Thursday, 30 June 2016

Brexitour, visiting the Douro boys in Portugal

douro wine tasting, Portugal
quinta do valle dona maria, douro wine, Portugal
douro portugal map
port and wine barrels, douro, portugal
wine, douro, portugal
the douro boys ,portugal

It was strange to be in Europe on the day that we voted to leave it. I'd landed in Porto, a picture postcard ancient Portuguese city on the banks of the Douro river. I travelled to the Quintas (chateaux) of five port and wine houses, collectively known as the Douro Boys, formed by five friends with wineries. Left to Right in the picture above the Douro Boys are: Christiano Van Zeller, the head of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria; Xito Olazabal of Quinta Do Vale Meao; Miguel Roquette of Quinta do CrastoDirk Van der Niepoort of Niepoort Quinta, lastly the owner of Quinta do vallado.    

As the day wore on, I spent a small fortune googling the news on roaming. (By the way, don't bother with '3' network, reception is poor and data is expensive.) I was with a group of journalists from Austria, Germany, Poland, one American and one other British woman who, like me, voted 'Leave'. She is from Chipping Norton, which lies in David Cameron's constituency.

As a left winger Leaver, I've been in an uncomfortable position throughout the campaign. My attempts to meet other Brexit activists led to ending up in a pub with a load of Tories. Swallowing my distaste for their other politics, I soldiered on, but strangely was never asked to do anything - no campaigning, no leafleting, no meetings. The one meet-up next to Kilburn station was cancelled due to the sad death of MP Jo Cox. Maybe they felt that it was pointless campaigning in Camden and Brent, which ended up as two of the keenest Remain boroughs.

On the day of the referendum I travelled by road, train and boat to the Douro region. In the old days it took two weeks for a boat, pulled by oxen on the banks of the river, to travel to this formerly little-known area. The Douro wine trade really took off when the railway was built in 1898, then the journey took a mere five hours. 

The Douro is often described as 'nine months of rain and three months of hell'. At the end of June, it is around 35ºC, crushingly hot. Some of the time we spent in cool dank cellars that smelled of mould and spilled booze, a scent I've grown to love. 

The Douro is one of the only domains in the world that still uses feet to crush the grapes. Each Quinta has glittering granite (lagares) tanks, where teams of 10 tread militaristically for 4 hours in sessions of 2 hours, back and forth, back and forth. The American journalist did it once and had to stop after 10 minutes. 'It was exhausting,' she confessed.

The advantage of using feet rather than machines is that the pips never get crushed, avoiding bitter tannins. The skins will be mildly broken and the body heat will trigger fermentation. You can't get that kind of light touch with machines, although some companies claim that this is possible. The human touch must make a difference, perhaps even homoeopathically. Prior to the treading, the feet and legs are cleansed with a sulphur bath. 
'What about the hair on men's legs?' I asked Christiano Van Zeller, the head of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria.
He jokes, 'it's not a problem - if you get one in your teeth when drinking, you can just spit it out'.
He explains how the work is hard and often painful:
'Afterwards your legs are red and itchy, caused by the yeast deposits from the grapes. Traditionally you scrub your legs with brandy, which kills the yeast.'
At the same time the Douro Boys have invested hugely since the '90s in the most up to date wine-making technology, creating an effective synthesis of old and new methods.

The Douro is best known for Port, a fortified wine originally designed to suit the sweet English palate, particularly during the 1860s and 1870s. But over the last 30 years, since the Portuguese accession to the EU, the Douro wine industry has been reinvigorated. Portuguese wine is determined to carve out its own identity rather than ape French wines. Portugal has around 70 different varietals of grapes to choose from. The most commonly used Portuguese grapes are names that will be unfamiliar to most wine shoppers: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cao, Tinta Barroca. But this is sure to change.

The Douro, hard and hot, contains little soil, dominated by a kind of slate known as 'schist' that gives the wines a certain minerality. This 'schist' is unusual: rather then having horizontal cracks, the fissures are vertical, meaning that vine roots can reach 10 or 15 metres deep, tapping into reserves of moisture even during the dry summer months, avoiding the need for irrigation. 

The countryside looks stratified, carved out of the hillsides, green vines trooping efficiently over the flinty contours. Each parcel, set on a different facet of a complicated puzzle, has its own character of grape. When looking, you can tell which are the older vineyards; they are untidy and yellower, with a variety of grapes known as a 'field blend'. Tractors cannot access these unregimented vineyards. These grapes are often used for Port wines. DNA testing shows that in the most aged vineyards, there are up to 200 varieties of native Portuguese grape, still more are being discovered. I was stunned to discover that in new vineyards, wine makers can now change types of grapes every year, a technique I think they called 'bubble graft', simply by grafting on a new grape to the existent vines. This method is heavily used in Chile.

The wines themselves are impressive, the reds are big, fruity and spicy. I also tried some oaky whites, which I liked very much. The whites are usually grown on the higher altitudes so that they don't ripen too quickly. At the Niepoort Quinta, run by lion-maned Dirk Van der Niepoort, the whites are picked early, around mid-August. As a result the wines are described by his winemaker Carlos Raposo as 'elegant', which turns out to be wine lingo for 'acidic', the perfect antidote for the scorching heat of the Douro. 

Many people choose a wine solely from the design of the label. Niepoort have responded to this with  cleverly designed individual labels for different countries, often referring to a local children's book. In the UK, they sell a wine called 'Drink Me', invoking the magic of Alice in Wonderland. 

Each Quinta has its own tale: Quinta Do Vale Meao was created in 1894 by a widow Dona Antonia Ferreira. She took the considerable risk of buying up land in the Upper Douro years before it had a railway. It's now run by her great great grandchildren, a brother, the wine maker 'Xito' Olazabal and his sister Luisa. 

Quinta do Crasto is led by movie star good looking, blue-eyed, dark-lashed brothers Miguel and Tomas Roquette. I put a photo up on Instagram and my personal Facebook. All my friends went 'phoar'. My parents immediately asked when I was going to marry him. I replied that when it came to him Brexit wise, I was a 'In'. My dad crudely replied, 'In and Out don't you mean?'. When I mentioned in updates that this Douro Boy had said hello to me, my mum optimistically asked, 'Isn't that binding in Portugal?'.

The Douro boys have set up a Feira Do Douro in June with food and wine stands, with Fado singers (below) singing the heart rending songs of traditional Portugal. It's well worth a visit. One of the things the Douro wine makers are trying to achieve with marketing their region is making the link between the food and the wine. Like in Alentejo, the basic ingredients are fantastic: raspberries, tomatoes, cheeses, cornbread, fried potato skins, fruit soups, a great deal of meat based cuisine and hundreds of bacalao recipes for salted cod. Pastries are often based on egg custards, developed by the religious orders: the whites would be used to clarify the wines and the yolks used for desserts. There was a demonstration of how to make amendoas de moncorvochalky white almonds covered in bumpy white sugar, hand-roasted on a copper pan over charcoals, by a woman wearing thimbles on all her fingers.

On the Friday morning, the shock result of the referendum came through. Britain had voted to leave the EU. From that point on, between tours of vineyards and tanks, tasting sessions and meals, I had my head bent down, googling the latest news, in which crazy things seemed to occur every hour. The other British lady and myself were feverishly whispering to each other about the events. 

We'd both voted Leave, but we were rather stunned to have won. I had a funny ache in my heart, a lump, rather like when you've dumped a boyfriend. You know it's for the best, the relationship isn't working, but still you feel guilty. Other people's emotional reactions also dismayed me. On my Facebook feed, friends were acting like I was some kind of right-wing racist. I was tagged in posts about war starting again in Ireland, in posts about racist attacks, as if I were personally responsible. There were emotional tirades. Feelings ran high.  I rang my daughter, a Labour activist, on Skype; her face was downcast and sullen. She resented me. I hung up. It did seem as if the Guardianista set, i.e. my friends and comrades, were talking about the 'Leavers' as if they were stupid and crass. People even questioned whether we should have had a referendum. Democracy itself was questioned, although I'm not sure if they realised that that was what they were doing. It felt like a civil war.

During the Port masterclass on the last day, I asked the Douro boys what effect Brexit would have on their trade. Sales of alcohol, like sweets, go up during a recession, but it tends to be cheaper brands. They replied:
'As Britain has the most sophisticated wine public out of all non-producing countries, it will hit us hard. The UK is 15% of our market.'
Another chipped in:
'I think that the English Port houses will suffer the most as they sell in pounds.'
But they agreed:
'Britain is one of our oldest allies, eventually it will be fine. We've traded for hundreds of years.'
fado singer, feira do douro, portugal
Tomás Roquette, quinta do crasto, douro, portugal
bedford truck, quinta do crasto portugal
Carlos Raposo (winemaker), Niepoort, Portugal
Niepoort, Douro, portugal
Dirk van der Niepoort, Douro boy, Portugal
douro boys
douro, portugal
Christiano Van Zeller,  Quinta do vale dona maria, Portugal
Joana Pinhao, winemaker at Quinta  douro, Portugal
fried potato skins, Portugaldouro,Portugal
Luisa, quinta do Vale Meao, Portugal, Douro
train station, douro, portugal
douro portugal
quinta do vallado- João Roquette Álvares Ribeiro (son of one of the owner) Portugal
quinta do Crasto, douro, portugal

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

10 amazing things to see, eat and drink in Grenada

A typical Grenada meal

Grenadian beauties, grenada
brightly coloured Grenada house
rasta colours in Grenada

Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island just north of Venezuela, is obsessed with politics. The radio of every car is tuned to the live broadcast from the Grenadian parliament. My drivers diligently followed the lengthy speeches with the intensity of a cricket fan. Thanks to this I now know exactly how much a kilowatt of electricity costs in Grenada and I now know that Grenada spends more on electricity than any other Caribbean island. They seem to be going through some kind of Thatcherite revolution, after privatising basic utilities, which were private monopolies, they are opening them up to competition. After listening to Mr Simon Steele declaiming in parliament for two days straight on the energy situation, I ran into him at the bar at Whisper Cove. I got a selfie with him, warning him that the last politician I did that with had to resign a month later (the Icelandic Prime Minister who I met at a launch for 'skyr' yoghurt). He laughed, kissed me on the head and said:
'I have no dodgy dealings with Mossack Fonsecca, I can assure you.'
I know there are two political parties in Grenada: the NDC (National Democratic Congress) and the NNP (New National Party) and that their parliament is based upon the British system. The Queen has not visited Grenada for 30 years. 
During my two weeks in Grenada I spent a large proportion of time being driven around by baritone-voiced, knowledgeable drivers. One of them, Mr Edwin Frank, had a particularly rich tone, similar to Trevor McDonald (who is half-Grenadian). Mr Edwin, it turned out, was a former TV celebrity in Grenada. He used to present programmes on the radio (notably during the American invasion) and then became the lottery announcer on TV. When he drove me to meet interviewees, they were starstruck. Not by me, I should quickly add, but by Mr Edwin. 
'I know you. I know your voice!'
Then there was Mr Cosmo, who told me the names of all ten 'green figs' - the Caribbean name for bananas. He's a part-time farmer. Cosmo had a particular driving style, consisting of tooting on his horn every two minutes and yelling tunefully 'yeah mon' to every passerby. He knew everybody, all 100,000 people on the island. 
I spent an evening driving to see the turtles with Mandoo, actually former British navy sailor Simon Seales, who gave me an interesting talk on the history of Grenada.
Lastly there was Mr Roger, my first Caribbean conspiracy theorist. Mr Roger believed that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was fake
'All of the islands in the Caribbean are linked, on the same tectonic plate. If there is an earthquake on one, we can feel it here in Grenada. With Haiti, there were no tremors in Grenada.'
Roger didn't like me much or maybe he just didn't like white people. He often turned up hours late without apology. A pity, because he was also interesting to talk to. He recalled as a boy the left-wing revolutionary coup that occurred in 1979 and lasted until 1983, when America invaded Grenada (the only time Thatcher and Reagan fell out).
Grenada is an uberously fertile country; the interior is rainforest, the beaches are white, the sea is turquoise. As soon as you arrive at the airport, you can smell spices on the breeze, warm wafts of nutmeg and cinnamon. Fruit grows abundantly; blazing mangoes litter the roads, papayas droop from trees, breadfruit hang improbably, given their size, from slim stems on branches. The colours of the countryside reflect the colours of the flag: green, orange and gold.

So, what is there to do in Grenada? Here is my listicle of recommendations...

1. Turtles on Levera beach

baby turtle grenada
This shocking but extraordinary experience is the modern equivalent to meeting a dinosaur. Every two years the leatherback turtle returns to the beach where they were born. During the intervening time, they swim for hundreds of miles, travelling the world. 
No distracting light is allowed on the beach, only a red torch, and tourists are advised to wear dark clothing. We walked for miles along the shore. Then I saw, in the dim glow, researchers crouching down over a hole. As I approached, I could see dozens of white eggs, the size of tennis balls, piled up in the burrow. The researchers were counting the eggs. I walked around a large dark rock, when I realised that I was standing next to a massive turtle, 2 metres long, 1.5 metres wide. 

During the egg laying, the turtle is in a trance, oblivious to the people around her. Encouraged by the researchers, I stroked her shell. Her eyes glistened, sticky tears seem to roll down her long neck. Once she has finished, the turtle hides the eggs. You stand well away as the turtle covers the eggs with her back flippers, flicking sand in the air. This continues for some time. Finally the mother turtle heaves her weight to compress down the sand, hiding the eggs. The beach is full of these underground nests. Further along in the dark, one can make out another turtle emerging from the dark waves. Eventually our turtle shuffles down the beach to the sea. As we walk back, our guide sees a baby turtle and picks it up, it wriggles in her hand. The odds of an egg surviving to adulthood are miniscule. At least we can get this one into the sea.
Book to see this with Mandoo tours (April to June). You can also volunteer to help.

2. Spices and the Spice Market

worker resting on sacks of nutmeg at the nutmeg factory, grenada
Fresh nutmegs with bright scarlet mace, grenada
spice seller in St Georges market, grenada
cinnamon bark, grenada
nutmegs drying, grenada

Grenada is known as the Spice Island. Until hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada in 2004, 90% of the world's nutmeg was grown here. The hurricane ripped out 80% of the nutmeg trees. 

I visited the nutmeg factory in the small Northern town of Gouyave, which is worth visiting. A large wooden warehouse next to the ocean, you can buy nutmegs and nutmeg products (syrup, jam, necklaces, medicinal nutmeg oil for aches and pains). It smells like heaven. 

I'd also recommend the spice market in the main town of St George's. Dozens of stalls featuring a patchwork quilt of brightly coloured spices, mostly managed by wise women, grating fragrant nutmeg into bowls, talking knowledgeably about the ingredients. They will explain the uses of sea moss, otherwise known as Irish Moss or Carageen, which makes a thick milky but vegan drink.  Here in Grenada, even what we regard as ordinary spices, such as ground ginger, the flavour is infinitely more alive, vivid and pungent. 

3. Underwater 

Underwater park, Grenada

Grenada created one of the world's first 'underwater sculpture' parks. I snorkelled over the slightly eery sculptures: a group of people standing in a circle, bodies laying on the sea bed, a man at a desk, a goddess holding her hands towards the sky. The sculptures, which are now covered in barnacles and sea creatures, a constantly evolving form of art, were created by two Grenadian artists, James deCaires Taylor and Troy Lewis.  There is also great snorkelling at La Sagesse, a beautiful wild beach, with beach front huts and rooms. Off the main island, diving and snorkelling is possible on the two tiny sister islands to Grenada: Petite Martinique and Carriacou. 

Book to see this with Savvy Sailing Charters.

4. The food 

BBs Crabback Grenada restaurantfried plaintain grenada

Caribbean food is an interesting island melange, based on the foodways that slaves brought with them from Africa, shipboard cuisine, colonial food and local Carib ingredients. 
The national dish of Grenada is called 'oildown', a slow stew with breadfruit cooked in coconut milk and turmeric, fish, conch and meat such as pigtail added. It's usually cooked on holidays, sometimes on the beach. The slowest cooking vegetables and meat are added first, along with the coconut, then other meats, carrots, callaloo and finally, dumplings, are added in layers. It takes several hours to cook through then all the layers are separated into bowls so that people can get a little of each ingredient. I'd like to attempt a vegetarian version of this dish. 

Starchy food such as plantain, breadfruit, yams, sweet potatoes are known as provisions or 'ground provisions', a term probably stemming from the naval word for shipboard stores. During slavery, some poor patches of allotment were loaned to slaves to grow extra vegetables. Often ground provisions were all that would grow.
Grenada has at least ten kinds of banana, known in the Caribbean as 'green figs'. Some are used as vegetables, others as fruit, some raw, others should be cooked.
This is a rough list that Mr Cosmo gave me:
  • Gros Michel, similar to the sweet ripe Cavendish bananas we are used to.
  • Lacatan (a red fig)
  • Rock fig (the sweetest)
  • Bluggoe plantain (for cooking)
  • Silk fig (2 types)
  • Throdon John (Cacabul), red and yellow 
  • Manicou fig (2 types), 
  • Mataboro
  • Moko
  • Trinidad
Here is a list of the incredible range of Caribbean fruit, many of which I'd never heard of or eaten before this trip, for instance, cashew apple, wax apple, bread nuts (similar to chestnuts), soursop, Gospo (a kind of bitter orange) fruit... 

The Caribbean breakfast is another delight: savoury doughnuts called 'fried bakes' stuffed with saltfish or herring souse, fresh coconut water from the shell, platters of exotic fruit, a variety of  nutmeg and cinnamon spiced porridges (corn, rice, wheat and oat). 
My purpose on this trip was to report on the annual Chocolate Festival. The fruit of the local cacao pod, the fine artisanal chocolate and the chocolate tea should be sampled. 
Restaurants I tried and can recommend include: 
  • BBS crabback: for me the most characterically Grenadian of all the restaurants. Stunning cocktails and fruit juices (I had gospo juice). The signature dish is the creole crab back stuffed with crab meat and a cheese and wine sauce. They do goat curry, conch salad (a kind of shellfish) and on Friday's, the national dish 'Oildown'. 
  • Dodgy Dock restaurant. I had an unusual fusion dish: callaloo cannelloni which was excellent.They also have 'street food Wednesdays' where you can buy fried fish and aloo pie ( a spicy Indian potato samosa).
  • La Sagesse restaurant: famous for their fresh caught fish, beautiful location on wild beach. 
  • Laluna hotel: high end Italian food and a great wine list (sometimes you need a break from rum and beer).
There are also a couple of Cuban style home restaurants, which unfortunately I didn't get a chance to try  as I only found out about them on my last day. Next time.
I didn't do this but Fish Fridays, a street festival at the small northern town of Gouyave, held every Friday evening, is a celebration of fish cuisine, with food stalls and live music. Spanking fresh fish is available everywhere. 
manicure at the fish market, grenada

5. The beaches

crab catching, Grenada
la sagesse, grenada

Grenada is a tropical island cliché in that the beaches contain white, sugar fine sand. The Grand Anse beach is 2.5 miles long, forming a graceful crescent to the south of the island. No beaches are private. As you drive up to the north of the island, you can see fisherman pulling in nets, turtles bobbing up and down in the sea, birds perching on boats. The birds tell you where the fish are. The beach at La Sagesse is isolated and beautiful, within a nature reserve. 

6. The rainforest

Fermenting cocao beans, grenada
The volcanic interior of Grenada bursts with abounding fern, teal and jade foliage. I was there in the wet season and the humidity of the lower reaches gives way to refreshing higher grounds in the Grand Etang National Park. The fertile hills are dotted with multicoloured rainbow houses, lime green, orange, burnt umber, turquoise, mustard, aubergine purple, fuchsia, marine and pearl blue, salmon and terracotta. Some houses are corrugated tin huts, others wooden shacks teetering on stilts. The ground floor is used to hang out washing, protected from the rain and the house proper starts on the first floor, where Grenadians are relaxing (called 'liming') on mock colonial verandas. Some of the houses are constructed with lime, eggshell and molasses. The interior boasts waterfalls and streams, resembling an untouched prehistoric landscape. I had a go at river tubing, where you are carried through rapids while sprawled within a giant rubber tube. 

7. Sailing

View of St Georges, Grenada
hog heaven, beach bar, grenada
The sailing in the Caribbean is some of the best in the world. I have longed to learn to sail for decades. Grenada has various sailing schools where it is possible to take a Competent Crew qualification and skippering courses although oddly there is no actual legal requirement to pass an exam to sail! If you fancy hanging out with boat people and hearing their adventures, you could do worse than spending a few days at Whisper Cove. The last four days I spent in Grenada, I rented a boat, but without a skipper license, I could only stay on the boat while moored at Whisper Cove Marina. This atmospheric marina is run by French Canadians where there is a restaurant serving brunch on Sundays. A dinghy ride away is Hog Island where they have Sunday fish dinners as well as a ramshackle beach bar called Roger's Barefoot Beach Bar. The Sunday I spent there, I witnessed a touching ceremony where old sailing friends, tanned and weathered, held a scattering of the ashes at sea for a deceased mate. 

One of my most relaxing moments on the island was when I took the 'sunset cruise' with 'Savvy' a beautiful wooden 18th century sloop, sipping Rum Punch as we drifted in the balmy winds around the island. The owner, Danny, is from Grenada, has the greenest eyes. 
'All boat people from here have green eyes,' he declared.
'Do you have gills too?' I joked.
Building sloops is a communal activity in Grenada, but the boat builders have a mix of Scottish, Creole and African blood.

8. Rum

rum tasting, grenada
rum cocktail, grenada
The Caribbean is known for rum, an alcohol produced by fermenting sugar cane. I did a tasting and quick history with rum expert Lisette Davis at Rumboat Retreat. She explained that rum was discovered by the slaves who cut the sugar cane, a lethal activity, for the blades of this grass are like knives. The slaves were given the dark molasses run-off and soon recognised that by leaving this discarded ingredient in the sun, it fermented into a delicious simple wine. The masters, originally the French (the British came later), used their knowledge of distilling cognac, to make rum.  
We tasted a selection:
  • The local island fire water, Rivers, an overproofed rum (70%) which has a strong ethanol smell and is made from hand cut pure sugar cane syrup. Best used with a mixer!
  • Clarkes Court (69%), a Grenadian British style rum made from molasses 
  • Trois Rivières, a 'rhon agricole' (55%) from Martinique, made from pure cane juice not molasses; sweeter and drier.
  • Montebello (42%), from Guadeloupe, is aged amber nectar
  • Plantation (41.2%), an aged white rum which doesn't need mixers, can be sipped.
  • 10XO by Westerhall in Grenada is a 10 year old rum, has coconut, caramel flavours and is peaty like whisky.
  • Dom Q a 12 year old aged rum from Puerto Rico comes in a pretty decanter rather like a perfume bottle. This is a sipping rum.
  • Chairman's Reserve  a spiced rum from St. Lucia, a neighbouring island. Spiced rum is popular with women. Notes of orange peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla. I loved this one.  

9. The gardens

Laura herb and spice garden, grenada
Grenada has a climate and soil where you can pretty much stick anything in the ground and it'll grow. Their stand at the Chelsea Flower Show has won gold for 12 years in a row. I went to see several gardens: the kitchen garden at Mount Cinnamon hotel where Chadon Beni (a long saw toothed coriander leaf) fought it out with papaya trees and old time sage. Many of the things they use at the restaurant are grown in their garden. 

Laura herb and spice garden, a government run educational garden, in the interior, is worth visiting to see spices, herbs and fruits growing on trees and bushes. For some of us, including me, it will be the first time you have ever seen clove, nutmeg, vanilla, pineapples, all spice, in their botanical form. There is a short tour. 
pineapple like a lollypop, grenada
female cacao farmer, grenada

10. The people and their music

The people are, for the most part, friendly with gentle courtly manners. 'Take your time' is repeatedly uttered, rather like an American might say 'you are welcome'. They also appear to be, to a man, to a woman, preternaturally talented at music. Live music is a constant - calypso, reggae or popular hits. I spent a fantastic night dancing to live music at The Brewery bar, where I also sipped chocolate beer. I even did something called 'winding' with the horrible Roger. I've had Roger's groin ground into my arse to the beat of calypso and he still didn't like me! 
yoga studio, grenada