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We recently hosted a film crew from the States who made this small video for us. They were over basically for the birds of the area, and will be making a full length film about them that I’ll post up on the Quinta’s Birding Blog as soon as I’ve got my sticky little paws on it, but this short video gives a wonderful feel of the few days they were over and for the Alentejo countryside in this, the most beautiful period of the year here. Many thanks to Jeff Aderman and James Currie.

The Quinta Story

Many people have urged me to tell the Quinta’s story on this blog, and seeing as I haven’t written anything for, (heavens above!), two months, it seems only fair that I should do something a little special, so here’s a small video Daniela and I put together over the last week; we hope you enjoy it!


I wasn’t going to put this picture up on this blog …. I posted it on my birding blog and was going to leave it at that … I mean I see these Little Owls every other day, they’re not that special, but ever since I put it up on to my Flickr Photostream I’ve been inundated with comments so hey, what the heck, if it’s that good I’ll post it here as well! I hope you enjoy it!

Cork oak forests – the Montados.

Taking the cork off a tree is highly skilled and a pig of a job!I wanted to write a little about the cork trees which surround the Quinta. These are the trees which have their bark harvested every 10 years or so – never less than 9 and you can see the year of the future harvest for any tree from the large white number painted onto it.

These forests are really a long term investment. The first harvest is at approx 25 years of age. At this age the cork is suitable for floor tiles and not much else. At 34 years old the second harvest is still too poor for cork stoppers for wine. It’s not until they are 43 years old that the cork can really be used for the wine industry.

The cork oak forests of the Alentejo supply 70% of the world’s cork, including 15 billion corks a year for wine bottles. An average tree will live for between 170 and 200 years, go through 17 harvests and produce around 4,000 corks a harvest.

Stripping the cork is a skilled manual job. It has never been successfully mechanised and the trees actually benefit from the stripping.

So why should we care? Well back in the 80’s EU subsidies were encouraging maize growing and the abandonment of Cork forests. When this combined with the growth in wine consumption, standards deteriorated to meet demand  and TCA (trichloroanisol) started to appear. This causes the wines to be “corked”. The lowering of quality in turn encouraged the emergence of plastic corks as competition.

However stringent quality control standards have lowered the incidence of TCA and the industry is fighting back.

But why should we care? Well if the farmers switch from cork to maize then the habitat which supports an amazing variety of wild life , from the Iberian Lynx, (the world’s most endangered big cat), through to birds like the Bee Eater will be lost, probably for ever.The end result could well be desert and scrub land across the beautiful Alentejo.

So please…if you have a choice go for a wine with a proper cork in it :-)

A nasty illness

Nuno died this morning.
The details are unclear as yet but somehow he lost control of his car on the “Straight Mile” half way to Santa Clara, spun off the road and burst in to flames.
I found out early this morning as I drove in to the village; Susana, Nuno’s sister in law, was there with the local police from Saboia. The car was a good thirty meters from the road, a silver and black shell, (and I couldn’t understand why none of the surrounding vegetation had caught fire until I found out later that, by coincidence, an ambulance had been the first on the spot, barely seconds after the accident). Susana was in tears along with Nuno’s mother while the Police looked on sadly and hopelessly. He was universally liked, not least by myself and everyone here at the Quinta, as being always helpful and friendly, ready with assistance and local knowledge to ease our path here through the intricacies of social contacts and relationships, who was related to who and how, and why asking X would ease the granting of a request or procure some supply that the same X apparently had nothing to do with. He saw the Quinta differently and with greater understanding than some who live close by and did his best to help us, positive, jovial and respectful. He worked unloading the eucalyptus from the lorries onto the trains at the station, and the machine seemed to be a projection of his will.
I will miss him, as will all who knew him. The funeral will be large, probably the majority of Santa Clara and Cortebrique. As with most locals, Fatima’s also closely related and I had to break the news to her when I got back to the Quinta.
The funeral will be tomorrow.
It was difficult therefore to celebrate the joy of a couple who announced their engagement at breakfast. With Fatima in tears in the kitchen and Daniela and myself deeply saddened by Nuno’s news, the mood was flatter than it should have been; understandable, but very sad.
Of course in a way these two occurrences unwittingly spotlight the change taking place hereabouts, the seeming demise of the local population and the influx of outsiders. It is brought ever closer with each passing year; ten years ago two of my children were the only foreigners out of 17 in one of the three local primary schools, (whose total number of pupils reached into the 30’s), a sad enough statistic for a total local population of approx 600 souls. Now there are 6 “foreigners” in a school of only 12, while in the interim the two other local primary schools have closed through lack of pupils. So, as the demographic base has expanded, so the total numbers in primary education have crashed to unprecedented levels in the endemic population. There are fewer and fewer children and more and more people over 60. There are as many Germans moving into the area as Portuguese, and their age ranges differ startlingly, the Germans being in their 30’s and 40’s or even younger, while the Portuguese are, almost to the last individual, retirees.
What is even more worrying is that the “Suicide Season” is almost upon us and, as the economic crisis in Portugal deepens and we enter the lean months of winter, it promises this year to bring a rise in its tragic harvest. There were three in the first six months of the year in our surrounding three villages, one in each. What is worse is that even though the average age of the local population as a whole is sadly over 50, a large proportion of those who kill themselves is, more often than not, in their most productive 30’s and 40’s.  Very few local youngsters stay here once their education is finished, so this loss of hope by a large number of those that do, is doubly frightening. At present there is still some fat stored from the summer, but once that fat is consumed …. Maybe it is, as Fatima fervently believes, a sickness that one can catch; if so I wish they’d find a cure!

Be careful where you keep your money!

There’s a custom here in the Alentejo that’s curious. I can’t see it working many other places but it seems to fit our lifestyle rather well. It’s one of those little things that outsiders notice and remark upon without seeing the significance or practicality, and yet without it our village life would be poorer. As I say, I couldn’t see it happening in London but I’m sure that other countries used to have it, (I’m sure I can hear my mother’s voice in my ear saying, “But of course, dear!”), and that it’s just been lost, an unsung casualty of the 20th Century’s change to a more migratory population.

If one lives in a village near here it’s the custom that if one pops out, say, to the shops or the café or round to see a friend for a chat, one leaves one’s front door keys hanging in the lock on the outside of the door. This serves two purposes; firstly, of course, there’s the impossibility of forgetting where one put one’s keys and inadvertently locking oneself out of the house, (a vital consideration if one’s popping out for a glass or two of our local hooch, Medronho), but secondly it saves everyone the trouble of guessing where one’s gone. Keys hanging in the door tell any caller, “I’ve gone out; I’m not far, won’t be (too) long and if you want to find me ask around, ‘cos someone’s bound to know”.

Now, this is very useful and considerate and saves us all a lot of trouble and time, but the custom as a whole sits curiously astride the local’s fear of anyone knocking on the door after dark; if one is unwise enough to attempt this, one is met with an apprehensive demand of “Who’s there?” from behind a securely bolted door and one is left imagining the house-owner standing the other side, complete with night cap, candle and stout staff, ready to sell his life dearly in defence of the family cottage. After the first few attempts to visit neighbours after dark when I first came to live here, I’ve never tried again. It puts people’s backs up, spoils relations, seldom achieves anything worthwhile and one thing’s for sure – access is never gained, no matter how reasonable the request. No, hang on, I did once get in, but I was carrying a bottle and I made sure old José knew it was full.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is the curious juxta-position in attitudes to security between daylight and night. In daylight, well, the door’s open or the keys are in the lock, whereas at night, beware, we’ll shoot first and ask questions later.

The attitude towards the dark is understandable, especially when one watches any television, (and the majority of soaps here are Brazilian and reflect the gun culture of that beautiful country), but the attitude towards security during the day …… well, one gets used to it and it ceases to amaze – until it happens to be brought, smack, to one’s attention by some unusual event, and just such an event happened to us last week …..

It was Monday morning and I’d asked Daniela to pop into the village to do some shopping and deposit the weekend’s cheques. Half an hour later she was on the phone …

D “Hey, Frank, can you ring the bank please”

F “What! Aren’t you there yet?”

D “Of course I’m here; that’s the point”

F “Whadya mean, “That’s the point”?”

D “I mean, “That’s the point” I’m here in the bank and I can’t find anyone ….. just ring them up and see if anyone comes to the phone …..”

Well, I rang, but no-one appeared. So I rang Daniela back and tried to make sense of the whole thing, obviously fearing the worst. Our bank was tarted up a couple of years ago with those double doors where you have to wait for the first one to shut and the green light to appear before being able to open the second. It always seemed a bit of over-kill on their part as most of our locals simply don’t understand automatic doors at the best of times, but now it was looking as if they’d been conservative in their security measures.

“Hi Daniela,” I said, “I’ve rung but there’s no answer”

“Yes, I know,” she replied, “I heard it. Look, there’s no-one here at all; the money’s on the counter and I can see the key in the safe’s lock. What d’you think I should do?”

That put me on the spot …. what did I think she should do?

And then, just as I was starting to tell her she should wait there while I phoned the Police, the solution hit me; it was staring me right in the face, winking at me from the bottom of the computer screen ….. the time …. of course …. it was lunch hour …. it all made sense – in a peculiarly Alentejano kind of way. The bank clerks had gone to lunch and metaphorically left the front door keys in the lock.

“Don’t worry, Daniela, just sit down there for another ten minutes and someone’ll be along. Trust me, it’ll be OK, nothing’s wrong, they’ll be in Joselia’s down the road”.

So it proved, and funnily enough I’m not planning to move my account. No, the money’s safe where it is I think – especially at night!