At Christmas everybody in The Portugal News team was lucky enough to get a hamper with all sorts of treasures inside. Delving in, it soon became clear that this wasn’t your ordinary hamper either. It was filled with all sorts of beautiful and delicious treats, but here’s the real kicker - they were all products 100 percent from the Algarve.
Among other things in the basket there was orange vinegar (yes, that’s right ‘orange’),‘creme de alfarroba’, ‘quejinhos de figo’, and hand harvested salt. I greedily tucked into all these treats over the festive season with carefree and gluttonous abandon, and it was only while I was halfway through a pack of honey glazed almonds that it occurred to me that, quite possibly, there was a story here. Where did all these products come from? How are they made? These are things I hope to uncover in future editions. But first things first, I needed to find my way to the source - who put this charming collection of goodies together?
It’s taken me awhile I admit, but I finally got around to finding out.
They are the creations of Vanda Lopes. I found her shop in the heart of Almancil and went to find out more about her. Vanda is a lovely and bubbly lady, but for all her passion and knowledge of the area I was quite surprised to find, isn’t actually from the Algarve. Originally from Santarém, she came here in 1996, however everything in her shop is 100 percent Algarvian - as are her husband and her daughter, she told me proudly.
Vanda loves it here and is passionate about showing people all that this remarkable region has to offer. In fact, she didn’t always sell these delightful delicacies that I have been steadily grazing through since Christmas. The hamper business, which is called ‘O Cabaz Algarvio’, is a relatively new venture that grew organically out of Vanda’s other business called ‘Algarve Treasures - tours and experiences’.
Allow me to rewind a bit and take you back to the beginning. Vanda studied tourism at the university in Faro, and had various jobs in the tourism sector, but after her daughter was born she was looking to create her own business. Vanda told me at the beginning of our chat that she’s always had the ‘bicho empresário’, which is what we might call the ‘entrepreneurial bug’. She had been working at a cork factory in São Bras and soon happened upon the idea of bringing in tours of people to see how the cork was made. This was a big hit. But Vanda soon found that people enjoyed the cork tour so much they didn’t want to go home yet, and so she soon started to organise for them to continue on to an olive oil place in Santa Catarina as well. It’s then that Vanda’s business brain started ticking and she started to think there was a market for this kind of thing, and so Algarve Treasures was launched.
Vanda is passionate about showing visitors to the Algarve that it’s not all about the sun and the sand (although she will show them that too), and to take her customers inland to show them the real lives of local people and uncover the genuine culture and traditions of the region.
She’s been scouring the Algarve and has found many real working places that, although a little skeptical at first, are now thrilled for her to bring in a bus load of tourists from time to time to see what they are up to.
Her ever expanding list of available tours include trips that take you just about everywhere to find places where they produce honey, liqueurs, wine, olive oil, salt, aromatic herbs, citrus fruits and even raspberries. There’s also workshops where you can learn how to make traditional breads, or even get creative and learn how to create a piece of pottery, traditional tiles or cork.
She also really knows how to ‘spin a gripping yarn’. While telling me about one of her tours of Olhão (that culminates with a trip out to Culatra island and a seafood lunch), she said that as she makes her way through the old streets she explains about the various myths that the town has. The one I was most curious about was the story of a statue that I’ve seen there of a giant man wearing a skirt. He’s called ‘Arraúl’, and legend has it he was the sole survivor of the lost city of Atlantis and, after his city flooded, he was swallowed and spat out again by a whale and eventually washed up on the shore of Olhão. He loved it there and didn’t want it to suffer the same fate as his hometown, so he worked tirelessly moving earth with a car with square tires (the wheel was still a work in progress back then) and created a bunch of islands that served as a sort of barrier to protect his new home from incoming tsunamis, and in doing so created the lagoon paradise we know as the Ria Formosa. Vanda tells the story a whole lot better than me, and knows countless other tales of the Algarve, but as she said at the time “we could be sat here talking about them till tomorrow”. I think she’s right, we better press on.
The point I was trying to get to is it was only natural since she found these local people and their produce (and was already giving them out as souvenirs on her tours) that she would start to promote and sell their products - and her basket business ‘O Cabaz Algarvio’ was born. Vanda opened this really beautiful little shop, which is usually full of a whole cubundle of Algarvian delights which you can put in your choice of wonderfully woven local baskets. Her shop is a bit like a florist Vanda says, as you can come along and mix and match your own beautiful basket bouquet.
When things become a little more normal and her shop can open again, I’m sure she would be delighted to see you. In the meantime, check her out on Instagram, Facebook or go to the website algarvetreasures.pt - and hopefully I’ll be able to convince her to give me a few leads on some of her local places that I can investigate in the future.