With its cinnamon-red bark the strawberry tree Arbutus unedo makes an attractive garden bush or small tree, it’s seedlings need considerable protection until they are established. Though able to withstand the sea winds of the Irish coast, the tree quickly succumbs to cold northerly and easterly winds.

Named for the similarity of its fruits to the edible garden variety, the strawberry tree is a native to Ireland. However nowadays it rarely grows wild or produces fruit outside of the warmer Mediterranean regions.

The distribution of the strawberry tree is oddly patchy. In the British Isles it grows naturally in western Ireland. It occurs again in western France, and on the Mediterranean coast; but, whereas in Ireland it grows to tree size, in continental Europe it normally develops only into a shrub. One theory is that the strawberry tree has survived mainly in areas left untouched by glaciers in the Ice Age. Within historical times it certainly grew more widely than it does today, and its disappearance may well be accounted for by the fact that it makes a good charcoal and burns well. Its reddish brown wood is hard and close-grained, though liable to splitting, and is used for inlay and marquetry.

Arbutus unedo is generally a short tree, rarely more than 10m (30 ft) in height and often it is no more than a large shrub. This effect is exaggerated by the fact that the branches of the tree tend to grow from near the base of the trunk, often leaning and twisted, giving it a low sprawling appearance.

As well as its dark, waxy evergreen leaves and unusual winter fruits, the strawberry tree has attractive reddish-brown wood. This dark bark peels off in strips quite regularly to reveal brighter wood beneath. The wood burns well as charcoal and the wholesale felling of the tree for this purpose has contributed to its demise.

However birds readily consume the fruits raw and these are especially welcome as the flowering period is between October and December when there is little else on offer in the way of food. It is also assumed that the erratic behaviour of some birds when feeding on the fruits is due to consuming soft fruit that has gone over, giving the birds a natural shot of medronho. The white flowers take about a year to ripen and so there are often blooms and berries on the tree at the same time. This late flowering time, while helpful to birds, is probably one reason why the tree is so rare in the British Isles now – there simply aren’t enough insects to carry out pollination at this time of year.

Medronho is a strong spirit made from distilled berries from the strawberry tree, the fruit itself is a bit bitter but generally doesn’t taste of much. When turned into alcohol though, it produces a fiery spirit. The drink often known as “Aguardente do Medronho” is the cause of many a zig zagging old man on a motorbike! Aguardente – meaning literally Teeth water.

Traditionally homebrewed it can reach up to 84% but the commercial versions which you will be able to buy in the shop are most likely between 40% and 50%, in some of the smaller bars in the Monchique and Silves region, you will see it being poured from a plastic bottle, this is the real stuff not the weakened commercial stuff!

Aquardente is the actual liqueur much like vodka, and Medronho is the fruit that gives it a special flavour. Similar to the strawberry, the Medronho fruit has its seeds on the outside and a soft flesh on the inside, with a small delicate pit in the center. The fruit is small and round, with an orange and deep red colour, biting into the fruit one feels its graininess, but when bitten through it’s soft and delicate center collapses with a mellow meaty sweetness. When ideally ripened, the bumpy exterior turns an almost black in colour, this is when these little strawberry balls are ideal for harvesting and making of Aguardente de Medornho.

Aguardente is normally served as an after dinner drink and is well known as “Um Chierinho”, if asked at a restaurant this is what the server is referring to, and you have the option of having it on the side or directly in your coffee. Aguardente is also a potent drink and not for the timid, but you only live once so give it a go! It’s also a fantastic sipping drink for dry desserts like chocolate salame and morgado, but for a truly “inside” taste of the Algarve try Aquardente de Medronho with a good “Figo Cheio”, a dried fig stuffed with almonds and spices.

Happy Daze

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