Last week João and I sat at a table across from two generations of hard-working women with a family farm for sale, one notary, and one realtor. We were in Estremoz, a soulful village in interior Alentejo, a region of Portugal east and south of Lisbon that bumps up against the Spanish border. It’s sometimes referred to as Alentejo Profundo. Profound Alentejo. I love the sound of those words together. Alentejo feels profound, extreme. The baking heat, the stillness, the light, the whitewashed villages. With our signatures, we became owners of a small piece of all this beauty. We bought a 5-hectare (13 acre) farm outside Estremoz, called Quinta do Ceitil. A ceitil is an old Portuguese coin, but the farm dates back to Roman times, and has two Roman points of interest noted in the local city hall. There are two houses on the land (called montes in this part of the world). The smaller monte has an old water mill and a huge brick oven. Imagine, at one time the mill ground the wheat that was once grown here, and the oven transformed it into the beloved pão alentejano for the nearby village. Walking along the gravel path from the small monte to the main house lie a handful of outbuildings, including an old pigsty, a rabbit house, a chicken house and two stables. With whitewashed walls, old tile roofs, and antique tools and vessels for cheese and bread-making, all the buildings are charming. They are all also in need of renovation.
The land itself glows golden in the August light. It’s nestled in a small valley, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. The first time I saw it, it felt wrapped in a hug. From the turn into our small road, we have a sweeping view of Serra D’Ossa, the closest mountain range and some of the best vineyards in the region. More than 100 old olive trees dot our land, currently bursting with fruit not quite ready for picking. But we will have our first olive harvest this fall (!!) and take our olives to the community press in Borba to make our first oil. We also have upwards of 100 citrus trees, lots of pears, a few apples, a dozen pomegranate trees, several varieties of plums, figs, quince, persimmons, loquats, almonds and walnuts. So much richness. We spent our first weekend on the farm cleaning the land. It’s a big job. The farm has been more or less abandoned for several years. We have electricity, but no running water. In contrast to much of the region, our farm has a natural water source. We have a small stream that runs in a stone canal in front of the house almost year-round, and old irrigation tanks that are almost always full, fed by an underground aquifer on the property.
Because of the extreme heat in summer, we work in the morning and early evening. We worked so hard this weekend – cleaning wood, wire, metal, plastic tubing, trash, dead trees. And still, we made such a small impact. But we had fun while we were doing it, we laughed a lot, and when we got too hot or too tired, we took a break. Because we don’t have running water yet, our “showers” consisted of dumping buckets of water over each other from the “swimming pool” (irrigation tank). It was shocking and wonderful at the same time. And afterwards, we picnicked under the orange trees, listening to the sheep bells of the 50 sheep who pasture on the property. The houses will get renovated in time, the land will be enriched and renewed. We have grand plans for this small piece of paradise – to make it an oasis, to welcome friends and family often, to grow and cook real food. A labor of love. All of these things are in the future, and in certain moments, when the light slants a particular way, I can see it all. But for this moment, I want to be completely present as we “rough it.” These are halcyon days.