Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Cider Is Rare in Portugal. One Man Wants to Change That.

Pedro Paiva and I are driving in the region known as Minho, in far northern Portugal, a land of mist, hills, rock walls and seemingly limitless shades of emerald that feels more Ireland than Iberia. We’re on a winding country road, but Pedro is driving far below even country road speeds. He has been tipped off that there are apples in the area, and occasionally, without warning, he stops his tiny, bright red van in the middle of the road, hops out and scrutinizes a tree. 

Eventually we reach our destination: the village of Fiães, minutes from the border with Spain. We park near a house (construction date: 1691) and walk past a church (13th century) to a woman working in a garden with her apparent helper, a white cat.

“I’m looking for local varieties of apples. Are there any trees here?” Pedro asks her.

“They’ve all dried up,” replies the woman curtly, barely looking up from her work. 

Pedro asks if, in the past, people in the village used the apples to make cider. 

“No, we never made cider. We just ate them or fed them to animals.”

Undismayed, Pedro and I continue to the next village over. There, among the ancient granite houses typical of the region, he spots a lone apple tree behind a rock fence. After receiving the green light from a local man to enter the garden (“If you go there without permission, they’ll shoot you!” Pedro says of northern Portuguese villagers and their farms), we see that the ground is littered with apples bearing red and yellow-green mottled skin. We each grab an apple and take a bite. Mine has juicy flesh, with an almost perfect balance of sweet, acidic and tannic flavors. Pedro’s eyes light up: “These are cider apples.”

Head northeast from that apple tree in Fiães, just a few hours as the crow flies, and you’ll encounter Asturias, the origin of some of Spain’s most cherished cider. Just next door from there, in Spain’s Basque Country, people have been fermenting apple juice for centuries. Travel farther north along the French Atlantic coast through Brittany and Normandy, and this trail of cider production continues all the way to the British Isles. Yet back in Portugal, the drink is a rarity, with only one domestic corporate brand and fewer than 10 artisanal producers.

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“We’re in the North Atlantic region,” Pedro tells me. “Just north of here, in Spain, France, everyone makes cider. But here in Portugal, where we have the same climate, the same heritage, there’s none.”

As we explore the countryside of Minho, he points out to me the area’s unique system of agriculture: small plots, typically divided by rock walls and rushing streams, with a commodity crop such as corn in the center, perhaps a small plot of cabbage to one side, and almost always a few apple and pear trees at the perimeter. Intrigued by those stray trees, in 2016 Pedro started doing research at libraries and municipal archives, poring through old documents for anything related to apples or cider. He found ample references to both, enough evidence to convince him that cider was, indeed, once a thing in Portugal’s north.

“I know there was cider here,” he tells me. “Now my question is, Why did it disappear? How?

His current theory is that in northern Portugal, cider—known colloquially as apple wine—was a stopgap drink, made before the wine harvest, and almost exclusively for home consumption. In the 20th century, as Portugal’s fascist dictatorship enacted policies meant to encourage agricultural production on a larger scale, small-scale practices such as cider production were abandoned, and the drink was forgotten. Pedro wants to bring it back.

Pedro’s obsession with apples began late in life. “When I started this, I thought there were three types of apples: green, red and yellow,” he tells me. A native of Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto’s grittier neighbor, Pedro had a stint as a rapper and spent more than a decade doing agricultural and winemaking work in France and Italy before turning to cider.

“There reached a point when I wanted to do something in Portugal,” he tells me, of the period around 2016 when he returned home, ostensibly to produce wine. “I found a place near Porto, but as it was November, there were no grapes. But there were apple trees. In France, we used to drink cider, so I thought, OK, I’ll make cider.” He made his first batch that year, calling it Faca nos Dentes, literally “knife in the teeth,” a Portuguese expression that can be translated roughly as “by any means.” 

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The previous day, in the tiny village of Cunha, we had stopped at a crumbling mustard-yellow house. We were granted access to the property by the granddaughter of its owners. She agreed to let Pedro pick the apples in exchange for a few bottles of cider. 

“I never take apples for free,” Pedro tells me later, “It’s my personal rule.” He pays cash or offers bottles in hopes that his interest will inspire locals to see the value in a crop that typically otherwise falls to the ground and rots.

As is usually the case, Pedro had no idea what kind of apples he was about to encounter that day. He estimates that he uses 10 to 15 varieties of apples every year, a fraction of the as many as 300 that are said to exist in Minho, which boast names such as Porta da Loja (“Cellar Door”), Três ao Prato (“Three on the Plate”), Pipo de Basto (“Basto’s Barrel”), Sangue de Boi (“Bull’s Blood”) and Beijo da Rainha (“Queen’s Kiss”). He suspects that the apples in Cunha are the Parda (“Dun”) variety, which has a small size, a hue that straddles green and gold, a sweet flavor and a thick, slightly astringent peel. 

“I can do something with this,” Pedro tells me, disappointed by the lack of acidity but excited by the prospect of those tannins. He gets to work, climbing a rock wall and shaking the branches with a long pole, the apples falling on a plastic tarp. He bags the fruit and weighs them: 35 kilograms. It’s not enough to justify an entire batch of cider, but enough to contribute to one that is already in progress. 

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We return to the village where Pedro lives via yet another one of those green, winding, hilly Minho roads. (“And those trees!” he shouts, pointing at the side of the road as he drives. “I also asked those people if I could have their apples!”) In his garage, Pedro grinds the just-harvested apples to a pulp in an electric processor made especially for the task. 

Originally, he had wanted to make cider entirely without electricity. When I ask him about it, his response is immediate: “I was so stupid.” He’s had to make some concessions, such as that processor and an electric pump, but every bottle of Faca nos Dentes is made entirely by Pedro, via spontaneous fermentation, with no added sugars or yeasts. 

He takes the pulp, which is oxidizing rapidly, and wraps it in cloth tarps. The pillowlike bundles are then stacked and squeezed in a manual press he purchased in Spain. The liquid that pours out could be mistaken for honey, and fills the space with a fresh, sweet aroma that I’ll come to forever associate with fall. The juice is pumped into a stainless steel tank, the excess to a small, chestnut wood barrel, where it will ferment for another few months, those sugars slowly transforming into alcohol. Wanting to take full advantage of the apples’ tannins, rather than discarding the skins, Pedro puts them in a mesh bag, which he dunks, teabag-style, into the stainless steel tank. 

“I don’t know if the cider will be better or worse,” he says of the skin contact. “But it has some identity. I want people to drink my cider and know that it comes from Minho.”

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