Alentejo

Day 3 – Tuesday 30 Aug 2011

Vila Galé Clube de Campo, Beja

Vila Galé Clube de Campo was a startling contrast to Malhadinha Nova. At more than four times the size (weighing in at a whopping 1,620 hectares) the estate is owned by the Vila Galé hotel group. With 17 hotels in Portugal and six in Brazil, this is a company that knows the business. A long oleander-flower-lined road led to a full car park by the bright ochre-yellow reception. We walked into a huge cool room, check-in desks down one side, stands full of tourist pamphlets in one corner, an activities information desk in another. People bustled in and out around us and we could hear the sound of children shrieking with laughter in the pool somewhere outside.
It’s a huge complex, and this is parent heaven. Most of the 81 rooms, which are more functional than stylish, have interleading doors to a neighbouring room providing convenient parent-children accommodation. There are adult and children’s pools, a playground with climbing equipment, huge gardens, animals of all kinds to feed and pet, donkey rides and donkey feeding, horse riding (with lessons), kayaking, mini golf, paint ball, fishing, pedal boats, hot air ballooning, hiking as well as dedicated activity times for children. I could see kids being happy here for hours on end. The place was full of families doing all sorts of things, but Fátima Luz, the manager who showed us round, explained that for parents who needed time out they would organise babysitting. An indoor pool, complete spa therapy and jacuzzi was available for those in need of rest and restoration; rappel and skeet shooting for those in search of adventure. Karaoke, acapella and live bands strike up in the evening. They are also in the process of obtaining planning permission for a very beautiful ‘ecological’ golf course, the first of its kind in Portugal – designed not only to preserve and protect the natural environment, but provide a haven for native birds and plant species.
A company called Emotion is sub-contracted to organise all the activities in the hotel, and it was one of their very handsome, tanned young men who took us out on a quad bike trip around the estate. I was wearing white. Lesson number 1: do not wear white in Alentejo if you are going rough-roading on quad bikes. My feet, legs, ankles and shorts were a deep golden-russet shade of dust by the time we got back. At least it hadn’t been raining. Apart from the temporary tan, the ride was fascinating in every way. Pedro was unbelievably knowledgeable about the region, and to my delight was able to tell me that the yellow flowers that covered the plains like gold dust was called cardo de ouro (golden thistle) and the stamens of these flowers are used in place of rennet to make the famous, local (and knee-buckling good) queijo da serra – a raw sheep’s milk mountain cheese. We covered a huge area on our bikes, stopping now and then to taste grapes and figs, pick herbs and crush their spicy lemon-pine leaves between our fingers, watch rare birds circling above the huge mirror-still lake, and admire their glossy proud Lusitano horses. Then with a long empty (dusty) road in front of us, we took the brakes off and felt the wind hurtling in our faces, snatching every thought from our mind except the invigorating purity of this air.
There’s a relaxed flexibility about this place. They are used to organising packages for large and small groups, from weddings to international conferences, themed team building (a rodeo last year) to weekend parties. One wedding group booked the entire place out for a weekend and got married in the vineyards! It would also make a great pre-wedding location – girls in the spa and guys bullfighting in the arena. The bar is well stocked, and to their credit they don’t only serve their own wine – something that can become a little tedious if you’re spending a whole week in one place, and probably one of the small downsides to Malhadinha.
The estate also has 150 ha of olive trees and 159 ha of vineyards. The Casa de Santa Vitória, owned by the group, is a large modern winery built in 2004. Guests are encouraged to come and do some winetasting while they are here – tasting sessions are run twice a run for free. if you’re really keen, you can book a whole wine-making package including picking and crushing the grapes yourself. The vines are young but the wines are full bodied, rounded and packed with sweet dark fruit. I was amazed at the extraordinarily good value, when their oenologist Bernardo Carbral sent me the price list. Even the flagship wine, a serious (but modern) blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah called Inevitál, was only €20. At the mid-range level, the CSV tinto 2008 was a gorgeous juicy little number for a mere €4.79. I’d gleefully pour a glass of that with a plate of presunto and freshly sliced tomatoes! If you want to get your Euros-worth, these wines are well worth picking up.
As became the standard practice for our trip, we spent far too long at Vila Galé chatting to people and asking a million questions. It’s hard not to, when everyone we met was so passionate about the Alentejo, and so eager to talk about it. It’s infectious, and more than once we found ourselves wishing we had weeks to explore rather than days. But we had a schedule, and thankfully the easy-going guys at Herdade Monte Novo e Figueirinha were willing to wait for their loquacious tardy English visitors.
Herdade Monte Novo e Figueirinha
I know a fair amount about how wine is made. The processes (in English and French), the machines (even the manufacturers) and the jargon is comfortingly familiar. I’ve seen the inside of countless wineries. Olive oil, on the other hand, was a complete revelation.
I’m sure many people will know this stuff, but I was fascinated to learn how they pick the olives using a vibrating collar that literally shakes the ripe olives off the trees and into an upside-down umbrella. Of course, old olive trees planted at random with twisted trunks and awkward branches can only be handpicked, as with the very young trees which are too fragile for the vibrations. Mature trees, planted in straight rows at carefully measured distances from each other and pruned in a particular way (once every two years) can be machine picked at the rate of one a minute. Their five picking machines work 24 hours’ a day during the harvest. They pick three times: once when the olives are green, once when they are red, and then the final time when the olives are black. Each stage of ripeness brings a different element to the final blend. The harvest starts in December and will usually continue until February. He tells me that once harvest starts, their team literally works round the clock for three months solid, in continuous 12-hour shifts. And there I was beginning to think that making olive oil was easier than wine.
Figueirinha themselves only started making olive oil in 2006. They planted their trees ten years ago, and have 20 hectares under five varieties of olive trees (each variety having different organoleptic and phenolic qualities). But they also buy in a lot of olives, and they make the olive oil for a number of other places including the own-name brand for big Portuguese supermarket chain Pingo Doce, Cortes de Cima, and the now very familiar Malhadinha Nova.
Olives are used strictly on assessment of their quality. ‘fat up, acidity down, is good, we buy’ I was solemnly told. Our communication at that point, due to a lack of shared vocabulary, had been more like a game of Christmas-evening charades (prancing around, wild waving and pointing, lots of yes!yes!yes! and helpless no-no-no). But he alighted on a book and rapidly flicked through the pages, jabbing his fingers at ascending numbers with corresponding sounds of approval. I gathered that 0.1 to 0.2 acidity is perfect. What I couldn’t quite work out was whether that measurement was in grams per litre or something else. I’m sure it doesn’t matter. They know what they are doing. 20% fat content, I also learned, is good. 26% is the bees knees (or whatever the Portuguese equivalent for that is!)

Like grapes, freshness and speed are vital once they have been picked otherwise they will start to ferment or rot. The olives are first washed in giant tanks (we climbed to the top and it was not a place for sufferers of vertigo) and the leaves are blown off. Like grapes, the varieties and different parcels are kept separate throughout the process until the very final blending. Once clean, the olives are crushed to make a very coarse, sticky and strong-smelling paste. After crushing, the paste goes into a decanter-type machine which separates the oily water and the stones from the very dry remaining paste. The olive stones are used as fuel for the furnace that heats water for the outside tanks (which must be kept at 27°C, not an easy task in winter, even in Alentejo). Any leftover olive flesh is sold to people who do a second press and get a lesser quality oil from it. The water and oil blend is then centrifuged. The best oil, he tells me, is unfiltered (he looks disgusted as he picks up a bottle from someone who prefers to filter). He makes me put my hand into a large bag of what looks like talcum powder. It’s paper dust, used to filter some olive oils. It has its own very distinctive smell and it’s easy to imagine that this affects the flavour of the oil. The best oil, he sniffs, must be packaged in a dark bottle. ‘Fashion, this thing fashion!’ is his outraged comment on clear glass. I am suitably told.
He pours a thick viscous stream of bright green cloudy oil from a tank into a small blue bowl and claps a glass disc over the top, shaking it vigorously. I am commanded to smell. It’s an aromatic punch of freshly chopped green apple!
I now know that it takes seven kilograms of olives to make a litre of olive oil. And I’m off home to try drizzling a slice of ripe orange with fresh good quality olive oil. I’m told it’s the best.
Tamlyn Currin