Bah! Humbug! were the words uttered by Charles Dickens’ unforgettable character Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol when wished a Merry Christmas by his nephew. Humbug, a slang term dating from the 1700s, is used to describe someone or something that is regarded as a fraud or a cheat, which is exactly what Scrooge thought of Christmas: a big ‘con’ in modern day parlance. With the wholesale commercialisation of Christmas, many of us agree with him.
Christmas in the Algarve is a bit of a humbug too, isn’t it? Things not required for Christmas here include skis, snowboards and fleece-lined underwear. With a bit of luck you’ll need shorts, tee-shirts and sun block. It’s not winter at all; it’s a complete fraud… it’s spring!
Anyone arriving in mid-December to celebrate Christmas and New Year in the Algarve will find early spring flowers well underway. Bermuda Buttercups (so detested by Algarve gardeners) trail-blaze the roadsides, with their bright yellow flowers open by day and closed at night; some floodplain pastures are covered in Pink Oxalis; and wild orchid plants are clearly visible and gearing themselves up to enchant us with their enigmatic flowers in a few weeks’ time. Despite some cold breezes, the sun shines brightly and blue skies are full of circling storks getting ready to nest and produce young.......Paradise!
Nestling in the grass is another icon of Algarve Christmas, a true humbug of a flower. Friar’s Cowl Arisarum vulgare, a member of the Arum (Araceae) family, always reminds me of those striped mint humbug sweets of my childhood. Particularly when viewed from the side, it is very reminiscent of a friar with a particularly large nose protruding from his hood. Widespread in the Algarve, Friar’s Cowl thrives in lightly-shaded stony ground, so abandoned farmland is a good place to look for it. When the flowers aren’t yet visible look out for the distinctive arrowhead-shaped leaves below which the humbugs are hiding. As they mature the flowers stand up proudly and are much more obvious.
Other floral attractions of the Algarve Christmas season include the lovely Wild Clary with its deep purple flowers – the occasional white specimen pops up to distract and confuse those trying to identify wildflowers. Without doubt, surely, the stars of Christmas are the spring flowering bulbs for which the region is so famous. Yellow Hoop-petticoat Daffodil Narcissus bulbocodium is one of the prettiest, but it has a battle to beat the Paperwhite Narcissus Narcissus papyraceus. Growing in damp meadows and beside streams these stately spring specialities can produce stands so dense that fields turn white – the Algarve’s very own white Christmas. Many other specialities appear in the grasslands, too, including translucent mauve crocuses Crocus serotinus (a leftover from autumn which flowers well into spring) along with Tulipa australis and the Three-leaved Snowflake Leucojum trichophyllum.
A true bonus is that the burgeoning spring flowers are quietly accompanied by countless colourful fungi which, in northern Europe, are usually associated with autumn. This double diversity adds considerably to the Algarve’s interest to naturalists. A couple of years ago we found food for the soul and (literally) for the body in the form of the beautiful Fritillaria algarviana surrounded by dozens of delicious Chanterelle mushrooms. The pleasure of finding spring wildflowers and gathering a festive fungi feast greatly enhances a walk in the countryside.
When it comes to that other crucial component of Christmas, food, let’s not forget the strawberries. Who needs Christmas pudding when they can have fresh strawberry trifle instead? Remember to soak the trifle sponges in Amarghinha, that utterly delicious almond liqueur produced right here on our doorsteps. The earliest of the strawberries are grown hydroponically in the Algarve, and there is huge demand for them not just in our shops but in other European countries where people are not prepared to wait until mid summer for their own fruits to ripen.
There’s no need to suffer a surfeit of sprouts, either. The first of the Algarve’s lovely green beans are in the shops along with other local delights which make such a change from traditional Yuletide fare: the Portuguese Christmas cake Bolo Rei, and beautifully-crafted marzipan sweets. That’s my idea of a Winter Wonderland. Happy Christmas!
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