Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Chill ‘n Grill

One of the most fun parts of the Permaculture Design Certificate courses we run here are the optional one-week Post-PDC Practical courses which follow the two weeks of intense, brain-stretching work.

Students get to stay an extra week, kick back and relax somewhat, and exercise their bodies more than their brains.

The general idea is to look over the designs produced by the students as part of their Permaculture Design certification, agree as a group on something everyone would like to implement (subject to materials availability and timescales) and then get to it.

This year, the design exercise area given to students was the newly-reconstructed wee house and the terraces below it. Something everyone had come up with in the July course was an outside kitchen area to replace some of the cooking facilities lost in the post-fire reconstruction, most notably the cob pizza oven. One of the design teams had given their kitchen area the snappy title of “chill ‘n grill”. Could there really be any competition …?!

The base

The first part of the process was to clear the site immediately outside the rebuilt kitchen and then construct a base for the oven and grill. The most obvious material for the purpose was the schist bedrock of these mountains, but we didn’t have much readily available onsite.

The simplest solution was to go and scour the edges of the dirt track which leads to the quinta and we soon managed to amass enough stone to start work. Lesson 1 – dry stone wall building.

Chill 'n grill in the making - barbecue grill set into the counter

Chill ‘n grill in the making – barbecue grill set into the counter

Once we had the wall comprising the counter front backfilled to the slope behind it, we set in the barbecue (made from an old gas bottle and liberated from its legs which had been damaged in the 2017 fires), surrounded it with LECA (lightweight expanded clay aggregate) for insulation and also laid an insulated base of LECA for the oven.

Then we laid the first layer of cob for the counter to stabilise it all and provide the base for the oven.

Cob pizza oven

I was so happy with the performace of the original oven, my plan had been to recreate it faithfully, but slightly larger so we could have pizza nights for larger groups of people.

But this is Portugal and one thing you can guarantee in Portugal is that things will never quite go according to plan. It turned out there was no sawdust available. The woodyards were closed. Normally they close in August, but … CoViD. So it wasn’t possible to replicate the sawdust and clay clip insulation layer of the original oven. I decided instead to use LECA, and to make this layer continuous with the insulation beneath the oven. I also had no firebricks for the base, so we simply made a monolithic base out of clay and sand (no straw). Knowing how well the thermal layer in the original oven performed, not to mention how the various cob structures on the quinta withstood the fires of October 2017, there seemed no reason not to do so.

We had the same fun and games getting the sand form for the oven to hold its shape without collapsing. Just as I had with the original build. Always just at the point of putting on the final handful, the dome would slump. We persevered and eventually succeeded.

With a large team of people on the job, the cob mixing was fast. We had one mixing team on the inner thermal layer of just clay and sand and another adding straw to theirs for the outer layer so we could build both simultaneously. This proved the most practical way of containing the loose LECA insulation layer as the oven took shape.

A flue pipe was incorporated into the entrance tunnel to direct smoke upwards and away from eyes looking into the oven while it’s being fired.

The week’s course finished before the oven was complete but I carried on with the volunteer team and we had the oven complete in time for the next course …

… some of whom decided they would like to build the roof structure for their Post-PDC Practical, so in August, we continued.

The roof

The four principal supporting upright timbers are in chestnut. The remainder – since we’re now running out of the fire-burned supply of chestnut from the quinta’s north slopes – is in maritime pine. Also from the quinta’s fire-burned trees.

As wih the July students, it was wonderful to watch how a group of people almost completely unskilled and inexperienced in the building techniques we were using, could so instantly and easily pick up those skills and build a robust and elegant structure. It’s not called natural building for nothing …

Use arrows/swipe to move through the images. Click/tap on the slideshow to view full screen.

The final night of the course, we lit the pizza oven. And although it took a long time to get to temperature on account of not being fully dry, pizza was made and eaten! (Though no photos of that since it was after dark.)

In this course, we completed the timber framework. I later tiled the roof and added guttering. This increases the roof area available for rainwater harvesting which is now just waiting on me repairing all the burned-out plumbing and adding in the replacement IBC tank for the one that burned. Three remain intact.

I have yet to finish the Chill ‘n Grill counter top, but that’s a job for next year now. I may decide to part deconstruct and add in the masonry woodstove that was also a victim of the rebuilding.

Slowly. slowly we restore what was lost. And how! Massive thanks to all 2021’s students and volunteers. You should all be super proud of yourselves!

And as an indication of just how much fun building as a group of people in this way can be, here’s a small sample … This is the future! It’s small scale. It’s local. And it’s full of joy and laughter.

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