Everybody will agree that Portugal’s fabulous wines and magnificent ports are well known and appreciated, but one that doesn’t get much attention is the traditional drink of Medronho.

Often offered with a flourish by your host from an unlabelled bottle as an after-dinner drink in restaurants, or drunk by locals with their morning ‘bica’ (shot of coffee) to give their spirits a lift to start the day, this is likely to be home-made Medronho, Portugal’s local firewater. It can be as strong as an eye-watering 56% proof, but averages at 50%, and would certainly kick-start anyone’s day! The Portuguese name for it is ‘Aguardente de Medronhos’, fruit brandy, and is made from the fruit of the ‘strawberry tree’, scientific name Arbutus Unedo.

The tree’s fruits look like strawberries, hence the common name of ‘strawberry tree’, but in fact they more resemble a lychee, grow in bunches, and are ready for picking when are a rich orange/red colour. It grows wild in the rocky soil of the Mediterranean Region and Western Europe, but in Portugal it grows notably in the Alentejo and the Algarve, and the tree itself grows to an average of 6 m high by as much wide.

Very few farmers have a license for distillation, but are tolerated by the authorities to keep this traditional Portuguese specialty alive, though it is also brewed commercially to a similar strength. I read recently that there was no commercial planting of the trees until recently, but the fruits are mainly collected by local farmers.

Therefore, good Aguardente de Medronhos is still not easily found in supermarkets but is instead bought mostly directly from these farmers.

For many years, most families from Monchique for example, especially the oldest ones, made their own Medronho brand, and it is possible to visit some of the distillers to view the traditional equipment, and indeed, witness the distillation process itself.

It takes 7-10 kilos of these luscious berries to make one litre of this precious liquid, and picking starts in groups, with family, neighbours and friends getting together to pick on their own or leased land, and whoever knows of the location of a sunny grove is at a distinct advantage, as this is where the sweetest fruit can be found. On the same tree there may be flowers and fruit at different stages of ripeness, but the distillers are only interested in the mature fire-coloured berries.

These will not only produce more of the drink but it will also be smoother. All being well, picking will continue until December, at which time they will start to concentrate on the task of distillation.

Fermentation starts with the fruit being poured into large pots or tanks. Apparently, it is not enough just to throw in buckets one after the other, but are added a little at a time, and it is essential to keep the Medronho ‘mash’ humid otherwise it will turn bitter and the drink will fail miserably. This humidity is obtained by spraying the Medronho berries every day, and it is the distiller’s experience and observation that determine by how much. As soon as there is a balance between the solid material and the liquid material the Medronho starts to bubble, meaning fermentation has begun, and continues for 45 - 60 days.

The distillation process traditionally takes place in large copper tanks called ‘alambiques’, which are heated up to allow the alcohol to be extracted. This delicate process can last up to 7 hours and not all the resultant liquid will be bottled, only the part that guarantees the highest quality and has an alcohol concentration never lower than 42 percent.

The final product is a strong liquor, giving a burning sensation as it goes down your throat and through your sinuses.

Well, what about the taste? Well, nothing like strawberries! The fruit itself is an acquired taste, it is tart, and yes, edible, gritty and somewhat insipid, and I am told if you eat too many, you can get a slight alcohol buzz, and in fact a friend once told me that in her student years she and a group of fellow students took themselves off and ate the fruits to get drunk!

It is rumoured that nothing beats the anti-grippe of the Serra, Medronho and honey, to cure you from any vicious cold. If you’re still not convinced, you can try the Medronho fruit itself, which is high in antioxidants, or processed in jams and preserves. Your health will surely thrive!