Want to move to Portugal, but don’t know where to go?

Colorful buildings line the Douro river in Porto and visitors can see the boats that traditionally carried port wine.

A lot of people are interested in moving to Portugal. At least that’s the way it looks when I scan the multiple Facebook groups I’ve joined because they are aimed at expats who are living in, or interested in, Portugal. There are more than a hundred such groups; catering to every possible taste. The question I see over and over, is “I’m planning to move to Portugal in XX many years, what’s the best place to go?”

This is the kind of question that drives those of us who have made the move, absolutely crazy. How can anyone else know where that person would like to live? It depends on so many things.

I have usually responded by advising the person that posted the question to look at their own lifestyle and ask themselves the following:

    Electric tram in Lisbon.
    1. Are you used to living in a city or the country? Which do you prefer?
    2. How much do you like to shop? Do you want to have a big choice of stores nearby or are you okay with small local stores and visiting shopping centers only now and again?
    3. Do you eat out a lot? How important is it for you to have restaurants nearby?
    4. Do you want to have a car? Or are you comfortable with using public transportation?
    5. How often do you want to travel? Is it important for you to be near an airport?

    These are just a few of the questions people who are “thinking” about moving to Portugal should ask themselves. Facebook groups such as Pure Portugal – Living the Good Life, Moving to Portugal, Expats in Portugal Q&A and many, many more, can provide much valuable information. People can pose questions and get answers from those who have already made the move and settled here. Internet research is invaluable, but a trip to the country is the best way to get a real feel for the place. You get to meet the people face-to-face, taste the food, see the landscape and the architecture.

    Portugal is still quite a poor country by comparison with others in western European. Outside the bigger cities, the countryside is depopulated and many villages have a lot of houses that have been sitting empty for years. You can buy them cheaply, but they also take a lot of time and effort to renovate. Still, life in a Portuguese village can be very fulfilling. People are welcoming and willing to help you. Lunch in a small family-run restaurant will cost you as little as 10 euros for a three-course meal with wine and coffee. Cars and gasoline/diesel are expensive, but if you live in the country you will almost certainly need to drive. Most Portuguese roads are narrow and winding, but luckily there is little traffic. The highways are superb but you usually have to pay tolls.

    Portuguese houses are usually made of stone. They keep out the heat in the summer but can be awfully cold and damp in the winter. The Alentejo and Algarve regions are the hottest in the summer and mildest in the winter. Areas in the far north and closer to the Spanish border are typically the coldest in the winter.

    These are just a few thoughts I decided to share about life in Portugal. I moved here more than three years ago after extensive research and a two-month trip during which I did volunteer work and traveled around the country.

    Follow my blog to learn more about life in Portugal! It’s almost olive-picking season!

    Olives are almost ripe for the harvest in my part of central Portugal.

    Olive pressing the old fashioned way – hard work, but jolly

    The grandson of the owner of the Casal de Santa Iria olive press, or lagar, helps my Belgian neighbor unload his olives ready for pressing.

    Olive harvesting is well under way in my part of Portugal. Today, most of the olive presses are modern affairs that look like an industrial brewery. They use heat in the pressing process and many people say that the heat affects the taste of the oil. But there are still some old-fashioned presses that use traditional methods of cold pressing. The old ways are much more labor-intensive. There is a lot of camaraderie as the workers perform the multiple steps that transform the whole olives into a puree which is then squeezed to release the precious golden-green oil.

    I had the great good fortune to visit one of these old-fashioned olive presses recently when I helped my neighbor, Chris, with his harvest. He and his wife had helped me pick my olives. In return, I helped them pick theirs. We went together to an olive press in a nearby hamlet. The Portuguese word for olive press is “lagar”, with the emphasis on the second syllable.

    olives loaded in the hopper

    The Casal de Santa Iria lagar is a family affair; owned by Grandfather Manuel, and operated by his son and grandson. When we arrived, the grandson guided the car with the trailer bearing the bags of olives onto a weigh station. The weighing machinery reminded me of an antiquated vote tabulating machine. Once weighed, an augur crushes the olives into a purée that looks like tapenade. The purée is fed into a pipe and when a worker turns a spigot, it spreads out onto a spinning circular mat. The mats, which look as if they are made of woven rope, have a hole in the middle. When covered with the olive purée, workers lift the mat and slide it onto a spindle.

    They repeat this process, building a stack of mats on the spindle. When the stack gets about waist high, a mechanism lowers the spindle platform so they can continue piling the mats. Eventually, it looks like a giant stack of pancakes about 2 meters high.

    The workers then wheel the spindle platform over to one of four pressing stations. When the spindle of mats is fixed into the pressing station, pressure is applied from below to squeeze out the precious olive oil.

    Above left, olives in the hopper. Above: olive purée spreads on a spinning rope mat, while a worker stacks an olive-coated mat onto a spindle.

    When we visited, the place was noisy and somewhat hazardous, since the floor was slick with olive oil. But the workers were okay when my neighbor and I wandered around having a good look and taking plenty of pictures. All the machinery looked like the kind of heavy industrial engineering you would have maybe seen in a WWII-era munitions factory. But this was a step ahead of the old-style crushing by stone that characterised even older olive presses.

    The oil is collected in a basin affixed to the base of the spindle and funnelled to a nearby vat. A worker explained to us that the squeezing process yields water as well as oil. In the vats, the water sinks to the bottom and the oil floats.

    Meanwhile, the stack of mats is taken away, a worker removes what remains from the crushed olive residue and the mats are reused. The brown, earthy-looking residue reminded me of slices of peat that I had seen people burn in Ireland. According to the lagar owner’s grandson, the residue can be sold for further processing to produce oil which is used for cosmetics,

    The rule of thumb is usually about 10 percent of oil to the weight of olives. My neighbors received about 17.5 litres of oil from their 180 kilos of olives. We went back to their house and did a ritual tasting, dipping pieces of bread into a bowl of the freshly pressed oil. It tasted strong, with a slight acidity, very different from anything I’ve ever bought in a store.

    A modern olive press or “lagar” looks like a brewery. It uses heat to aid in the pressing process.

    Answering questions:

    A couple of people have asked me about eating the olives. The answer is no, you can’t eat them off the tree. The olives harvested in my area of central Portugal are almost all for oil. People do use a few of them for eating but you have to brine them first.

    I tried this a couple of years ago using a recipe a neighbor gave me. It is labor intensive. You have to cut a nick in each olive. Make a solution of water and salt and soak the olives in brine in sterilised jars. Change the solution every other day, repeating the process five times over ten days. Finally, rinse the olives and store them in brine in the jars, making sure they are filled to the brim. Float a little olive oil on the top to help seal the jar. They can then be stored for several months. Rinse the olives when you want to use them and add some chopped garlic and chopped bayleaf. Delicious!

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    My olive obsession brings friends

    For the first time, I harvest olives from my own two trees, with the help of my wonderful neighbors, Chris and Anemie.

    October in my part of Portugal means Olives. This year the trillion or so olive trees that cover the hillsides and valleys around my village are loaded with olives. Great news for all my neighbors because last year there was nary an olive to be harvested.

    I too have become obsessed with these little nuggets that yield valuable oil and tasty treats. I only have two trees on my land but the amount of olives hanging on those branches convinced me they needed harvesting. I made an agreement with one set of neighbors, to bring my olives over to their place. They have enough trees to yield the 400 kilos of olives to warrant their own pressing at the local “lager” or olive press. This means, they can make an appointment to bring their harvest and get the oil from their very own olives.

    If you don’t have a big enough yield for your own pressing, you just take them along to the lager and they get mixed in with others. The oil you get is a mixture of your own olives and that from everyone else.

    Olive picking in some parts of Portugal is highly mechanised. But here in the central part of the country, it is still a very labor intensive job, done by hand. It’s an opportunity for friends and neighbors to come together and spend a few hours or days working at this basic task.

    First you spread out a huge green net to catch the fruit. Then, someone goes up the ladder into the tree, cuts branches and tosses them down to the picking crew on the ground. You can strip the olives from the branch either by hand or a small plastic rake. Once the tree is picked clean, the crew gathers up the big green net and dumps the olives into a large plastic bucket. It reminded me of documentaries I’ve seen about fishermen collecting their catch in the old days.

    This year, my Belgian neighbors helped me pick, I also helped some British friends and neighbors pick and clean their olives. It’s a community affair and I love it!

    The next step is to run the harvested olives through a machine called a “Lena” (leena) to remove any remaining twigs and stems. It’s basically a big drum with a hopper on top, a shaker mechanism and a fan that blows the cleaned olives through to a chute where they drop into a big bucket. The cleaned olives are then stored in heavy plastic backs until they can be taken to the olive press.

    Hopes high as olive season nears

    Olives are gradually changing from green to black, indicating they are nearly ready to be harvested.

    My favorite time of year is fast approaching: olive season! It’s the time when the valleys all around me are buzzing with activity as neighbors are frenziedly making sure every last olive is picked.

    Portugal is fast-becoming a major exporter of olives and olive oil. In 2000, Portugal exported about 40,000 tonnes of olives. By 2018, that rose to more than 134,000 tonnes. Most of the olives are grown and harvested in the Alentejo region, south of Lisbon. There, it’s all about intensive farming, high yields and advanced methods of producing the oil. Portugal now has more than 460 olive mills.

    Harvesting the traditional way

    Ladders used to access olive branches. Some people just climb into the trees.

    Where I live, in central Portugal, olive harvesting is still done the old-fashioned way. As I only have two puny little olive trees on my land, I help my friends and neighbors with their harvest. It goes like this: you spread a large green net beneath the tree, someone climbs up and cuts olive-laden branches and the crew on the ground strips off the fruit. A lot of it is done by hand. Some people use tiny plastic rakes.

    Everyone joins in. I’ve seen a grandmother of nearly eighty years old working alongside her granddaughter. Expats who come to live in Portugal are just as enthusiastic. From the middle of September onward, discussions are all about when the harvest will begin. In 2019 there was a bumper crop, but last year, there were hardly any olives and few people bothered to pick. This year, the trees are heavy with fruit and they are gradually turning black.

    Once picked, the olives collect on the net beneath the tree. When the tree is completely stripped, the crew gathers the net together and dumps the olives into a big plastic bin. A machine locally known as a “leena” is used to remove any remaining stems and leaves and the olives are poured into large plastic bags.

    Pressing the olives into oil

    The local olive press is called the “lagar.” If you have a lot of trees and can pick several hundred kilos of olives, you can get your own “pressing.” This means that the oil you get from the lagar is from your very own olives. Since the lagar is usually operating round-the-clock during olive harvest, you have to book an appointment for your own pressing. Otherwise, if you only have a small amount, you take it to the press and they are added in with other people’s olives. The oil you receive depends on how many kilos of olives you bring.

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