If there is one thing the Algarve can be proud of it is the sun, the sea and the fruit. The arbutus-berry (medronho), a little larger than a cherry, with a granular surface and some small seeds inside, grows wild, mostly in the schistose slopes of Serra do Caldeirão and Serra de Monchique and has been used for centuries to manufacture a drink of strong alcoholic content, aguardente de Medronho.
For many years considered a drink for the underprivileged due to its highland provenience and the fact that it is traditionally consumed by men sitting in rural taverns; aguardente is now seen as an excellent drink at the table of demanding tasters! As a result of the shrinking physical and cultural distances between the countryside and cities, Medronho is becoming more commonly known.
During several decades of being manufactured exclusively by artisans in distilleries dispersed over the hills, the aguardente is not a product easily conceived. The harvest, between October and December, demands a great deal of work due to the generally uneven access to the arbutus-trees, situated on steep slopes, covered with other native vegetation. Another issue is that the fruits never ripen at the same time, which makes it necessary to harvest the same bush several times, just to pick fruits with an equal degree of maturity. Neither are the proportions favourable: fifteen kg of fruit produces only two litres of liquor; and all of this hard work takes place, with little if any compensation from sales, due to the extremely low prices.
With the rural exodus that took place in the decade of 1950, the production was ever more decreased and eventually it was feared that the tradition of making Medronho would become extinct.
However, the potential of the aguardente de Medronho was never forgotten and slowly it gained more recognition. In 1993 the aguardente saw its dignity systematically recovered. With the support of the LEADER programme, the consortium formed by the University of Algarve developed a project to exalt the value of the drink, to demystify some misconceptions and to declare the aguardente de Medronho as a drink of unique potential, comparable to any other fruit brandy.
The first phase of the project on the young aguardente demonstrated that the old myth stating that Medronho incorporates methanol, which could cause blindness, is untrue. The methanol appears, in fact, when the fruits are not perfectly ripe and still have stalks and it leaves the fruit during fermentation, but the 60 samples randomly sent to the impartial laboratory of Dr. Vercini, in Italy, who specialises in the analyses of spirits, revealed that the smashing majority was below the legal limit value (1000mg/l), proving the non-toxicity of the aguardente.
The ‘Medronho’ project does not just include the production of the drink but also the plantation of the fruit, controlled by the PAMAF-IED project. The guideline was: “if we can improve the value of the aguardente, it will be worthwhile to standardise the plantation”. Studies were made on the features of the fruits of several arbutus-trees and experiments were undertaken in order to create an improved species of Medronho, combining all of the best features from the examined trees. The producers became inspired by the Medronho project taking it even further. A Taster’s Chamber was created, in which the technical tasters were taught.
In 1997 started the study of the aging process of the aguardente, looking in detail at the preservation of the volatile compounds, which get lost in the aging process. In 2000 the study was concluded but it has continued to be developed by Direcção Regional de Agricultura and by Dra. Ludovina Galego.
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