Picking the Olives, and Making Medronho
Autumn in the Algarve
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. I’m sure you recognise the first line of the Ode to Autumn by Keats.
It may have suited the weather in the uk, but hardly the weather here in the Algarve. This year the weather has been wetter than usual for this time of the year, which is a relief. But the temperatures have held up quite well with them generally getting into the twenties at some time during the day, although daytime temperatures are jumping about a bit.
My neighbour has been away for some time, and her dog has been hassling me every morning to take her for a walk, which has at least got me out and about. I decided to take advantage of my trips around the area by doing some serious autumnal collecting.
A next door neighbour in the opposite direction has a large and very productive olive tree, and since that owner is away as well, I have been collecting olives.
I need to cure them. When I first tasted an olive from the tree I was quite surprised at how disgustingly bitter it tasted. Now, of course, I drive home past a shallow beach, and fill a bucket with sea water, and chuck the olives in. The salt water soaks out the bitterness.
To speed the process I make a cut in each olive before they get thrown into the sea water. I will test them once a week until they are edible. Then I will dice some carrot into small thin sections, and add some herbs and garlic, and bottle the resulting mixture in a diluted solution of vinegar and oil.
Next year I may strip the whole tree of fruit. The usual way to do that is to spread netting on the ground around the tree and then get out the tractor, attach a clamp on a retractable arm to the tree trunk, and shake the tree. Ideally the olives cascade down onto the mats.
In the old days when I lived in Spain, the women used to climb the trees and chuck down the fruit. If you walked through the fields when they were doing the picking, they would scream at you, and the language was about as colloquial as you can get. There were always a couple of the girls who would pull up their long skirts and goad me to come closer to get a better look.
Tractors with clamps have ruined those halcyon days. Life may be easier now, but life was a lot more fun in the old days.
If I strip the tree I will take the olives to a crushing plant the other side of the A2 motorway. They weigh the fruit, give you a receipt, and give you a date to come back with empty bottles to collect the freshly pressed olive oil.
My neighbour’s tree is quite large so I may get ten litres or so of my own first press olive oil.
Further up the valley are three strawberry trees. The small fruits are used here to make a powerful hooch called medronho.
I’ve been picking the fruits, which start out yellow, but cant be used until they turn red. They are then put in a bowl and sprinkled with water until over the course of a week or two the mixture turns into a paste. That is the time to let the sugars in the paste start to turn into alcohol. Then comes the awkward bit, heating the resultant mix, and running the juices through a still to get the final distilled firewater.
So now I have to go out and try to find someone to sell me a still. My first port of call will be the local agricultural cooperativo.
The other scavenging I have been doing is collecting the newly emergent spinach. There’s loads of it in the orange grove at the bottom of my garden. That gets shredded and added to my stews.
And, of course, it’s also time to collect fennel seeds. The plants grow everywhere, and I have a goodly supply.
Now, what else can I scrounge?