When I arrived at “Zé Espiga’s” workshop for the first time, the blue gate was closed. I had been told that in the town of Bucelas, near Lisbon, there was a cooper who worked in a workshop where half the roof had collapsed, so I didn’t know if it was still working or if it had closed for business.
I waited for a bit, took stroll around the village, and after a while, found the gate open after all. The entrance of the shop looked tidy, but in the zone that connected with the workshop there was almost no roof at all. The remaining structure was supported by some metal beams that looked like they were about to collapse at any time.
Yet, that did not prevent Mr. José Quintão, or “Zé Espiga”, as he is known around those parts, to continue to do what he has always done. Inheriting the trade of his father he began working to help him build and fix kegs and barrels, when coopersmith employed four more people. Later those four became two, until only Zé was left: the only cooper in Bucelas, and one of the few remaining south of the Mondego river.
The fact that he is the last does’t worry him one bit, he continues to work with dedication, and trying to learn more about his craft. To the experience of several decades working the wood, he adds the knowledge he acquired during the years about several techniques, not only from Portugal, but also from some other places in the world where this craft still exists, like America or Japan.
It’s that same experience that allows him to select the material he works with, which usually is chestnut or oak wood, but can change according to the contents of the barrel. This contents can also change the building process itself. For example, in some cases it might be necessary to apply paraffin , to soften the wine’s tannins.
This kind of experience can only be acquired by overcoming the adversities with extreme dedication. One cannot quit when the first problems occur. And Zé did not quit, when he became the last cooper in Bucelas, like he did not quit when he was left without half his roof. He kept on working on his craft with resilience.
Two years past my first visit, I went back to Bucelas for a lunch with friends. Before, though, I passed by the workshop to say hello to Zé. The workshop was not like I remembered it anymore. He had managed to get some financial support to fix the roof, and now the entrance is an open yard that leads to the workshop. No more metallic beams, and Zé is no longer in danger whenever he goes to work. If anyone passes there, one no longer sees the hardship and peril documented on these photos. Not quitting his craft paid off.