“ Strawberry tree „
Anyone who has read my reviews about Portugal will know that my family have some land situated in the foothills of Monchique, in the western Algarve. We have owned the land for many years now and you could say that it has been a challenge to keep the land in order. When I say land, I don't mean acres and acres of beautifilly tilled fields or manicured lawns with colourful borders. This 8 hectares of land is arid, rocky and a nightmare to look after. Part of the land is situated half way up a mountain and the other half is in terraces that have been cut out of the ground. Some of the work has been carried out by our own hands working with an enchada or otherwise known as a humble hoe whilst for the most difficult parts we have had to use motorised technology such as a bulldozer and JCB.
But there is one large area of the land that we have never really had to manitain. This is a huge area which leads from the house up to the top of the mountain. In November and December the mountain turns into a cloud of white bell-shaped flowers,sometimes turning pale pink and is very pretty to look at. When visitors have come to see us they are always amazed by the whiteness of the mountain and the buzzing noise made by the swarms of bees that pollinate the flowers. These flowers belong to the Arbutus Unedo tree, otherwise known as strawberry tree or as we call it the Medronho tree.
When we first bought the land we noticed these trees which were overgrown and tangled together and very difficult to walk through. The side of the mountain was like one thick wood of strawberry trees. We didn't really pay any attention to the trees because at that time we were far too busy clearing the overgrowth and cutting out the terraces. As they looked like strawberries we just assumed they were wild strawberries and never thought anymore about the plants. Although, the fruit tasted very bland and didn't have a strawberry taste as such.
It wasn't until the following Autumn when the land was a bit more tidier and some of the fruit trees had been pruned that we woke up one morning when the sun was still behind the mountain to find lots of people at the back of our house picking our strawberries. Alarm bells rang in our heads as we rushed out to see what the parlava was all about. Our Portuguese neighbours from several quintas throughout the valley were gathered together picking the fruit from the trees. At this stage, my husband wearing the Ben Gunn look, defending his property, ran out and as he was the only one who could speak Portuguese at the time enquired to what the hell was going on.
The outcome of this little gathering was quite normal and happens every year. All the Portuguese farmers get together and pick each others fruit to be distilled to make Medronho - only we didn't know that this was the custom and being English we were quite horrified that these strangers could walk on our land and pick our fruit without our permission. There are no laws to stop other people walking on your land unless you fence it all off and who wants to do that when you live in such a wonderful area. Over the years we have got used to this quirky tradition and look forward to the harvest of the medronho. In fact it happens with the olives and the figs and carobs and so on. It is just part of living in the Portuguese countryside. But at first it was sometimes startling to be woken to the manoeuverings of little men and women dressed in black wearing straw hats, even though they moved around silently, there was always a ghostly vision.
So that's the background of my story and now I will tell you more about the strawberry tree. It is widespread throughout Iberia and also can be found in western and southern Ireland, California, the west coast of America and I do believe it grows in UK also and you can buy some varieties of the tree from nurseries and garden centres. The trees on our land are very high - I would say at a guess about 12 metres and as they are wild, form a dense, overgrown area but this is a spectacular sight and a good thing for us as we don't have to keep maintaining the trees. The soil, if you can call it soil is a mixture of rock and clay. When we have heavy rain and we have had some floods in the past years the clay melts as such and flows down the mountain side in a river of orange sludge which we call lama (Portuguese for mud). Amazingly, in these conditions, the trees survive without any harm. We have had three forest fires since owning the land and have lost lots of other trees but never the strawberry trees so they are quite a hardy plant.
Summers are very dry and hot in the Monchique hills but in winter it is a rainy area and this seems to be the climate that the tree thrives in. It is very rare that temperatures drop below freezing. I have only known it happen on a couple of occasions and in 30 years have only seen a few drops of snow in the hills. This is indeed an excellent environment for this tree as they don't like severe temperatures and should be shaded from strong winds when planted out. We have never transplanted the trees elsewhere but I have read somewhere that they are not partialled to movement and root disturbance.
It generally takes about 6 weeks for the fruit to ripen and this takes place in late October and November. The ripened fruit is usually blood red in colour and generally drops to the ground but here in Monchique the Portuguese put down huge sheets and pick the fruit by hand. The leaves are very pretty to look at as well as they are quite small and jagged like a strawberry leaf but insted of being dark green they have a dusty sheen to the leaves, like a deep olive colour. From a distance I always think the fruit looks exotic, like a kumkwat fruit.
We have grown trees from seed for other people. When the seeds are germinated which is usually late spring I then plant them out into individual pots and hand the pots over to people to plant on their land. These are ripe seeds I am talking about but I think if you wanted to plant bought seeds then you should really soak the seeds for over a week and then plant in compost and keep moist, then place in a greenhouse. Then, when germinated plant into individual pots and grow in a green house for the first winter. Once you have decided where you want the trees to be planted permanently then plant them out but try not to disturb the roots by moving the trees around as they will die off. Best time for planting out - I suggest the following Spring.
Remember that once the trees are grown they will need minimal pruning but always check for disease and broken branches.
Why would anyone buy these trees to grow in their garden in UK? They are evergreens so add colour to the garden all year round. Depending on the size of garden I think a smaller variety would be best for an average size English garden - one that grows about 2 metres in height. They would also be suitable to grow in a country cottage garden where you would be able to let the branches cross over and give that tangled untidy look which when the flowers are out and the fruit is ripe would be very colourful.
What happens to the fruit when it has been picked? They are sorted on the sheets and the best specimens are put into large containers and taken to be fermented to make wine which is distilled to make a clear brandy. The fruit is macerated to make a liquor known as 'aguardente de medronho,' which is unique to the Algarve and especially in the Monchique area. Fruit that has been slightly damaged is used to make jam which is a bit like a strawberry marmalade.
Now, I am no scientist. God forbid, but I have been to many a distillation and I find the whole process fascinating. The small fruit of the strawberry tree contains roughly about 15 per cent of sugar and 0.66 per cent of malic acid. This is the compound that is tart and sour to taste. When distilling you need five parts of fruit to 1 part of water. This is formed into a mash where the starch is turned into sugar. This has to be left to ferment for over two weeks and then distilled usually twice to a strength of 50% abv ( measure of how much alcohol is contained in the alcoholic drink).
Now, I've given you that fascinating piece of information I am going to take you down to Karolina's shed. This is a guy who must be about 90 now and he is a little Portuguese fella who is in charge for distilling in our part of the valley. His shed is on the lower terrace after crossing our dirt track to our fruit trees. It is on a tiny square of over grown land which belongs to him. Karolina distills the medronho for our family and about 4 other families as well. The shed is quite small and inside are a couple of stools and the distilling gear which is in the vein of a Heath Robinson design. The time of year when the brew is ready to test and then bottle is usually around February and we always know as lots of smoke comes from this little shed. On entering the shed you will be shown to your seat and then the wonderful experience of taking the first sip of the year commences. The medronho is poured from the copper into a very small glass and you are supposed to drink it straight down in one go. The taste is unusual - rather like Beecham's powders. At first you will feel nothing but as soon as the liquid hits the inside of your chest it will give it a warm glow and you will feel on fire. This stuff is pure and you won't get a hangover from this - drunk, yes but you will never suffer the traumas of a hangover. Why do you think the Portuguese in the valleys live until their 100's - because thy drink a small glass of this everyday. When we have had the tasting it is then Karolina's job to bottle the medronho up and distribute it to all the families. Of course, this is all unofficial this brewing but it has been going on for donkey's years and is even sold in some cafes in Monchique underneath the counter for a high price. This is the real Mccoy and not the bottled variety you can purchase in the supermarkets. Although, we have a yearly ration of Medronho our family aren't big drinkers of this liquor. It is very good for sore throats and bad stomachs but it is an acquired taste and not one I could drink all the time. But it doesn't stop me from going to the shed to try the first of the year's vintage. I tell you, when I step out of the shed I look like a strawberry and can only just find my way back to the house. Good job, it is only once a year.
One more thing about the strawberry tree before I forget, is that the wood from the tree when pruning is excellent for wood fires and is used in restaurants further up in the hills for wood burning stoves and grills. We are not allowed on our land to burn wood so in winter we are unable to have a log fire because of the fire hazard and forest fires.
Well, that's all about my medronha trees - I think I have covered everything. A very pretty tree that bears beautiful red fruit that tastes quite bland but makes a very potent drink. Cheers, or as we say in Portugal Saude!