Portugal, Póvoa de Varzim (Douro)

Fernando Boucinha Alves

Fernando Boucinha Alves, born in 1939, has always lived in Póvoa de Varzim, in the Douro region in the north of Portugal. Since the end of the eighteenth century, this region has been characterized by an unusual system of agriculture based on what are known as masseiras, a type of natural hothouse dug into the sand dunes that run along the Atlantic coast. The masseiras are now seriously threatened and may disappear. On the one hand, tourist development in the area is accompanied by an influx of earth-moving equipment and cement; on the other, intensive horticultural practices, with their artificial hothouses and obsession with productivity, are compromising the environment and ruining centuries-old cultural traditions.

A tourists haunt
Situated on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, about 30 kilometers north of Porto, Póvoa de Varzim is now a lively seaside resort. Long, sandy, wind-swept beaches, ocean breakers much beloved by surfers, a popular casino, a large golf course - these are the fruits of the town’s recent history. Memories of a very different past are conserved in the old parts of town, in its monuments, library and municipal museum. Here you can find archeological, historical and ethnographic evidence that brings to life a community of fishermen and farmers that seem to belong to a thousand years ago - though it actually existed only yesterday.
The pursuit of tourism, with its related impetuous, haphazard urban development, is a phenomenon of the last 20 years, a consequence of the economic boom that changed the face of Portugal in the 1980s. After the dark decades of Salazar’s ‘New State’ came the enthusiasm and conflict of the so-called ‘Carnation Revolution’, which was followed, in turn, by normalization and, ultimately, membership of the European Community in 1986. This latter move gave a forceful boost to development and modernization in all sectors of the economy, greater openness to the outside world and a resulting increase in tourism.
The story of Fernando Boucinha Alves - emblematic of a certain type of development and ‘modernization’ - is closely bound up in the recent history of the Portugal. Alves has in fact devoted his life to a unique system of horticulture - the masseiras - demonstrating how in Europe, as in South America, Africa or the Middle East, eagerness for change often goes hand in hand with the logic of production and technocracy. The consequence is that centuries-old methods are frequently deemed old and insufficiently profitable, hence discarded, without any consideration for the cost for the environment, the landscape and, not least, gastronomy. As Slow Food has said many times, discarding traditions means opening the door to the standardization of culture and flavor.

The masseira
The fields known as masseiras (which means ‘kneading trough’, their shape resembling that of the piece of furniture used for kneading dough and storing bread in old-fashioned farmhouses) are a distinctive trait of a stretch of sand dunes along the Atlantic coast in the municipalities of Póvoa, Apulia and Esposende. Created at the end of the eighteenth century by Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Tibaes, they are an ingenious and eco-friendly way of making arid and sandy areas fertile. The golden age of their development lasted from the final decades of the nineteenth century to the post-World War I years, when they constituted a way of dealing with the prevailing conditions of dire poverty.
To build them it was necessary, first if all, to clear away any trees and bushes, then to dig up and remove sand and bank it up to create sloping sides (called valos or valados or moios ). Sheltered from the wind, the resulting rectangular hole was lower than the surrounding ground, and also cooler and damper. It was subsequently equipped with an adequate drainage system (the water would emerge from the soil perfectly desalinated by the filtering effect of the sand through which it passed). The ground was then covered with a layer of seaweed (sargaço), and a top layer of sand mixed with soil. It was then ready for sowing. As a finishing touch, vines were planted along three sides of the masseira to keep sand away from the edge, with reeds being allowed to grow on the north side alone to shelter the masseira from the wind. The traditional produce of the masseiras was carrots and onions (the first crop of the year in spring-summer), then cabbage and, thirdly, potatoes and lettuce, all using a range of varieties.
Each part of the structure (which measured from 1,000 to 10,000 square meters) had a specific function and the farmer’s every action had a specific purpose. The system remained unchanged until about 20 years ago, when farmers began to change their way of thinking in pursuit of mechanization, productivity and profit. Many valos became smaller or even disappeared, in which case they were replaced by low walls. Their sand was sold off at a price and barrowed off to construction sites, where hotels and condominiums were rapidly springing up to meet tourist demand.
The masseiras thus became larger but less protected from the wind, warmer and less humid. An ecosystem that had been fine-tuned over the centuries degenerated and lost its effectiveness. To solve the problem, no better remedy could be found than to construct greenhouses, thus increasing production and profits. Now bulldozers are removing large quantities of sand, causing changes to age-old equilibria and adverse effects on water resources. All this is being done to make room for hothouse cultivation, which, dependent upon chemicals, rapidly depletes and pollutes the soil.

A natural hothouse
Fernando Boucinha Alves has witnessed and been deeply involved in all these events. He is now 63 years old and has worked on the family masseira since he was seven. He is the only one of his seven siblings to have continued farming for any length of time, though he did spend a few years in France during the 1960s. He has resisted the seductive lure of the modernization that has enabled hothouses and high-rise buildings to flourish. This illusion of affluence risks transforming what used to be a village of fishermen and farmers into a community without any memory of the past. Fernando has always refused to sell his land, even when it might have been profitable to do so. He has remained a farmer and has always adamantly refused to leave his old masseira. What is more, he has managed to pass on his passion for this work and his dedication to its original methods to his son, José, thus allowing this unique agricultural model to survive. Perfectly integrated into its environment, functional, environment-friendly and cost-effective, the masseira is the ecosystem of an agricultural society that was aware of the value of the land and the need not to overexploit it.
‘The masseira is the result of a need of a society that lacked resources but was inventive and intelligent, capable of making the most of the land without foolishly overexploiting it. It is the legacy of resourceful farmers who were able to provide for their families from a small plot of land, while also giving their community rich and varied food options thanks to the great range of produce grown. The vegetable plot also provided wine, since vines grew on the edges of the masseira.’ Fernando does not accept the rationale of the ‘new’ horticulture, which, for profit’s sake, is sweeping away the masseiras and replacing them with hothouses mainly given over top the cultivation of flowers and tomatoes. ‘They would like us to demolish everything and build large hothouses, but that would mean that the farmers would have to change from being small self-employed growers, as they have always been, to being hired workers at the service of large companies that impose outputs subject to economic requirements entirely foreign to local customs. Look at our local regional recipes and you’ll see what I mean: tomatoes are practically non-existent, while there are many recipes containing vegetables such as garlic, onions, carrots and potatoes. These are the vegetables I have always grown in my masseira.’

When visiting the Boucinhas’ land, you understand, with a mixture of admiration and irony, people in the region call the last people to remain faithful to this system jardinheiros, ‘gardeners’. Their plots are laid out in perfect straight lines, with rectangles of different colors (the bright green of cabbage and the lighter shades of leek, the dark red of salad vegetables and the pale shades of celery), divided by irrigation furrows. There is not a blade of grass to be seen since the sand is continually moved by hand (everything is done by hand in the masseiras!); there are low vines on three sides, while on the fourth there are reeds and small trees to serve as a windbreak.
‘Greenhouses are crazy,’ says Fernando. ‘ Not only because they impose a system of agriculture that ravages the environment with pesticides and fertilizers, risking the pollution of underground aquifers … Not only because they ruin the landscape with their serial plastic architecture, which clashes with our vegetable plots, now part and parcel of the landscape … No, most of all, because the masseira, dug a few meters into the dunes to reach water and protect the produce from the wind, has temperature and humidity conditions that turn it into a sort of natural hothouse. It is no coincidence that we have three harvests a year and all kinds of early produce without using fertilizers, except for seaweed, or sargaços.’ Vegetables cultivated in this way grow in a healthy environment, without being forced. When they are picked, their appearance, scent and flavor are exceptional.
Fortunately, there are people at Póvoa who realize they possess a precious asset and are doing what they can to safeguard it, attempting to protect the last masseiras from agribusiness, property speculation and tourism. Things are moving in the local council and there is now talk of the need to certify and promote the produce of the masseiras properly. Be that as it may, Fernando Boucinha Alves is the last person to soldier on alone (some other ‘gardeners’ use the same method, but he is the only one to do so for a living) in a battle which he is fighting not, as it may seem, to defend an old world, but in order to ensure the possibility of a future.

Why the Slow Food Award?
Fernando’s strength is that he has always refused to submit to agricultural philosophies that he does not share. He has remained faithful to his masseira and to a model of sustainable agriculture capable of offering high quality produce. Over more than 50 years of dogged persistence, he has defended and practiced a system of traditional agriculture exemplary in its ‘slowness’ and capable of bringing together respect for the landscape, protection of the environment and produce with high organoleptic qualities. The artisanal, environment-friendly masseira opposes the invasion of chemical products, resisting uniform production methods and flavors and opposing alterations to the natural equilibrium. By staying dedicated to this system and passing it on to his son - despite the many difficulties involved - Fernando Boucinha Alves bears witness to a philosophy of labor and life. He is, in short, the custodian of a distinctive heritage for the history of his country’s agriculture.

Giovanni Ruffa