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Library : Magazine Articles Last Updated: Jun 28, 2008 - 12:29:23 AM

Madeira Toasts the Future
By John McCarry
Sep 15, 2000 - 11:20:40 AM

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Since Portugal entered the EU, the security that growing bananas once gave has been badly shaken. Convinced that bananas are an ideal health food (and may even contain a natural antidepressant), Germans have, over the past few decades, developed a passion for the fruit.
Losing ground after every rain, the Madeiras suffer from soil erosion. To help stem the muddy flow, government has reduced the amount of grazing land available, thereby preventing sheep and goats from eating grass that would otherwise root the soil in place. Despite these efforts, farmers face a hard road. Demand for Madeiran bananas has been undercut by bigger, cheaper ones from Latin America, and meager profits reflect a new economic order that puts farming in the back seat while tourism takes the wheel.
The rub is that the Germans like to buy their bananas from the leading Latin American producers, who offer bigger, cheaper fruit. The French, the English, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, on the other hand, prefer to buy their bananas from their territories and former colonies. It looks as if, in the name of free trade, the Madeiran banana will lose its privileged position on the Portuguese market. Facing the fact that the EU’s generous subsidies come with a price, the Madeiran government plans to reduce the land used for banana production by 29 percent by the year 1996, cutting total output by one-fourth.
This appears to be a sensible strategy to everyone but the Madeiran banana grower. One such farmer is Maria Edite Ferreira. Left a widow before the age of 40 by a man who worked himself to death as an emigrant to Venezuela, Mrs. Ferreira relies on the income her bananas give to survive. Receiving me at her pretty home in São Martinho, she told me that she sells about three tons of bananas during the summer season. Wholesaling at 30 escudos a pound, her bananas bring in an income of about $1, 125. And at these prices, Mrs. Ferreira said, she finds it difficult to make ends meet.
“Since everybody started growing bananas, the price has remained at 65 escudos [40 U. S. cents] a kilo,” she explained. “The problem is that the cost of living has doubled in that time.”
Screwing up my courage, I asked my hostess what she will do if changes in Europe make it impossible for her to grow bananas at all. Her body suddenly stiffening, she surveyed the expanse of small banana plots that gracefully descend to the sea.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” she replied.
Sitting with Mrs. Ferreira on the sunny terrace of her house were her daughter, Nubélia, 25, and her son, Manuel, 31. Nubélia works at a Funchal travel agency and also disc-jockeys a weekly radio program of the latest British and American music. Manuel is an artist w ho studied design in New York City on a scholarship. They led me through the terraced garden that provides their mother’s livelihood.
The grapes that made Madeira famous get picked, pressed, fermented, then heated to produce a heavy sweet wine - too heavy and sweet for many of today’s wine drinkers.
I saw far more than bananas there. Because of the precipitous landscape, only about one-third of Madeira’s rich soil can be cultivated, and that only by hand. As a result, it is common for vegetables to be grown under vines to double plot capacity. In Mrs. Ferreira’s garden, spinach, sweet potatoes, lettuce, beets, and green beans compete for precious space beneath a translucent canopy of grapevines.
A dark look of concern clouding her pretty features, Nubélia told me that she has been trying to convince her mother that the banana is finished as a cash crop, that she should replant her garden with other fruit trees. “But like a lot of older people,” she sighed, “she simply doesn’t want to believe that things are changing.”

Now the local vineyards also grow grapes (above) that produce a lighter, drier wine that goes nicely with, say, tuna steaks - selling for a few hundred escudos at Funchal´s central market.
Equally stubborn are the island’s grape growers. According to EU directives, hybrid grapes such as the ones commonly grown by the island’s small farmers must be replaced by four “noble grape” varieties for the production of Madeira’s famous wines  the Verdelho, the Malmsey, the Bual, and the Sercial.
“This has not been easy,” said Américo Campos, then a manager of the Madeira Wine Company, the island’s biggest wine producer. “We have had to change not only the habits but also the thinking of the local grape growers on the island.”
The company has its work cut out for it. Wine is a way of life here. Stop to ask directions on a drive through the countryside and you will, without fail, be offered a glass of wine. It is considered shockingly impolite to refuse, and then, having accepted, it is equally discourteous to decline an invitation to see the place where it was made.

There are roughly 5,000 small farmers engaged in viticulture on the island, and all of them appear to have their own wine cellar  usually a musty, dimly lit cavern dominated by a medieval-looking wooden apparatus that seems more suitable to the needs of the Spanish Inquisition than to the pressing of grapes. There you will be required to drink more wine, the alcoholic content of which appears to increase exponentially with each glass.

Before I had become aware of the inevitable consequences of such a proposition, I was lured into a wine cellar at Seixal. Handing me a glass, my eager host told me, “Drink this and you won’t have to brush your teeth tomorrow morning.” By the end of the visit, I was drinking pure firewater. “And if you drink this, you won’t have to brush your teeth for a month,” my beaming host advised. Gratefully finishing the taste testing, I headed straight for a four-poster bed. My head swimming on the crisp linen, I wondered if I had any teeth left.


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