Ancient olive groves and barley fields in São Mamede National Park, Alentejo
The saying goes that 'opposites attract' but I think there must be another rule that purports the opposite of that opposites rule... I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it does remind me of something called 'Maclaren's Law' - a term coined by my father c. 1982. Let me explain...
Soon before my arrival, my parents faced the challenging task of purchasing a buggy. Something that I am sure all new parents tackle in relative ignorance and with limited excitement. My mother would have carried out a suitable amount of research and arrived at John Lewis well-enough prepared not to be hoodwinked by sales assistant's declarations of never knowingly being undersold... My father however, needed no assistance beyond the introduction of the Maclaren Triumph Stroller. Insisting on a ‘test drive’ my mother said it was like he'd arrived at Brands Hatch – taking out corners of baby-grows and soft toys as he careered through the children’s department. And from that moment on - having never previously looked at, thought about, or registered their existence - buggies were everywhere. And Maclaren's at that. On every high street, in every coffee shop – no self-respecting baby this side of Surbiton would be seen in anything else.
My point being, you can go through life not even realising the need for or in fact the existence of something until a significant event changes that. And then suddenly you can see nothing else. Everyone you meet is behind the wheel of a Maclaren.
And so it seems to be the case with me. A self-proclaimed city girl and proud of it. With no intention of retreating any further afield than Richmond Park in search of a nature-hit, on the rare occasion one was required. But as I approached my mid thirties, the need to escape corporate mendacity set in and so too did the desire to be in nature and seek out a slower, more balanced and wholesome way of life. The journey that deSILVA’S has taken me on has provided me with abundant opportunity to develop this surprising new appreciation of and need for nature. And the strange thing is, I keep meeting people who have found themselves in very similar situations along the way... my Maclaren moment, if you will.
Claudia Villax is the perfect example.
We met because my clever cousin discovered her olive oil in Lisbon and sent me a sample at Christmas. An incredibly pure oil, small batch, organic and packaged to perfection, I was instantly hooked and intrigued to find out more. And so, I came to visit her at her home in Alentejo, half expecting to find her crushing olives with her bare hands and chewing on a piece of straw. Or an olive branch.
I realised my preconceptions were somewhat ‘off’ when she came to greet me wearing what can only be described as the ultimate Parisian dress-down chic; exquisitely cut jeans, Breton top, white converse and dark hair tousled to perfection (seriously, how do women do that? Mine’s either all frizz or Bo-Peep ringlets, never a happy medium).
Claudia walks me through her farm and into the national park
As Claudia began our tour of the farm, it became very clear very quickly how much love and commitment had been poured into this place and I soon started to fall under its spell. The ancient landscape – intentionally uncultivated but so sensitively cared for – is captivating. I asked how long she had been here, assuming the answer would be something like 7 generations…But it turns out she too is a city girl. Or was. Funny, that… Having built a successful career as a journalist and starting a family in Lisbon, Claudia began to get the itch.
“I am really interested in nutrition and have always loved to cook and entertain at home, but with children I started to become really aware of what I was feeding them every day. And I wanted to show them that there was a way of living well – living better – beyond the comfort of the city. Everything just came together at once… and here we are. We fell in love with this place as soon as we set foot on it. And it fell in love with us – so everyone is happy here!”
Olive groves and vegetable gardens Sheep set out to cut back the barley
Claudia maintains a huge respect for their land, which happens to be in a protected nature reserve. The natural olive groves are home to trees between 600 and 2,000 years old –it’s staggering really. Her passion to preserve natural history and maintain the best possible conditions influenced their decision to fertilize only with ‘green manure’; crops of barley and fruit and vegetable patches have been planted in between the groves to feed the olive trees and also to provide home grown, organic produce to feed the family.
Lovingly tended vegetable patches and fruit orchards - pretty pink flowers of a Portuguese quince
Galega olives with their distinctive purple colour and slightly pointed base have a sweet, fruity flavour
Galega and Cordovil olives are grown here, two varieties that are indigenous to the local area and harvested every year by hand. This usually happens in October but, depending on the weather, harvest can be delayed until November or even December. Claudia has just started building a mill on the farm, so that they can control the process more effectively and ensure that the fruit is pressed at exactly the right moment to produce the finest oil possible. Currently, with their mill based a few kilometres away and servicing other farms in the region, it limits their flexibility - if some of the crop is not ready at the pre-agreed time with the mill then they are in danger of producing oil that is below par. Last year was the best harvest they had ever seen, but Claudia was only able to bottle half of it as they had to manipulate the process around availability at the mill. This is a woman with true integrity.
“When you make the decision to live organically, it’s a lifestyle and you have to commit to it.”
Not easy I would imagine, coming from a privileged city life. But I can see it is something that gives her great satisfaction. She is the representative for the Slow Food Movement in Lisbon and is clearly passionate about changing the way people in Portugal think about food production and what they are feeding their families. The concept of farm-to-table is positively de rigueur in England, but this is down to many years of hard work raising awareness around nutrition, healthy eating and the economic and health benefits of locally sourced, seasonal produce.
It is still relatively early days in Portugal and the road is long, but Claudia is committed to playing her part. And I love that she's not restricted herself to playing advocate from a comfortable office. She's thrown herself into the lifestyle 100%, ditching the city, buying a farm, rolling her sleeves up and actually producing the type of food that she is so passionately fighting for. I'm inspired.
Azeitona Verde - simply meaning green olive - will soon be available exclusively at deSILVA'S
Azeitona Verde is an intense, fruity, extra-virgin olive oil which is as pure as they come. In fact, in Claudia's words
“This is the olive oil that mothers will want to feed their children”
I don’t think there’s a better benchmark for quality than that.