by Giovanni PereiraClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (22763) to be taken to his personal page

First published in the UMA News Bulletin under the pen-name "Caramba"

There is a spirit in the Algarve. It's pure and crystal clear. No secret recipe, no additives and the Algarveans still know how to distill it in their own homes!

It's derived from the most characteristic shrub in the serra hilly regions of the Algarve - the arbutus or strawberry tree. The spirit is medronho and is roughly akin to kirsch or schnapps or even tequila. Even a tiny amount, consumed neat, straight down the hatch can be felt swiftly, all the way down to one's toes! The connoisseurs will have you believe that real medronho can only be acquired privately. And in the quieter reaches of the Serra de Monchique, the farmers and forestry workers take a couple of weeks off between January and May to make it unobtrusively, just enough for themselves and their friends and maybe a little extra for illicit sale, but nobody is telling.

The vivid red berries, mostly grown uncultivated on steep and often stony ground of the arbutus bushes are carefully collected in October/November. Only perfectly ripe fruit is picked. Then the berries are left to ferment and if the fruit is sufficiently ripe, fermentation starts spontaneously. Otherwise some water is added to help it along.

The 'must' is then kept in airtight wooden barrels over a period varying from 2 to 4 months, before being transferred to copper stills (caldeiras) heated by log fires. No thermometer is used for accurate temperature control. Just a judicious nudge or two of a burning log with one's boot to ensure success! The experts judge the strength of the end product by shaking a small glassful and observing the bubbles that surface. Large, long remaining bubbles are a hallmark of quality. The final result is a drink of 40 to 42% alcohol content and a taste that's truly hard to describe.

Almost all medronho is perfectly clear, like gin and vodka but don't turn your nose up at yellow-tinted medronho, should you be lucky enough to come across it. The yellow tint denotes a beverage of rare quality which has been in an oak cask for at least a year. Those who imbibe regularly claim it is a 'happy' drink – even for sad occasions - and best with a bica, the little cup of strong, black coffee. Medronho, honey and water is believed to be good for staving off a cold whilst a delicious cocktail can be concocted with medronho, liquidised melon and crushed ice. On the other hand, for the really adventurous, how about a arrasa miudas which translates to something like 'brain dissolver'. It's real easy to make – equal parts of medronho and port wine. Tasty but highly potent. One of these may already too many.