In the south of Portugal, high up in Monchique, the rooftop of Algarve, the accent tends to steal a few letters from each word. Destila, the process of distilling, becomes Estila. And in Monchique especially, the estila has to do with a particular kind of fruit – the medronho – which turns it into a mildly sweet and fruity firewater (aguardente) named after the very own fruit.
A small band of regional Urban Sketchers put together a series of sketch meetings in a couple of distilleries, deep in the woods of the Monchique mountain range. The first distillery, and by far, the most interesting one, has had the same process for ages, the traditional way!
The fruit ferments in gigantic barrels called dornas for a few months. Then, the resulting paste (massa) is transferred with a large copper ladle (cácero) to a round copper vessel (barriga) which is attached to a copper alembic. The whole device is inserted into a masonry furnace, heated by firewood. As the distilling process begins inside the copper alembic, the precious transparent fluid pours down a pipe that goes through a massive ceramic tank, filled with running fresh water, to cool it down. It might have been more efficient to have a spiral tube going down a narrower tank, but as the distillers explained, the spiral tube would create more challenges to the cleaning process. More cons than pros. Scratch that!
What comes out of the other end is a deliciously fruity smooth rich-bodied transparent medronho that wraps up the meals of most homes in Algarve. It’s also a deceivingly treacherous liquid, as it is so smooth and tasty, you don’t realize you’re having an alcoholic beverage until it’s too late!
The distilling of one batch can take up to four hours, so the crew finds ways to entertain themselves throughout the day. This particular fella shared his own technique of properly roasting a chouriço: wrap it up nice and tight in brown paper; put it on the ground and cover it with ash; cover the ash with glowing embers. Wait until you feel it right; take out, unwrap, slice in medallions, serve with traditional Monchique sliced bread; wash down with medronho. You’ll be happy for the remainder of the day, no matter what.