“It should be the name of a rock band. If it’s not, I’m going to start it...” — David J Whyte
And these guys I want in! We drove to the village of Porto da Cruz in the northeast of the island to meet the descendants of labourers who carried goatskins full of wine, around 50 litres at a time, up and down and round the mountains between the north and south of the island taking the to pressed grape juice be turned into Madeira’s famous fortified wine.
At that time of course, there were none of the slick motorway flyovers and 4 km long tunnels that now make Madeira relatively easy to get around. There was a road network carved into the sides of mountains - you can still see them - but it would still take a full day to get from one side of the island to the other. Before that, the easiest way to bring wine down from the high, mountain terraces was ‘The Borracheiros’. They were ‘logistics’ companies of the day, hauling their precious cargo on their backs. And they were still doing it in the 1970s. The Associação Grupo Cultural Flores de Maio formed in 1986 to help keep the memory alive. The group shows up for various tourist or cultural events around the island such as the Madeira Wine Festival to let people see how things used to be done.
In Madeira, wine’s fortunes ebbed and flowed through the centuries, first replaced by sugar cane and then when the sugar cane went west, hit with fungal infections. But throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Madeira wine was the island’s number one export and leading source of revenue. The terraces around Porta da Cruz offered ideal growing conditions, their landowners cashing in on the high demand for basic wine to be fortified and turned into ‘Madeira’. The grapes were harvested, crushed and pressed at the vineyards then transported south to be fermented in oak casks and then left to mature in the lofts of winemakers such as Henriques & Henriques, Blandy’s, Borges or Justino's.
I was confused to learn of the term ‘Tyre Repair Men’ or “Rubber Men’ applied to the Borracheiros of Porta da Cruz. I can only think that it stems back to the rubber strap they placed around their heads to help support the 50-litre goat skins or ‘Borracho’ as they were called. I suppose the rubber straps acted as a sort of ‘suspension’ as the men hiked up and down the treacherous mountain passes.
The men would also carry a small bag around their waist with bread and cured meat and a stout pole to support the steep climbs and descents. More likely, it was the rough brandy poured from a longhorn into a short horn that gave the men strength, not to mention the odd sample from the sack they were carrying - purely to lighten the load you understand!
The goat skins or Borracho were known to leak or even burst if they hadn’t been prepared properly, scraped with a knife then cured in the sun for a month. There would often be ‘leakage’. This would also be a fine excuse for the Borracheiros when they arrived, their sacks being a bottle or two light!
The busiest time for the Borracheiros would be August and September when the grapes were picked and pressed before transport to the south. It was an intense time as there were multiple vineyards throughout the area, so much so the men had to do night shifts which is even harder to imagine given the precariousness of the roads.
The ‘boss’ was usually the owner of the vineyard and he would normally oversee his precious cargo's transport down to Funchal or Machico.
It was cooler up in Porta da Cruz but nothing that a couple of ‘horns’ of Brandy didn’t cure
The Borracheiros were famous for singing as they walked and "The Borracheiros liked to take their mind off the walking. Singing was part of the deal and the lead man. The guy that had the easiest and most popular job was the rum carrier.
David J. Whyte