Posted by: John Perry | April 21, 2014

The little shops of Velez – Malaga

The Plaza Reys Catholicos looking south towars the Mercado Mayorista

The Plaza Reys Catholicos looking south towards the Mercado Mayorista

I grew up In Portsmouth in the 1950′s. In those days on each of the four corners of the street square was a shop – usually a family grocer. There you could buy everything you needed to live a respectable English life. Tea, butter, sliced bread from the “aerated” bread company (ABC), marmite, cabbage, smoked bacon bones, salmon and shrimp paste, black jacks, bangers, sprouts, sandwich spread, Bird’s custard, Daddy’s sauce, fruit salads, suet, malt vinegar, syrup of figs, salad cream, lard and so on. Rationing was only slowly slackening its grip upon our throats.

Although the corner shops were all groceries, they were nevertheless all different because  they were all family businesses, each one with its unique profile for stocking, pricing and for customer service. The nearest thing to a supermarket was Marshall’s, where my mum worked. Sugar and flour were served in a cone of brown paper, orders were delivered by a boy on a bike with a basket on the front. Every Xmas a free  tin of biscuits was delivered to each regular customer with a note thanking them for their patronage during the past year.

The American Empire changed all that. Modest grocery shop windows gave way to gaudy red and orange plastic  frontages, to “Malls” and hypermarkets. The age of the  bland ubiquitous “global” store had arrived. Private landlords and public councils saw the chance to impose swingeing business rates on small family enterprises and put them out of business. Only the moneyed classes retained their “boutique” butchers and “traditional”speciality traders.  Today no Brit standing in a pseudo-American shopping Mall could tell if they were in Portsmouth, Birmingham or Aberdeen.

And that’s what I like about Velez Malaga and its surrounding villages. American shopping culture – if culture is the right word – has entirely passed it by. In the villages it’s easy to walk through a fly curtain and find you are not in the supermarket but in someone’s front room so modest is the frontage of the shop. It’s the same in Velez. You need to know where the shop is, because if you don’t  it is not going to shout at you. And why should a shop blare out its presence? Everyone in their own communities knows where the butcher the baker and the candlestick maker are. After all, shops are for those who live around them not for tourists or passers by.velez shops 2 (1)

Velez itself is a glorious tumble of small family enterprises, each with its own character and unique quality. I am not being sentimental about this, it’s genuinely a relief to be able to choose what you buy instead of having the choice made for you by some remote marketing manager.

This is a description is of just one little nondescript street leading from the Plaza Reys Catholicos that I hope will demonstrate the texture and richness of the shopping experience here.

This little tile shop is crammed with hand made and hand finished objects ideal as presents

This little tile shop is crammed with hand made and hand finished objects ideal as presents

The street I’ve chosen is called Alcade Juan Barranquero and is best approached from the south. You park in or near The Mercado de Mayorista (the big wholesale market) and walk up the Explanada dela Estacion (see the bottom left hand corner of the map). You soon come to shop number 1, which is the rustic tile shop called “Rusticos Chamorro”.

It is a little family outlet for the typical “ladrillos” of the Axarquia. These range from the thick red “Barros” – typical floor tiles and bricks that are made locally and fired by the sun and in wood fired furnaces, to delicate hand painted tiles and  Moroccan patterned tiles available plain, etched or painted. Many of the smaller, highly decorative objects sold here make nice presents. They are more original and better value than many market stall outlets and very much reflect the taste and interests of the people who run the business.

Walk to the corner to shop no 2. This shop belongs to José Berenguer Vigo who buys fruit and veg from Mercado de Mayorista (wholesale) down the road and retails it to the public by the box load.

Jose's shop

Jose’s shop

Today strawberries and oranges top the bill but there are always sacks of spuds, big jars of verdiales oil and split green olives, fig bread, dried figs and raisins. This is a good shop to use if you are planning a party and need to make the occasional bulk buy. He is more expensive than the market but in my opinion better value. This is the point about small shopkeepers. They have unique skills learned from teachers in their family and we the customers benefit from that experience, particularly the skill to source the best local products and offer it at the best price.

Before turning left into Alcade Juan Barranquero, look across the street to shop number 3. It has an open front and is a wine bodega called Bodegas Magnums. It is quite small but offers a large number of regional and local wines. The typical wine produced in the villages is sherry like and sweet because of the warm local climate.  However, the new wines of Almachar created by George Ordonez are rapidly becoming world renowned. He uses grapes from local growers  in Almáchar on slopes too steep for any kind of mechanisation, which is farmed by hand and without irrigation in the traditional style of the Axarquia. The grape is the muscatel de Alejandria, from old, free-standing vines in slate and limestone soils. Many vines are between 80 and 100 years old. The muscatel grapes are picked in several stages for maximum ripeness. The resulting must is fermented in French oak and the fermentation is stopped by chilling. This is what produces a dry fresh table wine. Magnams stocks white, red and rose by Ordonez at about €13 a bottle. Reassuringly expensive, but you know you’re worth it!

Bar El RubioTurning left into our street, we immediately come to the very flash  shop no4 Bar El Rubio (Blondie’s Bar). It has a clean steel feel and a friendly engaged staff. Personally I don’t think much of their menu del dia, but they serve excellent fish and seafood, and are a good bet for a tubo y tapa.

Leaving that clean steely feel and moving on towards the Plaza, we realise with a shock we’ve gone from the sublime to the ‘cor blimey, with shop no 5 El reclamo, which is a great big old-fashioned pet shop of the sort that would be immediately closed down in the UK or anywhere in the north of the northern hemisphere. It has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever and nothing you’d want to buy unless you eat millet. It sells canaries in tiny cages, dogs, chickens, ferrets, hamsters, partridges, quail, mice and cats all piled up on each other in cramped and barely sanitary conditions. It also offers haircuts for dogs and vetinary advice. I only include it because a) it is a genuine family business b) it reminds me of the 1950′s when I used to go to pet shops and buy great crested newts, slow worms and greek tortoises from a load packed into a crate like meat pies c) Because in the very middle of the pet shop street front is what I suppose is a sub let – what we used to call a “wet” fish shop called Pescados Pericos selling fresh fish. Not on Sundays of course and not on Mondays because there is no fishing on Sunday. Supermarkets by contrast don’t care how old their fish is nor were it comes from and sell whatever isn’t rotten six days a week.

Round the corner from El relamo is shop no 6 the Hal Hal butchers. This is also family. They have another branch on Torre del Mar. I use them for beef sausages, which frankly could do with a bit of pork fat in them, costilla de ternera, which my son, the celebrated London chef Stan Perry describes as “short ribs” – wonderful cooked slow in Rioja. Also rosewater and orange  water, essential with mint and dates for cold orange salad, and salted black olives, a nice change from the split green ones that are local.


Hal hal butchers shop

Opposite El reclamo is shop no 7, my favourite vegetable shop ever, the Fruteria Vita. It’s a family business where mother and daughter work in the shop and brother is the buyer. Most of the produce comes from Algorrobo where the alluvial coastal soil produces top quality vegetables and salads. They source as far north as Zaffaraya and their main stock is strictly seasonal – strawberries now, cherries soon, then plums, peaches, mangoes in August with table and muscat grapes, then tangerines and a succession of citrus. They also sell “Cateto” (country) bread with a crunchy crust and heavy crumb and a range of (imported) dates, also confections of nuts.  Sugared almonds are my favourite. As you can see from the photo, they also offer quality salt cod.


Shop window Fruteria Vita

Next to the Fruteria Vita is shop no 8 Bazar Chino - a truly grand family enterprise. I am assuming that everyone who works in the shop is from the same family, but what do I know? Last year I was accosted by a sophisticated Chinese female employee with impeccable English who explained the rudiments of LED lighting to me. I bought several bulbs, but unfortunately they were crap. All the little internal lights went out one by one. I should have gone to Leroy Merlin’s and paid 5€ a bulb. Nerertheless this is my absolutely favourite Chinese Barato (cheap shop). Jude and I buy all our cazuelas there  and our son, the celebrated London chef Stan Perry took home bags of little tapas dishes last time he came out. Cazuelas are glazed red clay cookware. In the UK, in Heals a standard dish would set you back £15. Here they cost pennies.  Also, if you want to go fishing, say, from the rocks around Nerja, you can set yourself up with rod, reel, line, keep net and lures for about €30.

Across the road is shop no 9 the Bar Capri, great for a pretentious del dia at only €8. Posh people from Nerja won’t understand, but up here in the hills, if we get a fillet of Dorada on the Del dia menu we think it’s Xmas.

Next to the Capri is shop no 10 a little butchers that specialises in fresh meat pattis, meatballs and burghers.

Next to Bazar Chino is shop 11 – a little Mercadona  supermarket. I mention it only because the intrepid can park underneath and can get free parking if they buy anything. We recommend torrefacto coffee and white wine.

Since you have now arrived here at the fountain, three more shops come to mind. Look through the fountain and you can see shop no 12 Bar Niza, which opens at 6am so that other shop keepers, who open at 10, can have breakfast. And what breakfasts! A full Spanish, English, French or Norwegian is to be had. Churros and chocolate is available all day seven days per week and an a array of  disturbing Spanish cake confections – whipped whale fat and sugar, glare at you through the cold counter. Niza has the air of faded, very faded Europe. What Donald Rumsfeld used to call “Old Europe”. Waiters in bow ties and faintly stained whites combine attention with contempt. pouring boiling milk into your cafe con leche until slightly after you screamed STOP! Judy and I hold it in great affection and always go there  for a breakfast, or lunch or a teatime treat.

Inside Nizas

The Bar Niza for all day chocolate and churros

Shop no 13 the Albardoneria (which means the saddle makers) involves a two minute walk up the hill towards the town hall. It should convince you that you really don’t need to go to Malaga to buy leather. The front is all shoes, there are cabinets of leather cases and covers, a shelf of leather hats and at the back beautifully crafted stuff for horses and donkeys. It’s here I buy my Camper shoes for €30 because they have a continual sale of branded footwear.

For shop no 14 walk another fifty metres up the  hill to find on your right the Charcuteria La Dehesa that sells fine jamon, cheese, a range of quality charcuterie and wine. Friendly expert staff are pleased to let you taste whatever you want.

This is a mere sketch of the variety and quality of produce and expertise available in little more than eighty metres of provincial side street, but what cultural richness! The shopping environment is not slick nor is it full of overt of subliminal instructions to buy. In fact it is quite a scruffy little area – not historic or special and yielding nothing to the needs of tourists or to the American delusion that to be “happy” you have to be constantly buying stuff you may or may not want. You have to do a bit of work to find what you need but it makes the shopping experience uniquely rewarding  and very human. Get it now while you can. The slightest rise in prosperity will send the rent and rates through the roof, drive out the little people and let in the international chain shops and global thugs. Then Velez will be indistinguishable from Croyden.









Posted by: John Perry | March 25, 2014

Easter Bunny – the Spanish rabbit

The wild rabbit is a "key species" in Spain, being virtrually the sole source of food for the Spanish Lynx and the Imperial eagle

The wild rabbit is a “key species” in Spain, being virtually the sole source of food for the Spanish Lynx and the Imperial Eagle

As spring creeps up on us, baby rabbits  appear by the roadside munching on or diving for cover in the spring herbage. Associated in the British mind with the “Easter bunny” it is, along with the Easter egg,  a pagan token of spring fertility. The rabbit is famously fertile. Rabbits breed like rabbits and a pair are theoretically able to produce over a thousand offspring in a year. That they don’t totally overrun the planet is because they are food for absolutely anything that eats meat.

The bunny is not nearly as cute as it looks. For example it is coprophageous – meaning that it eats its own droppings. Actually there are two types of droppings – the hard little ones you see all over the campo and different  soft droppings produced during the night which the rabbit re ingests. By eating its food twice it can make use of very tough foodstuffs like grasses, leaves, buds, tree bark, and roots and thistles. Back yard and commercial rabbit keepers will tell you that rabbits will turn a wide range of green stuff and table scraps into meat, and it’s the double digestive process that makes this possible.

Life in the rabbit warren is not a barrel of laughs either. The rabbit is native to Spain and is distributed world-wide only through the activity of man. However it cannot stand the Spanish climate in summer. It cannot breed when the temperature reaches 35 and it drops dead at forty degrees centigrade. This is because it cannot sweat and has poorly developed means of losing body heat. So although it is part of the family of hares that includes the brown and mountain hares of the UK and the jack rabbits and cottontails of the USA , all of whom live in scrapes or nests above ground, the European wild rabbit, because it  evolved in Spain, has had to develop a life below ground in the cool earth if it is to survive . It’s Latin name, Oryctolagus cuniculus  means ‘a hare-like digger of underground passages’.  And it is “crepuscular”, which means that it only lives on the surface of the earth in the half light of dawn or the dusk of the evening.

It is in these warrens, housing colonies of rabbits guarded by very territorial bucks, that young rabbits or kits are born in underground nests lined by fur that the doe plucks from her breast. The sexual act between rabbits is less than romantic and not very cute. The buck urinates on the doe and then mates with her. The act takes a few seconds and there is no bonding between the male and the female.

The breeding season for rabbits lasts three-quarters of the year (not the hot months) and the does don’t have an estrous or “heat” cycle, so are ready to mate at any time. They don’t have a menstrual cycle either because they are induced ovulators, which means that sexual intercourse stimulates them to ovulate. Immediately after the sex act, another egg is released for fertilization and this accounts for the massive breeding rate in rabbits. Rabbits gestate for only 30 days, and usually have litters of between 4 and 12 babies (kits). Once the babies are born, the doe can mate and get pregnant again the following day.

Home of the Lynx, almost extinct, and its prey the rabbit, now on the "vulnerable" list

Home of the Lynx, almost extinct, and its prey the rabbit, now on the “vulnerable” list

In a balanced ecology the rabbit population would remain stable because there would be enough of the right kind of predators to wipe out almost all of the offspring during their first few weeks of life, but where the rabbit has been injudiciously introduced as in Australia,  or the ecology has been otherwise unbalanced for example by the killing of top predators by farmers, a plague of rabbits can result.

Perhaps it was the sight of teeming rabbits shaping the coast with their burrowing, that induced the Phoenicians when they first encountered Iberia around 500 BC to name the country i-shepan-im, which means the land of rabbits. The Roman name Hispania comes from this Phoenician name, and Espana, or Spain mutates from this name. So the humble rabbit has given Spain its name, shaped its landscape and is the key predated mammal, supporting at least forty of the higher carnivores of Spain.

It is astonishing then to find that populations of Spanish rabbit within the natural range have declined an estimated 95% since 1950, and 80% in Spain since 1975. This is due to disease, habitat loss, and human killing. These numbers are based on estimates from a protected area in Spain, Donana National Park, and the relative decline elsewhere in the range. The rabbit now almost  meets the Red List Criteria for “Vulnerable”.

Rabbits were domesticated for food. The Romans simply put a fence around the warren housing a wild colony and periodically flushed them out with dogs and ferrets. Rabbits were brought to the UK by the Romans and then by the Normans who set up artificial warrens for a reliable meat supply through the winter months. Domestication, which alters the physical conformity of the animal is relatively recent, and today the domesticated or farmed rabbit is very different animal from the wild rabbit, at least when it comes to eating one. Most butchers’ rabbits are farmed. The meat is white and delicate, similar to chicken. The wild rabbit is of unknown age and is almost certain to be tougher with a stronger “gamey” flavour.

With all rabbit and especially with the wild ones, treat the legs differently from the saddle or body of the beast. Cut off the head and the front and back legs and simmer in a litre of water or half and half water and wine with three crushed cloves of garlic, a chopped up unskinned onion, a rough chopped carrot and a stick of celery. Colour with a little soaked saffron and simmer for about 20 minutes. Then strain, throw away the veg and rabbit head, and shred the flesh from the legs when cool. Keep the stock. Season it carefully with salt and pepper and a little hot paprika if you like. You now have an excellent base for a paella – an authentic one, not that coastal muck that’s full of seafood! Fry your rice and mix with the shredded meat. Pour on the boiling stock, stir once, then simmer without stirring. When the rice begins to absorb, push in slices of the rabbit saddle and some chopped asparagus – wild if you can get it.  Let the paella cook till the rice is just al dente remembering it continues to cook when you take it off the heat. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and finish with a handful of chopped roast almonds. Flash fry the rabbit’s liver and put it on the top. The delicious flavour of spring!

Wild Jack Rabbit Bunny




Posted by: John Perry | March 21, 2014

The first croak of spring – invasion of the tree frogs

tree frog 2Following grey skies and half-hearted bouts of rain at the beginning of the week, yesterday brought brilliant spring sunshine and the first visit of the common European tree frog (above) to our water deposit. The black stripe running from ts eye distinguishes it from the Mediterranean or stripe less tree frog. These little frogs, which look like big shiny emeralds  cling to the creepers that hang over the water or like like this one sit on a weed pad hoping for a fly. Thery are staking out terroitory for breeding ahead of the toads and Iberian frogs that will shortly be out to compete with them and they  are a sure sign of spring here in the Axarquia. Our European pond tortoise, still sadly alone after ten years has begun to take a little gentle exercise  in the water.

The lower water deposit spring 2014

The lower water deposit spring 2014

Posted by: John Perry | March 13, 2014

The last breath of winter: pruning the vines

Good silhouette reduced

March in the Axarquia is one of the busiest  months for the fruit farmer. Oranges lemons grapefruit and all other citrus are coming to perfection.  The last olive trees are netted and  beaten and the muscatel vines are threatening to burst their buds. Before they do they must be pruned and the earth around each one laid bare of weeds by the application of herbicide.

All aspects of viticulture are done by hand and with simple metal tools. Same as the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Moors

All aspects of viticulture are done by hand and with simple metal tools. Same as the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Moors

The weedless bald hills of the Axarquia are all laid down to the muscatel vines. The hills are so steep that the vines need not be supported by wires. The fruit will hang in the air as it swells in July and August, so the vines are cut back to four thick stumps. The pruned vines look as though armies of knotty little men are running across the bare soil.

Like all cultivated fruit, the fruiting wood is grafted onto vigorous root stock. The root stock is planted first, and then grafts of muscatel fruiting wood are struck into the growing root stock. In subsequent years the vine is heavily pruned to yield four stubby gnarled branches.

Muscatel grape, with mango and avocado, is the main cash crop in this region.

Pruning vies Feb 2013 reduced

Posted by: John Perry | March 10, 2014


Spanish chaps at their annual "concentracion de caballeros"

Spanish chaps at their annual “concentracion de caballeros”

Thought you might like to see a few snaps of the Almachar “horse club” that met at a bar outside the village to do nothing other than show off. And why not? If anyone knows anything about perfection in breeding and presentation it is the Spanish. Here they are (above) relaxing and boasting.

An andalucian horse seems to stand like this just by habit

Andalucian horses stand like this out of habit

By the way, today was also “La dia de las mujeres” (woman’s day). It seems they went on a coach trip, got pissed and came roaring back through the village. There wasn’t anything to photograph.

Chaps and chapesses also strive to look their best - they don't want to let down their horses!

Chaps and chapesses also strive to look their best – they don’t want to let down their horses!

Posted by: John Perry | February 24, 2014

Farming in Southern Spain: The orange in winter

Sevlle oranges, organic, freshly picked and in perfect condition

Seville oranges, organic, freshly picked and in perfect condition

February is the glorious month of the Orange. When I was a child, at Xmas (remember that far back?) we used to find an orange in our Father Xmas stockings. It was as though the sun had taken a piece of fruit and breathed optimism into it. Luscious and golden, it always cut through the miserable grey drivel of English life at that time of year when any psychologically healthy Brit would kill himself. All oranges, mandarins and clementines came from Spain in those days. This was before today when cabbage can be flown into Gatwick from New Zealand in August just because, well, just because we HAVE TO HAVE IT.

Anyway. Oranges are at their best now. In Spain I mean.

Mass Oranges 2013 detail

Winter Oranges

Posted by: John Perry | February 23, 2014

Farming in Southern Spain: the Mango in winter

Young mangos wrapped for the winter

Young mangos wrapped for the winter

We are now in deep winter. I am thinking of putting on a long sleeved shirt. Every other day though it seems like spring, with bright sunshine. Next day howling winds and a spit of rain. The trees don’t get much rest round here. They’ve hardly slipped into their winter sleep and its time to wake up again and grow flowers.

Cold is the enemy of the mango. Slip below ten degrees C and they start to suffer. When unforgiving winds whip the hills and lower temperatures, the mango leaves start to scorch, but this happens rarely. We never have frost and hardly ever snow.

Apart from the cold, mangoes are hard as nails, at least ours are. They are about twenty years old and have struck their roots deep into the red crumbly rock they stand in. Baby mangoes however, like all babies, need to be cossetted. Fleece bags in the winter and little green plastic sleeves for their trunks so they don’t get roasted by the summer sun. Later, whitewashing will reflect the summer sunlight and prevent the trunks from getting too hot.

The landscape of our part of the Axarquia is changing. Hill upon hill of almond, plum, pomegranate, olive, orange, grape fruit, lemon and, yes, even the great muscatel grape that dominated the landscape for centuries, are being bulldozed to make way for the mango, the latest fashionable easy cash crop, and the only place in Europe where this fruit can be produced.

A hill of baby mangoes with a first flush of Bermuda buttercups

A hill of baby mangoes with a first flush of Bermuda buttercups

Posted by: John Perry | February 23, 2014

Rosada: an update

In my post on Rosada, I said that it was only available frozen. In 2014 it  has appeared fresh on the fish slabs of Mercadonna in Velez Malaga. Here it is:

Fresh Rosada on the Mercadona slab

Fresh Rosada on the Mercadona slab

What is this about? Have these fish been flown from Venezuela so they are fresh at point of purchase, or have we got used to fish preserved in ice trays? Freshish?









Posted by: John Perry | February 17, 2014

Postcard from the Axarquia

The mountain at dawn

Mount Maroma at dawn

There’s something strange, fascinating, almost exotic about the Axarquia, the poorest part of Spanish Andalucia. Stand on the beach and you can see Africa. Look hard enough at that sixteenth century village church and you can see the Islamic mosque it was built on and even the Roman foundations beneath it. Turn north into the hills and you are immediately in “bandit country” – the name given to the region by Franco’s police, as they hunted down and exterminated the last democratic resistance after the civil war.

In earlier times during the fifteenth century, Jews and Muslims who had been driven from their homes by the conquering Christian armies or who had been forced to eat pig in the street to demonstrate that they had really converted to a belief in “the lamb of God”, hid in the impenetrable hills of the Axarquia and descended to the villages only to cut the throats of priests and landlords who had betrayed them.

Real bandits have also felt at home here. Travellers in the nineteenth century were warned away from the mountain tracks for fear of kidnap or robbery. In 1889 “El Bizco” the cross eyed bandit was gunned down at the olive mill in El Borge “OK Corral” style by a posse of Guardia on horseback.

There’s even an exotic feel to the name. The letter X in Axarquia was common to old Castilian (like Don Quixote) and Xarquía meant “territory to the east of a great city (Malaga) and dependent on it”. The Arabic word for Axarquia – “Sarqiyya”, meant “oriental or eastern territory”. Oriental indeed in the days when the world was a much larger place and a trek from the City of Malaga to the depths of the Lecrin valley might take several days by donkey or mule over unforgiving terrain. The Axarquia consists of rugged mountainous foothills defined by natural barriers – the Mountains of Malaga to the west, the Sierra Tejeda and the great Mount Maroma to the north. Even the coastal strip is an obstacle course of cliffs and coves only recently penetrated by tunnels and viaducts to make an almost finished coastal motorway.

Indeed roads are the biggest thing that’s happened to the Axarquia in the last hundred years. In the old days the road systems used to fan out, one path per village. Those were the days before you could  pass through a village to get somewhere else as you can now that villages are connected by ring roads. Before these, each community was so isolated that it developed its own culture and even had its own version of Spanish. Doctorates have been written on the distinct vocabulary of Almachar for example. The traditional way to travel before roads was to walk along the dry river bed. Villagers in Cútar still remember carrying invalids along the river track actually in their  beds to take them to the hospital in Velez-Malaga.

The view from Maroma

The view from Maroma

The region is relatively unspoilt, though you quickly discover that wherever the landscape is pretty or the view spectacular, some immigrant from northern Europe will have pulled down his trousers and taken a dump there, in the form of an ugly cortijo or urbanisation. The pristine whiteness of the buildings, established because the Moors required all houses to be lime washed annually against disease, makes the illegal builds stand out like sores on the landscape. Half built houses look like broken teeth. Unplanned excesses around the village of Alcaucin for example at the foot of Mount Maroma and set in natural parklands, now look as though a giant seagull flew across the mountain and shat down the side of it. When the village of Frigilliana won a prize as the prettiest village in the Axarquia, developers immediately moved in, clotting the landscape with jerry built urbanisations that you have to burrow through to find the old town. The landscape around Competa now looks like a Barratt housing estate.

The financial crisis in Spain has mercifully slowed the gluttonous building trade down sufficiently so that the law has a chance to catch up with it. Planning permission has now been taken away from village mayors and must be ratified in Seville, meaning that papers are less likely to be signed off by an official taking a bung from a local builder. The passing tourist may wonder why so many hills in the Axarquia have flat tops? Well they have been bulldozed and are waiting for planning permission to build. Hopefully they will have a long wait. Indeed this “crisis” may have saved the Axarquia. The authorities now know from experience that it’s very easy to allow greedy speculators to cover a beautiful landscape with random unplanned rubbish and very hard for them to remove it.  Anyone who doubts this should look west towards Marbella.

In spite of the worst excesses of the “something for nothing” brigade, the Axarquia remains one of the least spoilt stunningly beautiful landscapes, still populated by rural communities whose agricultural practices, because of the steep and difficult terrain, have changed little since the time of the Carthaginians.

sun on the sea

The coast east of Maro

Tourists who visit the region will usually jet into Malaga airport, one of the biggest and best known airports in Europe. Following refurbishment that has doubled its size, Malaga expects to handle more than 20 million passengers in 2015, and with some justification it describes itself as “Gateway to Europe and Africa”. The tourist who picks up a hire car and heads south to the coast would be well advised to not to turn right to the west, to toll roads, more McDonalds per square mile than anywhere in the world, and shopping arcades where a Spaniard needs an English dictionary to buy a coffee.
Better turn left instead and head east, to encounter the slow – low rise Spanish resorts, and after them the little bays and coves of the coastal nature reserves sometimes complete with coastal nudists and geriatric hippies. Anyone looking for an authentically slow Spanish experience, however, should drive east along the coast for half an hour, turn left again and strike north into the hills and the white villages of the rural Axarquia.
You might stay in one of the villages and live among the rural farmers, who are always friendly helpful and nosey. A little Spanish goes a long way there because no one speaks anything else, but if you only have a dictionary you can get by with gestures, drawings, hugs and loud laughter. People are patient . . . what’s the rush?
Take a holiday cottage and cater for yourself. That way you patronise the local shop and the bar, which makes you popular and you meet the people you are living with. Hint that you are interested in buying a house and you won’t be short of a drink.
The best and cheapest way to eat is as the locals do. Our neighbour, for example, takes a chamomile tea with half a shot of brandy at about 8am when he starts work. That takes him through to 10.30am, when he might have a hot bread roll, split and topped with macerated tomato and delicious local olive oil. Lunch is at 2.30pm. Lunch is the main meal of the day and here you get a three course meal and a drink for seven euros – the cheapest eat out in Spain. The first course is a potage or soup or paella, followed by a salad, followed by meat or fish with or without chips, then fruit or rice pudding or some sort of custard. If two people ask for a glass of “tinto” (red wine), they leave the bottle on the table.
Siesta follows. A little tapas before work starts again and a little more tapas after work at around 10pm and that’s it.
You will find restaurants but they are really for tourists and ex-pats. In fact the measure of the “authenticity” and “Spanishness” of a village is that it doesn’t have a restaurant. The traditional eating house here is the bar.
If you must dine out finely in the evening it’s quick and easy to drive to a resort or an ex-pat village. There you will find excellent restaurants, but isn’t it better value to sit on your terrace and barbecue something light fresh and tasty while you watch an old man prune his orange trees or a young man train his beautiful Andalucían horse as dusk falls at the far side of the valley?
The tourist board here is reassuringly incompetent. It has created a number of “routes” for those travellers incapable of planning a day out. For example, I live on the “Route of the Raisin”, which in Spanish is “Ruta de la Pasa”. Spanish adolescents have scrubbed out one leg of the R on “Ruta” to make it “Puta de la Pasa” or “Whore of the Raisin”. You can also experience the “Whore of sun and avocado” “The whore of sun and wine” the “Whore of the Moor” or “The whore of olive oil”. Only the board could turn a rural idyll into a Turkish brothel. How very exotic.

La Axarquia. Spring flowers

La Axarquia. Spring flowers

Posted by: John Perry | December 14, 2013

Farming in southern Spain – Eat your greens! Acelga

Acelga - a crop in every seasonLooking at the digital thermometer cum hydrometer on my desk, I see the temperature has dropped below 70 degrees. We seem to be in deep winter. I must consider putting on a long-sleeved shirt. And still it doesn’t rain. Hasn’t rained since March and a cold wind is blowing around all the dried up weeds I’ve raked into great piles along the terraces. Because I can’t burn the weeds. Not safely anyway. Not till it starts to rain. The heavy morning dew has encouraged snails – where on earth do they come from? The birds have taken their toll, so now I’m gathering what’s left of my crop of Acelga before I run out of water.

Once a week I go shopping in the supermarkets and drive down the winding tracks out of the hills to where everything turns flat and green. I am driving across the now bone dry flood plain of the river Velez. About a hundred years ago, when there used to be water in the river and floods for tens of thousands of years before that, a great river would run down to the sea. The sea would stop the raging freshwater dead in its tracks and the river would dump millions of tons of rich alluvial soil in a thick flat strip from the mouth of the Lecrin valley all the way down to Torre Del Mar.

It’s this strip that’s the colour of winter greens today.  Stuffed with cabbage, winter lettuce, leeks, Lombard (red) cabbage, cauliflower, and the “queen of greens”, Acelga. Farmers can make a good living down here whereas where I am up in the hills we still farm by hand as did the Romans and Carthaginians. Ha! try living on the wage of a Carthaginian agricultural labourer!

Alcelga is chard, and there are fields of it now around Velez. In most parts of the world it’s a spring to summer crop but its presence here in December reminds us that in the Axarquia there is a second spring in September when you can plant cabbages, onion and lettuce. If you are able to water them of course.

Acelga is known in English as  Swiss chard, white beet, strawberry spinach, sea kale beet, leaf beet, Sicilian beet, spinach beet, Chilian beet, Roman kale, and silver beet. Originally, chard was a corruption of the French word for cardoon, carde. Its Latin name is Beta vulgarisBeta is the Roman (Latin) word for beets.  Swiss chard is technically referred to either as “biete da costa” , coastal beet, because it originally thrived in the salty soil found along coasts, or as “biete da orta” – beet greens, because it was cultivated as a vegetable garden plant. The term “Swiss” bears no relevance to its origin, only to the ego of the scientist who named it. He was Swiss called Koch, who rather unscientifically named it after his homeland where it won’t grow. It will surprise no one to learn that the  Spanish word for Swiss chard is acelga, which comes from the Arabic word al-silq.

In fact al-silq is native to Spain and to the entire Mediterranean coast region. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about it in the fourth century B.C. The ancient Greeks and later the Romans regarded chard as a plant of great culinary and medicinal qualities

Only the leaves of the wild native plant were eaten and it was not until the first century that the ruby varieties with swollen roots – “beetroot” were created as cultivars of the wild plant. You now get red and yellow in the leaf varieties but the white is best for cooking. The coloured varieties are pretty but their stems are tough.chard

The Spanish grow white stemmed chard to such a massive size that it is almost unrecognisable to foreigners. A metre long with great white stalks, tied up in bundles with string it looks like an exotic monster. The Spanish liking for eating babies – fish, sheep and pigs, clearly doesn’t extend to vegetables. Chard of this size has to be treated two vegetables in one. The white stem which looks like celery is altogether different from the green leaf of the plant which resembles lush, thick spinach. You need to separate the stems and green leaves, cook the stems first in boiling water for about three minutes then drop the leaves in and boil till they wilt, another two minutes. You have to boil and not steam this vegetable in order to remove the oxalates that taste bitter and may have health issues for those with untreated kidney and gall bladder conditions.

Boiling however does not remove or detract from the fantastic health benefits of eating this vegetable. Swiss chard is an excellent source of vitamin K, manganese and magnesium, copper and calcium all of which contribute to the growth health and strength of bones. It is rich in the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E. For energy, it is rich in phosphorous and iron, vitamins B2 and  B6. It has significant muscle-building protein, and heart-healthy dietary fibre, potassium and folate. It is rich in vitamin B1, B5, in niacin and in zinc that supports the immune system .

Both the leaves and the roots of Swiss chard have been the subject of “phytonutrient” studies. “Phyto” is Greek for “plant” and these studies look at beneficial micro foods that come from plants. The fibre in chard seems particularly effective in preventing digestive tract cancers. Several research studies on chard focus specifically on colon cancer, where Swiss chard extracts or fibres have been found to reduce pre-cancerous lesions in animals. Preliminary animal research also suggests that Swiss chard may protect the kidneys of people with diabetes by reducing serum urea and creatinine levels. It is suspected anecdotally that eating the plant helps to regulate blood sugar.

In the kitchen it is one of the most versatile greens in the market. Isn’t it the truth that the when food is at its best -  delicious plentiful and cheap, it is often despised by the purchasing public? Cornish mackerel, Shetland mussels, fresh anchovies and sardines from Cadiz would, were they to quadruple in price become instant delicacies. This is true of fruit and veg, and acelga  is certainly as nutritionally power packed as pomegranate juice, so get it while you can before dietary fashion puts the price up!

The plant is hard as nails. If you live in a warm place as I do, all you need is water and it will grow all year round. Without water the plant tends to bolt. If this happens slice it back, water it and three or four little chards will grow from the stump. Or put a few seedlings from a garden centre in a pot, pick out the small leaves as they sprout and you can “cut and come again”. Mix the baby leaves into a green salad with lettuce, baby spinach and a little rocket. The sharpness and fatness of the leaves give depth to the salad.

Older chard should be blanched. Strip off the green, cut it into ribbons and drop it in boiling water for a couple of minutes, refresh in cold water, and it can be dressed in a vinaigrette and used as a salad. The young stems can be blanched for a little longer and similarly dressed and served with sweet pickled garlic and strips of Serrano ham.

Acelga is the food of peasants and they make great and tasty dishes of it. Its goes very well mixed with chick peas. During the dark days under Franco, impoverished rural communities would make best use of their raisin drying beds by sowing a catch crop of garbanzos in September, after the muscatel harvest. Chick peas can be combined with acelga to make a substantial and nutritious meal. Simmer some chick peas til tender, with a pinch of saffron if you have it for brilliant colour. Or marigold petals if you have them. Sweat an onion and a couple of garlic cloves til golden.  Wilt a few handfuls of Acela greens blanched and sliced into ribbons. Combine. The bright yellow of the peas and the dark green of the chard make an attractive dish – great with curries or those spiced Morroccan dishes. Add some toasted cumin or mustard seeds?

My wife makes a strudel using Acelga greens seasoned, combined with “provencal” herbs, garlic and chunks of freshly pressed goat cheese – the sort you can get at any village grocery. The cheese is mild, firm and delicious with no goat “taint” to it. She bakes the mixture wrapped in three or four sheets of filo pastry you can buy ready made at Eroski’s. Like all Acelga dishes, you can tart it up. Add toasted pine kernels, toasted almonds, or walnuts and soaked muscatel raisins with some cheese especially “Cabrales” – a delicious Spanish blue goat cheese.

Those of you on the 5:2 diet might consider acelga for your starvation days. It has just 18 calories per 100 grams. Stew some in stock and top with a carefully poached egg (75 calories). 50grams of Feta cheese (130 cals) on top with plenty of fresh ground pepper and stick under the grill? 220 calories for lunch?  Or make a simple revuelto by combining a couple of scrambled eggs (150 cals)with a handful of wilted acelga (18 cals). 168 calories altogether -  you know it makes sense!

Young chard

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