July 2013


a new baskets cropb cherry branch crop

Cherry baskets are in heavy use now.  The picking season here runs from May to the end of July, and João Carlos invited us to pick with them last Sunday. They started at 7am when it was a comparatively cool 25°C; we arrived somewhat later.

We were teamed up with our host, his wife Joaquina and son Filipe.

c Joaquina ladder

Armed with a few baskets (to fill one, half an hour is allowed) we strolled up in the bright sunshine into the leafy cherry groves. Filipe showed us the limits of over- and under-ripeness. Any bird-pecked cherries are rejected but still have to be picked off the tree. We set to, wanting to prove our worth as helpers. Half an hour later, half a basket each, but Filipe went to exchange his full one for an empty. The cherries grow in bunches of about twenty, yet it needs care to remove the cherries on their stalks whilst leaving the fruit spur undamaged for next year. After a while it seemed wasteful to pick and throw away such tasty rejected cherries, so I followed Janet’s example of “Waste not, want not”!

d Our first 2 baskets b e Joao CIt took an hour to fill a basket each and we happily went off to tell J-C. His reply is clear in the picture – nearly seven baskets in the same time.

f  J picks ginjas

On our way back to base J-C took us through the ginja grove. These are smaller than cherries and grow more sparsely. They have a lighter, sweeter taste and are less available. They are often mixed with aguardente to make a delicious liqueur, Ginjinha. We picked a basket of those to share at the end of the day.

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Below: ops centre, Filipe on the right.

g ops centre

h Quality control The cherries are checked (by João’s dad and sister) and placed into boxes, and pickers are given empty baskets and cheerful encouragement to pick more!

At lunchtime the paid pickers, having worked six hours, went home. We were very happy to stay for a delicious barbecue lunch with the family. His dad, José, makes excellent table wine.

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k Joao C weighing

j boxes takenAfter lunch the remaining cherries were sorted whilst J-C weighed each box to 2kg. He announced that we needed to pick more to meet the day’s contract, so we five set off again and, amidst much banter about my two recently–learned rude words in Portuguese, we picked the extra five baskets.

m time to deliver

Once sorted and packed, the remaining boxes of cherries were loaded into the pickup truck to be taken into cold storage and we chilled out for a while too.

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We were introduced to the rare white cherries which have the best flavour of all cherries and in Japan are sold for a dollar each! n white cherries2It was well after siesta time so we headed for home, with a box of cherries, half a box of ginjas and a box of over-ripes which will make excellent conserve for pies – YUMMY ! As the Portuguese generally don’t make pies, they have a surprise coming soon. If you are reading this João Carlos, tell no-one !!

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Our friend João Carlos (in the brown and white shirt) took us out for the afternoon, showing us around the sights near his village. He loves living there and it is easy to see why. In late spring the entire hillsides around Alcongosta are pastel-washed white and pink with cherry blossom.  Although it is the cherry capital of Portugal the crop has only been grown there for about a century. He took us back to his house where, in the basement, his father-in-law Luis was working. He has been making baskets from chestnut wood for decades.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAambience in Luis workshop

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The chestnut poles are cut when the coppice is four years old, then steeped in water over winter to loosen the bark. The crystal pure water comes from abundant springs fed from the Serra de Gardunha, and these aquifers also fill the irrigation channels for the trees by gravity throughout the year.

In spring when the cherries are in bud he starts work. He strips the bark and takes bundles of the wood, which is now soft and flexible, to his workshop. Each pole is held by foot pressure in a long vice and sliced with a draw-plane into thin strips.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  The strips are then planed using only a knife to give them a smooth surface, they are already the right width. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Luis works in batches – a few days making strips and planing them, then a few days weaving them into baskets ready for the cherry harvest. He works to order and finds he has plenty of local customers. The farmers mark their own baskets which they take and use when they pick co-operatively.

His workplace is lit by the bright sunlight flooding in at the doorway (no windows!) and the golden light is mellowed by the sweet-scented pale wood to give a lovely working environment. The climate is very sunny so there are very few days when he can’t work.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cherry basket making is a dying craft, no youngsters are learning the traditional art and soon it will be extinct. The natural baskets will be replaced by stapled bamboo lookalikes from China, or worse still, plastic baskets.

João Carlos’ parents own a cherry farm and we went to tour it that evening. They have a large stand of the chestnut wood coppices to supply wood to make baskets, and any poles which are not needed for basket-making are left for a few more years then cut to make strong straight poles for farm use.