In our daily view from our house and garden features a very characteristic building. It is the old ‘fabrica de manteiga’, the butter factory of Fajã da Ovelha. The building is 110 years old. As the name says, it was used to make butter, and also cheese, in the days that it was still worthwhile keeping cows for milk.
Anyone who knows the geography of Madeira can tell you that there is hardly any flat space, so keeping cattle near a farmhouse is not obvious. Today, since most people have motorized transport, they keep their cattle more or less half-wild in the high region of Paúl da Serra, where there are larger pastures. The altitude of Paúl (= plain) da Serra (= mountains) is between 1000 and 1400 metres. When it gets too cold there in winter, they bring their cattle down to escape the cold.
Dairy production left Madeira
Those who have more than one cow need to scatter them as there are no larger feeding grounds in the lower areas. One can easily imagine that this makes milking the cows very time consuming and inefficiënt. That’s why there is hardly any dairy production left in Madeira. The Azores are much better suited for cattle, so that’s where virtually all butter and cheese comes from nowadays. Another cause for this is, of course, that transport nowadays is much more efficiënt and regular. The arrival of refrigeration made transport of milk over longer distances possible. But fresh milk is another matter as the movement of a ship on a wavy ocean would turn it into butter soon – as we have experienced ourselves when sailing our yacht Heerenleed. That’s why there is a wide range of UHT milk brands available in Madeira, but hardly any fresh milk.
Uncertain fate for the butter factory
The butter factory of Fajã da Ovelha ceased operations, leaving the building empty. It has changed hands various times. We don’t know exactly how many, but we do know it ended up being bought by an American. He probably had wild plans with the building, but his plans never came to fruition. The American owner has passed away in the meantime, leaving children, a widow and an ex-wife. As he had foreseen trouble, especially with the ex, he has put his assets in a trust. The heirs now can only dissolve the trust when they have sold all assets. And as you may have guessed, the butter factory is still unsold. There also is an American bank involved in the trust. They now get impatient and want to get rid of the burden. So they have to get rid of the building and it is put up for sale. But there is a catch.
As no-one was using the building, some clever clog from a neighbouring village started to use it as storage for village party decorations. Under Portuguese law, that could cause a dispute about the ownership. I won’t go into that matter here because it’s quite complicated. But the long and short of it is, that you can claim ownership of real estate if you can prove you have been legally using it for a specific period. Of course, the man claims the American owner gave permission to use the building, but there is no written proof. And as the owner is dead there is no way to verify the claim.
There have been several interested parties, but since there is a dispute over ownership, the building still has not been sold. As nobody wants to invest in it under the circumstances, the building is slowly deteriorating. And now, Philomena, the storm that hit Madeira the day before yesterday, has begun to finish the job that time already started. An uprooted tree fell over the roof, creating a hole. Philomena did the rest. Imagine a building with a wooden floor and a half-open roof. It will quickly deteriorate further and can soon be added to the list of sorry ruins. A sad witness of the lack of decent legislation protecting national heritage.
meaningless protection of heritage
The building is on a list of ‘protected real estate’ but if no-one looks after it, this is meaningless. As it is, this list only says that you can’t change the looks of the building on the outside, but it does not oblige the owners to do proper maintenance. We fear the end of a beautiful and characteristic building is near.
not the only one
If you check the comments you will find that the existence of another butter factory in our area was brought to my attention. It never occurred to me, but if you look at the geography of Madeira and its infrastructure, or rather the lack of it in the days when mere mortals definitely could not afford having a car, the other shoe drops. Of course, they needed butter factories close to where people lived and held their cattle.
So here it is: the butter factory in nearby Estreito da Calheta. Owned by John and Sue Armstrong, who found it in about as sorry a state as the one this article is about. John confirms the lack of support by any authorities where the restauration of historical buildings is concerned. As he put it: you are on your own. All the more praise to them for saving the building and giving it a new span of life. We can only hope that this will be the fate of ‘our’ butter factory as well. For those who missed it: we received a comment from Nicholas (the real estate gagent who is dealing with the property) that the rightful owners have sent a representative to assess the damage and have asked for quotations for the repair of the roof. Also, they have spoken with a representative of the Guarda Florestal, responsible for the forests on the island, to talk about some trees to be felled in order to avoid future damage.