Thursday 21 November 2013

A Portuguese Basket Maker

Dutch friends, Inez and Jan, who live in northern Portugal, drive past my door when visiting family in Holland. So the offer this year to be taken to their home on their return was gratefully accepted.  The drive across northern Spain was beautiful in the Rioja region and daunting in the area between Burgos and Palencia.  This region provides a lot of the grain for Spain's bakeries but, at this time of the year, after the harvest, is empty of people and plants. We passed through a succession of half dead villages huddling underneath huge pylons and surrounded by the deserts created by agribusiness. It was a relief to move out of this landscape, it felt gapingly open, claustrophobic and quite frightening all at the same time. You wouldn't want your car to break down there!
The Minho region in northern Portugal, however is totally  different and  very similar to Galicia just north of the border in Spain.  Of course this is logical, the frontier is only a political barrier and the people both sides of this imaginary line live in similar geography with a similar ecology. I like Galicia very much (it's a lot like Scotland but warmer) and some of my best experiences there were times spent accompanying Carlos Fontales on  research trips to visit basket makers. These trips were special  for me because I had hardly ever before had the opportunity to meet elderly basket maker/farmers who continue to work with the materials they gather from the countryside around them. Carlos has recently published  "More Than Baskets", an excellent introduction to popular Spanish basketry in both Spanish and English, which uses some of this research and  is available to purchase directly from him.

So,  I was hoping that on this occasion I might be able to visit a Portuguese maker and Inez remembered having come across one not far from their home.
Joaquims' workshop is on the road west out of Cabeceiras de Basto. He has made baskets for nearly 40 years, originally with his two brothers, but now on his own. Chestnut and willow are his primary materials,  both of which he harvests locally.Willows are everywhere in the surrounding countryside, not in plantations, but usually pollards at the edges of fields and alongside the many rivers and streams. Unusually Joaquim makes his own buff willow, boiling and peeling the tannin stained rods. I know of no other individual maker who uses ‘hedgerow’ willow to do  this as the people that I know who use buff willow usually buy it from commercial growers.  Buff willow was very popular for baskets in Britain, Germany, Poland and other northern European regions (though  not France) in the 1960’s but has since gone out of fashion in Britain, perhaps because of its association with cat and dog baskets.  This seems a shame because it is a good and natural way to help preserve the willow, the tannin providing some protection  against both worm and mould. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to see what set up Joaquim uses for his buffing but he described it as a tin bath with a fire under it! His ‘shop’ has a window on the road where he puts a couple of baskets to act as a sign.  Next to the shop is a spring with a water tank and a pond. I didn’t establish if this was where he soaked his materials but it would be surprising if he didn’t.
 Sadly he has passed his knowledge to no-one else so it will die with him.  He would have taught someone but, he said, the young people were not interested because they cannot make enough money  from basket making. This is hardly surprising as Joaquim was only charging 20€ for a large log basket out of split chestnut. At the very least it would have taken five hours to make  taking into account the finding, harvesting, cooking, splitting and shaving of the chestnut prior to any weaving! But what counts as 'enough money to live on' is, of course, relative. I do not imagine that Joaquim spends his spare time in the local shopping centre coveting  i-phones and he probably grows a lot of his food and lives in a house he inherited from his parents, so 'enough' for him is 20€.

It was a slightly chaotic workshop, the floor strewn with materials and finished baskets.  It made it difficult to look at the work but those that I could see  included covered wine jars, market baskets, some with dyed willow included, log baskets and fans for the fire. He gave the impression of being someone who enjoys making baskets  much more than selling them! I'm with him on that one.

Similar baskets were on sale at the weekly market in Cabeceiras, as well as some that looked like Chinese imports. The latter having thinly split wood,  handles wrapped in string, plywood bases and fabric linings. A lining always suggests Chinese origins, they use them a lot in their commercial basketry manufacture so that they don’t have to spend time trimming the ends on the inside of the basket. If you look under the lining of one you will see what I mean! These did not seem like Portuguese baskets to me, but since then Inez has sent me some pictures of other baskets seen  at a market, where the maker was actually working, that also have  plywood bases and linings, so perhaps this is a Portuguese practise too? Maybe someone out there knows the truth? Some of the baskets with structures out of split chestnut were woven with what looked  like bamboo rather than Mediterranean cane, which also surprised me, as hazel was more evident in the landscape than either cane or bamboo and again this suggested that the basket came from somewhere else. My Portuguese is less than minimal so interrogating the stall holder was not possible.

I did buy a chestnut and strapping tape fan that had definitely been locally made and wasn’t actually for sale. The stall holder was using it to fan roasting chestnuts but he came up with a price quick enough when asked.  I wasn’t going to quibble even though I know that buying a hand woven fan in Europe for two euros is never going to provide a young maker with 'enough' to live on .