light, and has an ensuite bathroom. It might be useful as guest accommodation or an artist’s studio.

Energy efficiency

First – adequate insulation. It’s the cornerstone of a comfortable, low cost, low maintenance house. There’s a huge range of products out there and yet the majority of builders here are still opting to use the bare minimum and to use one that’s harmful to the environment. It drives me nuts.

Solar hot water. Who can resist free hot water? It’s now the law for new builds. Solar panels won’t perform 100% of the time so,

Recuperador de calor a agua. No idea what they call it in English, but it’s super efficient closed fireplace that heats the immediate area while also providing hot water for the whole house. I’d love to connect a series of radiators to make central heating. The cost of the installation is nothing much but the cost of the radiators is way out of my league. From my research the recuperador solution is the most economic and eco-friendly form of heating and complements the solar hot water system perfectly.

Still on heating – there’s an endless supply of free firewood here in timber country, so if I don’t find affordable radiators I’ll be installing another two more salamanders in the main house and one in the annexe. All of them will have splitters so that they can heat two rooms at once.

Cooling is not a huge issue. Even without insulation I haven’t found the summers uncomfortably hot here. Nonetheless, the design of the house follows the principles of passive cooling by using cross ventilation, exterior window shading and ceiling fans in every room.

Grey water system. All grey water from the bathrooms and laundry will be diverted underground to the lawn, thus automatically watering it and avoiding unnecessarily filling up the closed septic system. Hopefully this will keep the grass green all year round.

Rainwater collection water tank. It seems a bit strange to collect and store water when for most of the year the natural springs are flowing, the tap water is almost free and more water is falling from the sky every other day. For the two or three months of the year when the springs are dry and there’s a very high fire danger, another 1000 litres of water close at hand could well save the house from destruction. The tank is connected to a sprinkler system on the roof. When activated, the water then flows into the roof gutters and back into the tank, providing hours of hands-free fire protection when it’s critical.

um mole me mordeu

Attacks by baby moles: 1

In an amusing diversion to sticking cement in holes, Babywookie caught a baby mole. I would’ve thought of all the dogs he would be the least adept at hunting, but there you are. Perhaps he too was surprised because he brought the mole in his mouth to show me. Naturally I stole it from him immediately with the idea of making a toy for Mao. The little bugger showed his gratitude for having been rescued from the jaws of death by biting me on the little finger. Or maybe he was trying to say that he preferred being swallowed by a dog to being battered by a cat.

I put the mole in a shoebox, as you do. Mao was initially terrified, but soon saw the potential of a pet mole when he escaped from the box and started running around the lounge room. This was fun. Then he bolted into the kitchen where Babywookie was waiting. Cat and Dog momentarily forgot their differences to join forces rooting out the scurrying furry turd together. But the cracks and nooks of the kitchen played to the mole’s strengths and…

He made it to the front door unmolested…

He paused on the brink of freedom…

Then he was met head-on by Dingo who, in a blinding flash, snatched him up and…

It was all over.

catching the mole

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