Great Portugal Excursions: Tour a Cork Forest

Even though five generations of his family have held title to the land that claimed Phillip Mellon’s heart, his own journey to living on that land was circuitous. The attachment, though, is obvious and strong.

On a two-and-a-half-hour classic Jeep safari of the 540-hectare (more than 1,300 acres) Portuguese farm that he occupies with his wife and two young boys, he recounted the story of how his passionate love for the land unfolded. He admits that he is the first of his family to actually live on and work the land. His forebears, he explains, were “gentleman farmers” who held the property as a sort of vacation retreat from life in the city and other professional pursuits, hiring caretakers to tend the cork oaks, supervise the harvest and care for grazing animals.

Learning from the Land

During the tour, Mellon tells of the farm’s history, how it was that he found his way home, literally, to build a new life on his land, and of his hopes for the future. It’s a fascinating story of adaptive land use, and a continuing effort to build reality from a dream.

Phillip Mellon is a totally modern man, with deep Portuguese roots and ties to the culture. He was reared in the city, near Lisbon and the sea, but he says his happiest times were the school vacations and summers he spent at the farm in the country’s Alentejo region.

Mellon’s father, an attorney, still lives in the city, as do his siblings. Phillip himself had no early intentions of becoming a farmer. He was educated in England, then lived and worked both in Australia and Canada before finally returning to Portugal to settle on the family land. Noting that he really knew little about farming at the time, he has seized on opportunities as they presented themselves, learning by doing, and not averse to trying out new ventures.

In the year 2000, he embraced the idea of planting grapevines; today the vineyards produce award-winning wines. He says, laughingly, that he is a bit undisciplined in his pursuits.

Cork: A Major Industry

Driving east from Lisbon, we did not at first know what to expect. The scenery is dramatically beautiful, pastoral and calm, with scattered small towns punctuating the green hills. Large trees became more common, but we did not immediately recognize them as cork oaks, until we spotted large stacks of bark drying in the sun.

Luckily, our rental car had a superb navigational system; we were to meet our guide “in front of the museum in Redondo.” After only a few wrong turns and some good-natured advice from local residents, we arrived right on time, met Jose Inverno and our tour-mates, and were escorted to the farm for a sip of strong espresso in the sunny courtyard of the main farmhouse.

The surrounding forests in the Alentejo region and further south in Algarve province have been producing Portugal’s noted cork for centuries. The story of cork is a fascinating one. Portugal is the world’s major supplier, now accounting for approximately one half of the annual global harvest. A tree must be at least 20 years old, often much older, before it can first be harvested. It is said that the best bottle corks come from trees at least 50 years old. Then, by law, the bark of a cork oak may be stripped only every nine years. At this farm, Herdade da Maroteira, the rotation is once every 11 years. It is not a pursuit for the impatient!

Today, Mellon not only supervises the annual cork harvest, but is also planting new grape varietals. The farm offers informational walking treks and motorized tours through a subsidiary company managed by Jose Inverno, and has recently ventured into agri-tourism, with simple, but charming, accommodations available by the night or for an extended stay.

In addition, there are olive trees that produce oil for the farm and some limited sales, as well as beehives to supply fragrant honey. Sheep and cattle graze on the land, and Mellon partners with an Iberian black ham producer, allowing the distinctive long-legged pigs to fatten, during season, on the nutritious acorns that fall from the abundant oak trees.

The pigs, however, had not yet arrived on the land; the sheep seemed shy, but the cattle were unfazed by our presence. Farm dogs accompanied us everywhere.

An Individualized Tour Opportunity

Our Jeep safari followed dirt paths winding through the oaks, past fields of lavender, yellow and white wildflowers, adjacent to vineyards planted with a variety of grapevines, and across the hillocks of the foothills of the Serra D’Ossa range. At the highest point, we breathed in the spectacle, as Mellon pointed out the boundaries of his working estate down below.

We passed other groups of trekkers, each one accompanied by a congenial guide, and Jose also escorted a second driving tour in his car. We made frequent stops to listen to Mellon’s dialog, and the photo ops were superb!

The area invites exploration, from the evidence of ancient settlements to scattered ruins and well-preserved medieval walls and churches. The time passed all too quickly, and following a visit to the farm’s small shop, we returned to Redondo for a long, relaxing, traditional country lunch, included as part of our tour.

Sunday Dinner Far From Home

It was a Sunday and Restaurante Serra d’Ossa was filled with locals, all genial and smiling as they were greeted by Mellon. They, in turn, greeted us warmly, and we felt at home. The proprietors took care of us as if we were family, and the bountiful food and wine was brought to our table family style. We had a wonderful time getting to know our fellow “trekkers” better, and the food itself was delectable.

The menu included a variety of interesting appetizers served as traditional Portuguese “couvert,” followed by amazing tomato soup with poached eggs, and “green soup” for one of our group allergic to tomatoes. The entree was a mixed platter of pork prepared several different ways, and fresh salad, followed by a selection of tempting desserts, all of which disappeared quickly.

We assume that the cadence of life exists in this small town much as it always has, and we were delighted to be a part of it, if only for a day. Mellon told us that few of the other cork farmers have an interest in opening their forests to visitors or in diversifying into other enterprises. So, for the time being at least, Herdade da Maroteira offers a unique experience for travelers to Portugal. It is one that we will long remember, and one we highly recommend.

Because we were there in late April, we missed the harvest, which typically occurs in late June or early July, but we can visualize the buzz of activity it must generate at the farm.

Other available treks and tours take visitors to explore the ancient “dolmens,” burial mounds in the surrounding hills, on leisurely countryside walks and birding tours, and to visit the museum and ancient buildings of Redondo.

Perhaps one day we’ll return to do it all.

*Note: Some Portuguese cork factories also welcome tourists, but we chose to forgo the opportunity because of time constraints and distance. We left Alentejo headed south to the Algarve for a week near the sea. In future posts, I’ll chronicle other wonderful excursions for Portugal travelers.

Pleasures and Pitfalls of Olive Oil

Recently, at a local farmers market, I stopped at an olive oil display and was transported – in memory – to my first encounter with the mystique of locally-produced olive oils. I learned that today, in Texas, there is not a “lone olive ranch” in the Lone Star state, but several. It seems this state is better suited for black oil than olive oil, but with time, luck and persistence, some olive ranchers are making a go of it. Texas A&M explains that climate is a limiting factor.

The oil pressed from trees has a long, rich history, and was commonly known as the “gift of the gods” by ancient civilizations. There is a bit of doubt about which gods first introduced olive oil to humans, and where exactly, but no doubt at all about its continuing popularity among Mediterranean peoples. That’s how I first was introduced to its wonders.

It was decades before the Mediterranean Diet became codified; EVOO, at the time, was not in the vocabulary of most chefs. But, even then, olive oil was something special among the “initiated.”

Photo by Adrienne Cohen
Photo by Adrienne Cohen

I have written about olive oil in terms of its natural properties, and as a regional, historical and cultural component of diet and tradition. The following piece first was published on Yahoo Contributor Network March 3, 2013. It was prompted by a news story confirming the health benefits of olive oil.

I’d like to share it again (with minor changes and updates):

Eating Well, Staying Healthy Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Many years ago, while vacationing at a Caribbean Island resort, my husband and I met a vivacious Italian couple at dinner. They were older, by decades, than we were at the time, but just as active, full of curiosity and fun to be with. They were swimmers, reef explorers and divers, and had come to enjoy the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. We met and talked, and because we had lived in France and traveled in Europe, we shared our experiences with them; they asked us about our life in the United States. We found we had much in common, despite the differences in age and geography.

One night at dinner, we tasted what that Italian gentleman called his “secret of long life.”

Olive Oil

Pressed from olives grown on his trees on his land, and carried from his home in travel flasks, he passed it around the resort’s community table for all to sample, and to savor, with our bread. I still recall the color, the scent and the flavor of that olive oil. The couple was justifiably proud of the golden elixir.

As “20-somethings,” we were enthralled. We were captivated by the setting; by the sun and the sea, by the activities and the bountiful food. We were charmed by the company. This pair

Olive Grove, Tuscany' Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr
Olive Grove, Tuscany’
Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr

of free-spirited, fit, fun grandparents enjoyed life every bit as much as we did. They were only too happy to meet new friends and share good times, good conversation, good food and abundant wine.

This incident occurred before the current popularity of all things Mediterranean, including the diet. On vacation, we two laid aside moderation: We overdid the activity as well as the food, the sun and the drink; and we paid the price upon our return home.

Not so our Italian friends. They maintained their routine. A simple breakfast of bread, with the requisite olive oil, and cheese; perhaps a soft-boiled egg, and black coffee. For lunch, a simple salad, with fish or fresh vegetables, fruit and bread, with olive oil. Whole olives, too, if they were available.

They walked, they swam, they dove; they relaxed.

Olives ready to pick Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr
Olives ready to pick
Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr

And then dinner — long, multi-course dinners. Soup, appetizer, entrée, roasted vegetables, salad — and bread. Always with the olive oil. Good conversation, much laughter. Much wine. And then dessert.

No, we never saw them again. But we never forgot that olive oil.

When I heard on ABC News that new findings confirm that the benefits offered by the “Mediterranean Diet,” in particular its emphasis on daily consumption of olive oil, include an astounding 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk, I thought of those Italian friends from long ago. I doubt that they are traveling this earth still, some 30-plus years later. But I would wager that they did so for many years following our meeting, always with enthusiasm, with smiles and laughter, and with olive oil.

Note: Now that I have discovered, and confirmed, that olive trees grow in Texas, I am planning an upcoming visit to the groves. I’m really looking forward to exploring the modern process of producing that “divine” oil.