The surface area of Santo Antão is 779Km2. It is the second largest island of the archipelago and is rather like a trapezoid in shape. It has a maximum length of 43Km, between Tumba to the northeast and Camariva to the southeast. Its widest point is 24 Km from Areias (to the north) and Cais dos Fortes (to the south). Along the middle of the island, a mountain range runs from northeast to southeast and ends at Tope da Coroa (with an altitude of 1979 m), a relatively recent volcanic peak. Other peaks are Pico da Cruz (1814 m) to the northeast and Guido do Cavaleiro (1811 m) to the southeast.
The climate is dry in the south, cool in the central region (at an altitude of 1000 m) and humid in the northeast region. Quite naturally, the vegetation varies dramatically between regions.
The high zones are covered with trees like the eucalyptus, the cypress, and the pine-tree. The south, in total contrast, is arid with herbaceous vegetation. There are still some signs of Santo Antão's volcanic past; the crater named Cova, for example, is very well preserved. Due to the effects of erosion, the streams are deep and the peaks are very sharp and steep.
The coastline is very picturesque. In the north, parts have been worn away by the northeast winds and the rough seas, there are, however, a number of excellent beaches, such as Praia Formosa, to name one.
Diogo Afonso discovered the island of Santo Antão on the 17th of January in 1462. Colonial era began in 1548. In the XIX century, roads were built linking Ponta do Sol to Ribeira Grande and Porto Novo, and it was from here the island's goods were shipped out.
Visiting the island of S. Antao
Santo Antao is one of the most fantastic islands of the archipelago. Although this statement may be unfair to the rest of them, for it is a fact that all islands have their special charm, this one is, among the more mountainous, the one which most thrills the visitor.
With majestic mountains and deep steep valleys, the topography of the island is breathtaking. One of the ways to reach the island is by boat. The boat comes from Mindelo, in Sao Vicente, and moors on Porto Novo (New Port), place of an arid landscape and of another annual music festival in Praia do Escorralete.
When traveling towards the north, the visitor is transported to an almost unreal world, where the human will and strength dominated the wild nature of the place. The roads carved along the slopes are genuine monuments to the effort and work of those who built them. These authentic roller coasters will surely amaze all visitors. As if by magic, we are where the climate makes the visitors feel at home. These are the highest parts of the island covered with pines and eucalyptus that are planted every year and surrounded by a cool and dense mist. This kind of landscape offers unparalleled characteristics for various mountains sports, such as trekking.
Leaving these mysterious places and already at sea level, we come across Ribeira Grande (Large Stream), a valley where we find the main urban center of the same name, and place of bifurcation into two of the most visited places in Santo Antao. To the right the roads take us along the seashore to Vale do Paul, one of the most beautiful places in the island. With dense vegetation full of maize and sugarcane fields, as we travel towards the inland we cannot help feeling watched and at the same time protected by the grandiose mountains surrounding the valley. There, the visitor can find a recreational area with a swimming pool where everyone can enjoy the solemn peace the island offers to all of those who dare to visit it.
Back in Ribeira Grande, we can now go to Ponta do Sol, the administrative center of the island. The village houses an airfield that resembles an aircraft carrier for having partially been built over the sea.
With a peaceful environment, this place offers those who visit it all the necessary requirements for wonderful relaxing strolls. Its main square, always very neat, is also quite beautiful and is surrounded by admirable buildings, such as the church, the City Hall and the Post office.
Santo Antao is also considered the island of "grogue", a typical firewater still produced by ancient and traditional methods of sugarcane grinding, such as the "trapiche", a rudimentary mechanism powered by animals or men. The production of "grogue" is linked to the large plantations of sugarcane on this island, where the friendliness and hospitality of its people match the beauty of its landscapes.
The famous Grogue
The appearance of sugar cane in Santo Antao is without a shadow of a doubt connected with slave trafficking. Based on this assumption, we can reach the conclusion that the introduction of this plant into Cabo-verdean flora dates back to the early days of colonization, though its production in Santo Antao only became possible at the end of the 17th Century/start of the 18th Century.
At first brandy producers were violently prosecuted by the authorities whom claimed that its production cast blight on public health. "Legal Bill no.124 of December 1941 places a ban on the manufacturing of brandy on grounds of health and promotes to the growth of food crops; however, the law proved unsuccessful and merely led to the clandestine manufacture in, and all illegal trade of brandy (Grog), according to "Subsidios Para a Historia da ilha de Santo Antao (1462/1963). Year 1866 saw the institution of brandy tax and in 1887 a study was carried out on sugar; Administrative Ruling no.391 of December 22, 1900 ordered the creation of hand-guards between the irons of the trapiches.
How to make Gorgue
To obtain the transparent liquid we know as brandy, we must first pass through various stages, each of which demands special care and attention.
Stage 1, involves "stripping" the sugar cane of leaves, an operation carried out by hand and without the aid of any tools. The leaves are tied in bundles and are later used to roof houses. In years of drought they are used as animal pasture and sometimes as fuel to stoke up the fire in brandy distillation. Only canes which are in bloom are picked; these are cut into 50 cm strips using a cutlass.
The trapiche is a hand-made machine whose every working part is vital. It consists of three steel rollers which turn round in alternative directions and are driven by a pair of oxen or, in recent times, a mule.
The animals' power works its way through to the rollers by means of a lever of low-arched tamarind tree branches, known in some regions as an "almanjarra" which moves the machinery by means of rack-wheels.
Two men sit next to each other on the seat; their job is to pass the cane between the rollers; these squeezes the sugar cane, thereby producing syrup which is collected in the through channel called the "cubre". The syrup is used to make brandy or honey. The animals moving the trapiche are driven by a man know as the ox driver (kolador di boi). It is now - trapiche time – that the "kola boi" can be heard, one of the most popular work ballads in Santo Antao and which is still sung today.
At times the ballad is so melancholy that it moves all those who are hearing for the first time. The yoked oxen go around hundreds of times moving the trapiche to the rhythm of the "kola boi". After a number of turns tears can be seen to cloud the oxen's eyes. There are those who say that this is the sad lament of the "kola boi". Other more skeptical observers believe it is merely the result of tiredness and the dust which has been raised.
The themes touched upon in the "aboios" or "kola boi" (sad songs to which herds of oxen are driven) are always of a socio-economic nature, portraying everyday situations and the difficulties faced by most Cabo-verdeans to earn their daily bread. The owner sometimes neglects to "wet the worker's whistle" and the "ox-driver" soon provides him with a discreet reminder of this oversight in a verse specially designed for this purpose. Getting the message, the owner orders a round of grogue to be served to lift the worker's spirits.
The fermentation of Syrup
Once the cane has been crushed, the syrup is put into barrels for fermentation purposes. This usually takes around five days. Once it has fermented, it is taken to the still, a copper receptacle holding around 200 liters.
Prior to use, the still must first be rubbed in lemon and ash. It is then washed in hot water and rubbed in crushed sugar cane and finally dried using a clean, dry cloth. If distillation is interrupted for over 24 hours the still is washed in cold water after every three days' work.
The still is partly buried in a loosed stone oven where the fire is fuelled by means of crushed sugar cane, as mentioned above, or using banana tree leaves. The syrup is usually boiled in crushed sugar cane.
Once the syrup is in the still, the distillation process can begin. It is boiled for an hour and only then is water run into the coxe (a type of wooden bed supported by a Y-shaped strip of fig tree trunk down which the cold water runs). The syrup vapors condense along the pipe and the brandy is collected at the far end of the pipe from which it trickles out. The brandy's proof is measured by emptying a small quantity out onto a calama. The froth is the litmus test of the brandy's quality but the final say goes to an experienced master.
The proof can be measured using a hydrometer but the best masters prefer the visual method.
The first liquid to come out of the still is collected in a bottle for medicinal purposes. If the final liquid drawn at the end of distillation measures less than 20 cartiers it is dubbed rape, (rapaz or agua-pe - light wine) owing to its low strength. At a later stage this liquid is mixed with syrup and re-distilled.
The trapiche has been the cause of many a misfortune depriving people of their fingers or hands when they failed to remove them in time when pouring sugar cane into it. In the old days it was common to meet people who were left fingerless or even without hands thanks to the "handwork" of the trapiche rollers.
Nowadays you seldom find the traditional trapiche as it has been widely replace by a mechanical version with a view to increase production. Tasting of Grogue is a must attend event when visiting S Antao.