Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Farms and Vineyards

The best tilled farms in Portugal are in the north, in the rich province of Minho. They are quite small, and are worked like well-kept gardens by the farmer and his family, with perhaps the help of one or two hired hands.

The chief crop grown there is maize, and many different things are sown with it, such as dwarf kidney-beans and gourds. Young cabbages are also planted among the maize, and in the winter, after the grain has been garnered, they grow to a great height, when their leaves are plucked off one by one, the top being left to grow taller still.

June and July are very busy months. Besides the wheat and rye harvests, the maize, which is not cut until September or October, gives endless work. First it has to be hoed, and then earthed up. Later on it is gradually thinned out, some of it being taken as fodder for the cattle, and all the time it has to be carefully and regularly watered. This is generally done by irrigation. A farmer's whole prosperity depends on his water-supply, and no trouble is too great to insure a good one. Sometimes it is brought for miles in underground channels, or along a groove cut in the top of a broad wall. Another method is to raise it from a well by means of an old-fashioned water-wheel, worked by oxen. Many buckets are set about a foot apart on an endless chain, which passes over the wheel. With each turn these buckets dip into the well, and as they come up again empty the water into little channels, which carry it in all directions to irrigate the growing crops.

As the maize ripens to harvest the golden cobs have to be cut from the straw, husked, dried, and finally threshed.

The husking or removing of the outer sheath is a tedious business, so the farmers often give a kind of harvest home, to which they invite the neighbouring peasants. They provide food and wine in plenty, and their guests work far into the night, to the accompanying music of guitars and violins.

There are many different kinds of beans grown—black, white, grey, and yellow, mottled beans and striped beans, large and small. Flax, too, is widely cultivated, and in the north the farmers' wives and daughters spend the long winter evenings spinning and weaving it into linen for their clothes. In the marshy land near the sea we find rice, and most of the onions that are sold in England as Spanish onions in reality come from the North of Portugal.

From the north, too, comes the wine we call port. Vineyards flourish, and wine is made in all parts of the kingdom; but that which is imported so largely into England, and which is handed with dessert in so many English houses, is made only from the grapes grown on the steep hillsides of a tract of country on the banks of the River Douro, some sixty miles above the old seaport town of Oporto. It extends a long way up the river, and for a few miles to the north and south, through the valleys and gorges of many small tributary streams. It is a mountainous country, and from the water's edge to the high hill-tops there is nothing to be seen but vineyards, rising terrace above terrace in dull, unvarying monotony. The vines are grown as bushes, and have none of the beauty of those in many other parts, where they are trained over trellises, or allowed to ramble at will up pollarded trees.

You may have often seen the rich tawny red wine on the dining-room table, but I wonder if you have ever thought of all the labour that went to produce it. The construction of the terraces where the vines are to grow is in itself a mighty piece of work. Each terrace has its strong retaining wall, built with the stones taken from the soil, and when the vines have been planted, they require constant care and attention. In the autumn the low-growing shoots have to be removed and the roots uncovered. Pruning begins at the same time, and occupies the whole winter. The ground has to be dug in March, when all weeds are cleared away, and the earth is hoed into little mounds to protect the roots from the hot rays of the sun. Next comes the training and propping of the branches, which are secured by willow or rush ties to stakes driven into the ground. A second digging takes place in May, when the earth is once more levelled, and during the summer the vines have to be sprayed with sulphur to keep off a dreadful blight called oidium, which would otherwise do great damage.

At last, towards the middle or end of September, the vintage begins, and this brings with it the hardest work of all. Bands of men and women arrive from far-away villages in every direction to help with the work, singing and dancing as they come, as though out on a holiday jaunt.

A lonely farm.


The women gather the great clusters of grapes into baskets, and empty these into other larger ones, which the men carry away on their shoulders, passing from terrace to terrace right down the hill to the wine-presses. These are large granite tanks, into which the grapes are thrown, and men are employed to tread out the juice with their bare feet. It is very tiring, and is performed by relays of workers, trampling steadily, their hands placed on each other's shoulders to steady themselves. This goes on for many hours. The pulp is then left to ferment for some time, and bubbles and heaves as though it were boiling. When the stalks and skins rise to the surface the liquor gradually begins to cool down, and the time has come for running it off into the huge vats in the cellars below. The following spring the wine is put into casks, and sent in large boats down the Douro to Oporto, where it is stored in the merchants' "lodges" till required for export.