Monday 13th May
Monday 13th May is a day that will live long in our memories, it’s one of those days where things happen of their own accord, with remarkable results.
During our tapas at Carvalho’s wine bar last night, we had planned to drive further up the Douro today, to have a look at the village of Pinhão situated on a bend in the river and then on to a vineyard where Lesley had found we could stop for free and have a tour of the vineyard.
We found a great campervan stop in Pinhão on the north bank of the river, almost a layby, just passed the marina, close to where the cruise ships moor up. As we walked into the pretty little village, we saw a sign to a vineyard called Quinta da Foz!
Some of our readers will know that Andy and Lesley’s surname is Foskett, almost always shortened to Foz. How could we not pay this estate a visit? It proved to be a cracking little place. It was a small family owned enterprise (only two families since the 19thCentury) as compared with many of the other Quintas which have been bought up by the big multinational companies. They make three types of port and a few dry (as opposed to the sweetness of port) red and white wines for cash flow purposes – port needs much longer to mature.
The vineyards of the upper Douro have only been able to make port wines since the late 1980s when Portugal joined the EU and the port lodges of Porto lost their monopoly. Quinta da Foz had taken full advantage of this opportunity to add value to their grapes. As a small estate they only had two people working on the customer side, both of whom spoke excellent English and as it was very quiet both chipped in to give us a private tour of their operation.
There were loads of interesting facts – you know how much I like a good fact!
- The vines are grown on the fairly poor rocky soil and so the roots have to reach far down into the schist to find the water and nutrients they need. This makes them very hardy and resistant to the inclement weather they get up here (200m above sea level).
- They use a mixed field system of vines where each field will contain many of the 250 varieties of Douro grape. This is a precaution against a recurrence of the damage to the industry they suffered in 1863 when many of the vines were killed by phylloxera. The wine growers had to import resistant root stocks from America and graft their varieties on to them. They now plant different varieties next to each other in the hope that, should another blight hit, not all types will suffer.
- All the local vineyards plant olive trees amongst the vines. This isn’t an example of diversification (but they do make a particularly fine olive oil, that is not too greasy!) but because the olive trees act as a bell weather for soil problems. Apparently, the olive is very susceptible to imbalances in the soil and so they warn the farmers before the vines begin to suffer.
- In the same way the vintners keep an eye on the spiders in the wine cellars. The enormous oak barrels, used to mature the port, need a humid environment and a lack of spiders shows that the cellar air is too dry.
- The grape spirit is added to the fermenting port two-thirds of the way through the process. This stops the fermentation by killing the yeast before all the sugar has been converted into alcohol, hence the sweet taste of port.
- And last but not least; Foz means fork, as in the confluence of two rivers, in Portuguese. So now we know.
All good wine tours end with a wine tasting, and ours didn’t disappoint. Our guides even left us alone with the bottles to ‘enjoy’ them. We enjoyed the tasting so much that we decided that there was no need to move on and we were going to spend the night in our cosy little lay-by.
By now the weather was officially Scorchio! Even warmer than yesterday so we had a leisurely lunch of the foraged mackerel pâté in the shade outside our vans, watching the boats going up and down and being surprised by the occasional jump of a large fish.
What better way to spend the afternoon than a little gentle paddling on the river! A & L broke out their inflatable canoe and soon were on a tour of the river and its Pinhão tributary (remember the fork/Foz?). Then it was time for Wendy to join Lesley on another circuit.
Exercise having been duly taken it was time for a refreshing beer and nibbles before the demanding task of wandering into the village to explore and find somewhere for supper as we hadn’t taken any food out of the freezer this morning.
Apart from being at the heart of the Douro vineyards the only other claim to fame Pinhão has is a pretty railway station, its walls are covered in azulejo, ceramic tiles depicting scenes of life in the village.
We keep forgetting that we are in Portugal in May, which is still considered low season, and, as it was a Monday, a lot of places were closed after the weekend. Of the few places open, we found a quaint little place, slightly ramshackle, tucked away in a corner just off the main street.
When we asked if we could bring the dogs on to the terrace overlooking the river the chef/owner stuck her head out of the kitchen and in good English said;
“No problem, if you like they can stay with my dog!”
There was something about her that made me think we were going to have a good meal and an interesting time. I was wrong about one but spot on with the other!
It turned out that we had been “double booked”, as Madame had forgotten that she was having a tour party of 40+ Taiwanese folk. She managed to squeeze us into a corner, which as it happened gave us an ideal vantage point to watch the evening unfold. The tour party began to arrive in dribs and drabs, and it became clear that there were a number of ‘forceful’ personalities in the group. There was a grumpy guy who kept ordering more and more drinks including champagne and beer which he was drinking at the same time; he may have been celebrating his anniversary, but his wife didn’t seem so happy either. There was ‘Blue Dragon Lady’ who kept flitting from table to table geeing everyone up. We thought she might be the tour guide, but it was clear that the tour guide was the hassled woman who kept having to deal with most of the group wanting to make regular changes to their menu choices. There was also a woman in a black tracksuit who seemed to be everybody’s mother as she moved from group to group. And all the while different groups of people kept getting up to pose for photos in the traditional Asian posture of; ‘one leg forward, head on one side, pout, and flick the V sign!’ This was executed first on one side of the terrace and then on the other and finally in front of a window that seemed to attract them like moths to a candle.
Most of the party had a very abrupt manner with the waiters which I thought was unfair as apart from the Venezuelan waitress they were all being trained up at the start of the season. One guy looked and acted as if he was reprising the role of Mañuel from Fawlty Towers. He took almost 10 minutes to change the toilet roll in the Ladies toilets as the queue jiggled from one foot to another (but were still able to pose for photos with their fingers in the air).
When our meal arrived, our spirits sank. Following the recommendation of the Venezuelan waitress (who had learned English in the Caribbean) we had all opted for the rabbit stew. When it finally arrived (had I mentioned they had a big party in as well as us?) it looked as if one rabbit had been chopped into quarters and divvied up between us and there was precious little evidence of any tomato sauce it was supposed to have been simmered in. It was disappointing, but the house wine was excellent and the floor show mesmerising.
The dogs were mesmerised too, but their attention was focussed on the kamikaze cat who, when it wasn’t unsuccessfully trying to get into the kitchen, proceeded to dash back and for between the two dogs in a sort of feline ‘chicken run’.
As the evening progressed Rio became a star attraction for a lot of the younger women diners, and he drew a large crowd when he rolled on to his back and allowed them to scratch his stomach.
Before they left all our fellow diners got up as one and cleared their tables and took the plates and cutlery back to the table. Madame came out to say goodbye to them, some of them she obviously knew by the warmth of the farewells, and then came to have a chat with us and what a tale she had to tell us.
The lady in the black tracksuit was the CEO of one of the top advertising companies in Taiwan and all the people with her were her clients who she had invited as guests to join her on a tour of Portugal, including a top Taiwanese actress. Madame’s own story was even more remarkable. She was French and had run a top restaurant in Paris; a Parisienne Bourgeoisie was how she described herself. She had married a Portuguese chap and had reluctantly agreed to move to Portugal some years ago and realised what a lovely place it was. There was no crime and no violence, something she had regularly suffered from in Paris. Here in Pinhão she had established a small farm in a somewhat haphazard fashion. It seemed to start with her acquiring a goat with blue eyes that she walked around the place on a leash, she then went to buy half a dozen chicks and ended up buying all 72 and finally buying 8 cows, all of which were in calf. She credits her animals as giving her the power to recover from stomach cancer and she has now become a writer to spread the word of her experiences, which explains why her restaurant is called A Casa do Escritor or Writer’s Place (If you think this doesn’t make much sense, you should have heard the original spiel!)