Recently I had the pleasure of a tour through the Factory House, located just uphill from the riverfront in Porto, and just east of the IVDP and Palacio do Bolsa, on the Rua Infante D. Henrique.
Very briefly, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Factories were commercial associations founded by Portuguese, British, Dutch, name your merchant nation, in the foreign ports where they established trading activities. According to local circumstances their headquarters could be anything from heavily fortified storehouses to more club-like accommodations, but they were all established as trading posts and were the centre of commercial activity for the relevant merchant community.
The British Factory here in Porto was founded in the mid 17th century as an association for those engaged in trade with England in any sort of goods – typically wool, wine and cod. In 1790 this building was opened; the building and upkeep were funded by contributions from the members in proportion to the value of goods exported by them from Portugal. Today each member house (11 of them) pays a fixed amount to maintain the building and association, and all its traditions.
With the invasion of the French in 1807, the building was shut down. In 1810 the Factory re-established itself as the British Association, with membership restricted solely to representatives of English port shippers, and the building was re-opened in 1811.
Very handsome and very English inside and out, the building and its contents are fascinating, as are the history and customs of the British Association. The most well-known tradition is the dinners which are served in one dining room through the cheese course (which is accompanied by a tawny port). The members then arise, and move into an identical dining room set end to end with the first, where they seat themselves again and enjoy a glass of vintage port without the distraction of lingering aromas from the meal. The port is selected by the Treasurer and served blind; the members and their guests must try to identify both shipper and vintage.
The public spaces of the building are very elegant – the entry hall is floored in granite, and the granite stairway is cantilevered – an incredible feat of engineering, but the 1.20 metre (nearly 4-foot) thick walls make it feasible. The dining rooms are beautiful, and the ballroom is exquisite, like a fine Wedgewood piece, with white Adams-esque garlands painted on blue walls, fabulous chandeliers, and a beautiful sprung wooden floor.
The Library is what a library should be, as far as I am concerned – completely book lined, three rooms of it, immense windows for good light, and painted a wonderful deep Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkin red, though the walls are hardly visible except above the shelves. The library was accumulated by donations over 200 years, and was intended as a circulating library for members, not a specialist library, though the Association do now make an effort to acquire books about Port and the trade.
So much for the public and grand aspect of the Factory House. Personally, I was captivated by the bits behind the scenes: the cellars and the kitchen.
Every member port shipper must donate to the Association a dozen cases of every declared vintage, and when an individual becomes a member, their induction is also marked by a donation of his – or her – pick of one of their house’s vintage wines. Yes, you read that right – this bastion of tradition now has its first woman member.
In the cellar are shelves, each marked either with the brand and year of the vintage if it was a vintage donation, or the name of the donor as well as brand name and vintage, if it was an induction donation.
I couldn’t help but spot: Johnny Symington’s donation of Warre’s 1985 is already gone, and the Warre’s Vintage 1970 is down to the last 3 or 4 bottles. As it happens, I have enjoyed bottles of each of these myself (with help from friends) in the past 5 years or so, and they are superb – I can understand why they would be used up!
The original kitchen was on the third floor, above the dining rooms, as was the pool room. I have to say I was impressed they managed to get the cookers and the pool table upstairs, I cannot conceive how, without cranes, unless they were placed there during the building works before the walls and doorways were set. The kitchen has two immense cookers on the north and west walls. My guide and I were both thinking, those poor cooks – although there are three huge windows on the east wall, they cannot possibly have provided enough ventilation, especially in the sweltering summers of Porto. The week of my visit temperatures had been between 30° and 40° C, and I know how I felt boiling pasta on my little electric cooker at home, just the thought of running one or two immense wood or coal burning cookers in that heat makes me wilt.
The kitchen and pantries still had a wide array of pottery, chafing dishes, bread trays and general batterie de cuisine. I love pottery, and there were many pieces of both English and Portuguese make. I spotted some unusually shaped basin-like bowls and asked my guide about them. They are a traditional Portuguese shape for making rice – the rice is first boiled in the usual way, then put into these basins and baked. I have seen recipes for a variety of rice dishes, both sweet and savoury, using this method – must find a bowl like this and try it out.
The Factory House can be toured by appointment, for a modest donation. It is closed for the month of August, but otherwise, they can be contacted at british dot association at sapo dot pt
There is a rather scholarly history of the house and association written by John Delaforce, which is very informative about the history and traditions of the Factory House, and includes detailed descriptions and many photos of the building and its contents: The Factory House at Oporto, John Delaforce, Bicentenary Edition, 1990 by Christopher Helm (publishers) in association with Christie’s Wine Publications.