Harvesting the trees: the fruits of the Algarve

“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”  Walt Whitman

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I was born in a Welsh valley, full of the most regal, powerful trees. It was my childhood playground. Those were the days of Famous Five and ginger beer drinking and we children often rose early, nabbing what we could get away with from the fridge  and escaping the house and our mother who invariably had some chore for us to do. Our roaming circle was as far as five miles and much of this time was spent making dens during the long summer holidays in the huge trees in the woods near our home. The most beautiful were the huge, dark barked beech trees, with their caterpillar  green, delicate leaves emerging in the Spring, diffusing the light and making patterns on the leafy floor and the great, gnarled sweet chestnuts, hundreds of years old and often hollow, a wonderful place to climb and make dens.

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So when I first came to the Algarve, I was a bit disappointed in the trees. In fact I couldn’t really see any. What there were seemed scrubby and blasted and there weren’t any forests, more large swathes of bushes with the odd straggly tree, which seemed to me to be struggling for survival.

Years later I realise how wrong I was! Trees are everything to the subsistence farmers here, their livelihood, their inheritance, their pride and joy. Disputes over inheritance of a tree or trees on a boundary fence can be fierce and occasionally violent. Once you get your eye in, there are useful and venerable trees everywhere.

The trees which are grown and farmed in the Algarve are Carob, Olive, Fig, and Almond with small trees such as  Pomegranate, Arbutus and Quince. Cork oak is grown for its bark. Kern Oak and Holm Oak prunings are used as fire wood. Eucalyptus and Pine is also grown, but are both controversial, as they are a fire risk and detrimental to more native species. Loquats and Walnuts also grow well where there is some water, but you won’t see them widely.

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The farming year is punctuated by the tending of the trees and the harvesting of the fruit. The pruning of almond trees starts in January, they are often cut back quite fiercely to the trunk so that fresh limbs sprout, bearing the almonds, which is encased in a green skin, which peels open in July to allow the almonds to be harvested. The women and older people harvest them whilst the men bang the branches with a big cane stick, which is both bendy and strong, known as a canna.  I used to wonder why the women were clothed in long sleeved garments, scarves on their heads and hats to harvest them, even though the sun was so hot, until I could speak enough Portuguese to understand that the trees are full of little mites which drop with the almonds and nibble the pickers, should they not be covered up. The almonds are dried in the sun in their shells and then are either taken to the one and only almond processing plant to be cracked, or else bshed open with a big stone, during the long summer evenings over a gossip with neighbours. These almonds are often ground into flour and made into the most luscious cakes, along with the figs which are also in plentiful supply. There are different kinds of almond, five varieties I am told, but the one you have to watch out for is the bitter almond, as uncooked it contains cyanide and can be deadly if too much is eaten. The blossom of the bitter almond is a much deeper pink than those of the sweet variety, so easy to spot amongst the beautiful Spring flowering blossom.

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The fig trees are very beautiful , their large hand like  leaves offering shade in the Summer. Figs were a common food source for the Romans, who probably brought them to the Algarve.  In Roman times the figs were used to fatten geese and in more recent times, the Algarvians fed the surplus food to their pigs, fattening them for a Christmas feast. The trees grow  happily in the red clay soil, especially in the river plains of the Algarve and although in winter, they lose their leaves, they tolerate even light frost and flourish with little care, except for occasional pruning. There are different types, early and late, but the green types are dried in the sun and used in all kinds of cakes and sweetmeats (doces)

Carobs are the trees which bring in the cash for subsistence farmers and as such are shown great respect. The carob harvest is a family affair, with pickers getting up very early to pick the blackened pods from the ground when they are shaken from the tree.  Travelling people come from both the North of Portugal and Southern Spain to pick from wild trees, as they have done for centuries. The carobs are processed at local plants, with the seeds being separated by the pods. The pods  are milled into carob flour, used in cooking and as a chocolate substitute whilst the seeds are used to make a thickening, used in the food industry.  The carob barns often attract rats, which is why the villagers often foster small colonies of semi feral cats, to keep the rat population under control. There are legends about the carob trees, which are very strange looking, especially when old and often have hollow trunks. In the area of Salir, the Mouras Encantadas, female enchanted spirits guard treasure troves hidden under the trees and bewitch hapless passers-by with their mournful songs.

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Last but not least, there us the arbutus or  medronho bush. This is a charming and almost completely drought resistant bush, which grows wild on the serra, with white flowers and strawberry like berries produced in the Autumn.  The berries are picked and fermented  in large vats, eventually being distilled over several nights of still-watching into medronho, a potent  local firewater. The berries are very slightly hallucinogenic, which makes for a rather spacey alcoholic drink, which may explain why many of the farmers around here seem so chilled as they go about their daily lives!

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12 thoughts on “Harvesting the trees: the fruits of the Algarve

  1. Beautiful post Jane!!! I felt like reading one of those books, when reading it your imagination starts to carry you to far away countries….time stops then, you feel relaxed, I mean its heaven :-). Thank you!!! You definitely have writers talent!!!!it was funny to read that pigs are fed figs…. Here we pay so much for figs, cause they are hassle to transport I heard. But I have heard too that the variety called brown turkey can be grown in Ireland, maybe next year we will try to plant one!
    God bless and keep writing Jane!!

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  2. Thanks! I am always amazed anyone reads my posts and lovely to think of you away across the sea thinking of figs. One day, when my garden is nearly made and I am too old to work so hard on it, maybe I will find time to put all these thoughts in my blog into a book, and I can send you a copy xxx

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  3. Hello Jane, this previous post was from me, Giedre, I wrote you few times before, maybe I did something that it ended up as anonymous. Thank you so much for thinking to put all your blog posts into a book. It would make a great gift to so many. I hope heat isn’t so bad anymore in Algarve. And here we have very cool summer with not much sunshine. Got first tomatos about 10 days ago, but they are very slow because of lack o heat.
    have a lovely day!!!!

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  4. Hello Jane, this previous post was from me, Giedre, I wrote you few times before, maybe I did something that it ended up as anonymous. Thank you so much for thinking to put all your blog posts into a book. It would make a great gift to so many. I hope heat isn’t so bad anymore in Algarve. And here we have very cool summer with not much sunshine. Got first tomatos about 10 days ago, but they are very slow because of lack o heat.
    have a lovely day!!!!

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  5. Jane, your blog gives much more of a sense of your gardening style, and I see now how edibles are really your interest. Interesting to read about the various aspects of home agriculture you’ve been learning and writing about, from slaughtering and plucking a chicken, to brining lemons of making madronho. It has got me remembering the first chicken I ever witnessed killed and plucked with Malaysia friends in a kampong outside Malacca, or how the fruits on my Arbutus unedo literally go to the birds (no one collects fruit of them here in suburbia, nor the Loquats which seed around everywhere).

    Life and retirement in the Algarve sounds quite interesting if a bit slow, I’m more a city person myself. I can’t help thinking how I was amazed at everything and found the Portuguese so interesting on your first visit back in 1977 when I spoke neither Portuguese or Spanish. Returning again in 2000 with fluency in both was an eye opener, as it seemed all I heard that summer were complaints, and understanding them removed any illusions. I’m sure with more time my impressions would change again, but that summer of 2000 I found I related better to the Spanish outlook than the Portuguese, although it was certainly more optimistic and sunny in the Algarve than further north and inland.

    In any case, the country and architecture is gorgeous, and the culture very deep if not immediately obvious. I enjoy your writing about it here; certainly it brings back memories of my past visits too. Thanks for sharing your blog site and experiences.

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  6. Thanks for your comments, David Edibles are a great interest of mine, but not the main one.My main interest is turning my little patch of the Algarve into a garden which feels unified and works with little aintenancce and the lest amount of water possible. The locals waste little and I am also trying to follow their example. I just think that in a country where water is so scarce, anything which can be eaten and is pretty is a bonus! I lived in inner London for the last thirty years of my life, and even there I managed to grow a lot of food, there is a great gardening community there. I think the Portuguese way of life is subtle and difficult to understand. The Algarve is fascinating for its years of different cultural influences and the effects of these on both agriculture and food are here to see, in the almonds, probably brought by the Romans and the grafting techniques and irrigation management, mostly brought by the Moors. Yes the culture is deep, the more I begin to speak and learn Portuguese the more I am beginning to learn, but of course, I will never understand it truly. I think there is a greater air of optimism in the country now. You should return!

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  7. Hello Jane. I haven’t written any comments recently, but it doesn’t mean I stopped reading your posts. Such a blessing to find a blog like yours, so interesting, so colourful, so full of images. I got an email notifying about the new comment above, so when I read your thoughts, decided to write few words. I love the way you wrote that Portuguese way of life is subtle and difficult to understand….. I’m originally from Lithuania and came back to Ireland yesterday after 5 day visit in Lithuania. Every time I go there I try to compare Irish way of life and Lithuanian way of life…and these your words just answered some questions….I mean so many things Lithuanians do are very difficult to understand, but they are so subtle that can make sense only to those who grew up there, I mean to people like me. Cause so many things look rude or simply stupid, not practical etc etc. But because you know the culture, you know the mentality, you arent shocked so easily and dont say in your heart “Im not coming back to those stupid people”. I think it is very healthy for us to live in very different cultures to our own. Cause when we visit countries as tourist we are in danger to draw very superficial conclusions. But there is always more than first impression or second impression etc etc. Life is more than impressions. So thank you again for cheering your readers up with your thoughts which you share with us!!!! God bless!!

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  8. How lovely to find your comment and thanks so much for your kind words. I am not sure what part of Ireland you are living in, but I remember as a young woman going there, in an old Morris van with a boyfriend, during the 70’s. I was so confused by the culture, it felt like I had travelled into another dimension.Id never been anywhere so foreign! I couldn’t understand the humour at all, I just didn’t get it. We found ourselves in a pub in a rainstorm in the middle of the mountains in East Kerry, playing a card game I couldn’t understand the rules of, with the stakes being a coin which we all shared. I was followed to the loo and proposed to by an aged farmer with one tooth. I still chuckle when I think of it now. How wonderful is this life, what a journey of discovery and adventure!

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  9. What a lovely post! Thank you for finding me. 🙂 🙂 I shall have to discover how a lady from the lovely Welsh valleys landed up in Portugal. But then, there are plenty of enticements, aren’t there? I had figs and Greek yogurt for breakfast this morning. Multi-cultural, you see 🙂

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