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.

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