Posted by: John Perry | September 18, 2014

Mangoes at the Mayorista

Crated mangoes 2

Mangoes at the Mayorista. Three times last year’s crop

According to Keats, September is the season of “Mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Not here in the Axarquia though, where we small farmers dream every night of mists and mellowness. Any time of year will do.

Now in September we are experiencing the worst drought in 150 years and the hills, usually green all through the year are starting to fade under the blistering sun. Of all the mixed fruit of the little hill farms, almonds have suffered the worst. Many almond orchards are dead or dying. Muscatel grape, the absolute cash staple and icon of the region, has this year produced only half its expected crop. Thirsty avocados are wilting, the citrus is crisping and curling and it’s touch and go for any baby fruit tree that hasn’t, so to speak, got its feet under the table. Mangoes on the other hand, contemptuous of the weather, have produced record crops, three times the weight of last year’s, now tipping 20,000 tonnes, with an expected total of 25,000 tonnes by the time the late varieties have been gathered at the end of October.

Our little parcela of mixed fruit includes a couple of dozen mango trees and we are presently harvesting and taking them to market. They are our only cash crop.

We have a Kangoo van (of course)  that takes about twenty five standard mango crates, so we can get about 150 kilos of fruit at a time to market. We would normally have sold them at the co-operative in Trapiche, but it has mysteriously closed down and the nearest now is at Algorrobo. So this year we decided to market our little crop commercially, at the “Mercado Mayorista” in Velez-Malaga.

We usually cut our mangoes in the evening when the sun goes down. We try to take the best and biggest first to offer consistent quality and hope that the whole “lot” will make a premium price at auction. You have to cut mangoes with three or four centimetres of stem on them so that burning sap from the cut doesn’t squirt into your eye or over the fruit, lowering its value. Mangoes are like pears – wonderful on their day but like wood if not ripe enough and rotten tasting if overripe. So you have to cut them when green and let them ripen together in their crate. The fruit needs a good week of ripening time left in it if the greengrocer is to show off the fruit  in very best condition and ready to eat.

We sell our fruit to the Atencia Brothers, who ship it out in great articulated lorries

We cut fruit Sunday evening and set off first thing on the Monday for the Mayorista, rattling past serried ranks of baby mangoes that now cover the hills. In the winter these babies are wrapped in fleece because frost kills mangoes.That’s why the southern Axarquia is the only tiny part of Europe where it’s possible to grow mangoes commercially. God help the rural economy if we get a frost!  In the summer baby mangoes each wear a smart green plastic sock to stop the sun roasting their little trunks.

A hill of baby mangoes in their winter fleece

A hill of baby mangoes in their winter fleece.

The Mayorista market consists of a massive warehouse with a cafe/bar on one end. Driving in from the direction of lake  Vinuela it is unmistakable with its huge car park and great freight lorries. Surrounding it are smaller warehouses that supply all needs from those of agribusiness to those of ex patriot garden lawns. When we came here ten years ago, we thought that “mayorista” meant “elderly”. Of course “Mayorista” also means wholesale and this market is where the greatest as well as the tiniest farmers (us) bring their produce to have it auctioned. At this time of year the warehouse is a harvest festival of produce – you can find chestnut, cherimoya, mango, raisins, runner beans, almonds, melon, tomato, peppers, and so on and so on. The gateways are filled with small retailers and grocers filling their vans with the week’s stock of fruit and veg, while great articulated lorries at the other end are loading tons of produce to heave around the world. But this market is not just for wholesale buyers. You can buy as little as a single crate here, so anyone planning a vegetarian fiesta or any sort of fiesta would do well to drop by. Drop by anyway, the mercado is well worth a visit and browsers are tolerated so long as they don’t get them selves run over by farmers, barrow boys and hall porters weighing and stacking the fruit.

The” Atencia Brothers” are the Mayorista agents for mangoes. I enter the reception/weighing post. There are two administrative staff. The most important is a man who bears a moustache consistent with his authority. He does nothing but clap people on the back, shake hands with farmers and look sceptically at the fruit. His assistant, a young woman, is run off her feet. I wait in the queue until there is literally no one left.

Reception room and weigh bay at the Atencia Brothers

Reception room and weigh bay at the Atencia Brothers

She throws me a  venomous look.“Dime”. I blotted my copybook last week when signing for my mango crates. You have to sign on a triplicate pad, and of course when I got the bottom copy, it had no marks on it at all. I showed it to her,  remarking in what I thought was a light-hearted and charming manner, that I hadn’t seen carbon paper used in business since 1984. She was not amused. She remembers me.

“Cuanto?” I am at a loss. How many? “Twenty five” I reply in my finest Castilian Spanish. “Twenty five mangoes?” she sneers, the hint of a grin playing on her thin lips. “Crates” I say. “YES. HHHHHOW MENY?” She tosses me the gob of atrocious English, spoken slowly and loudly, reminding me of a London bus conductor of the 1950’s addressing an Asian immigrant. “You mean the weight?” I say. “I don’t know what they weigh. You’re supposed to weigh them.” I say, indicating the huge weigh plate next to her. She looks past me, gesturing exasperation to the amused farmers gathering in the background. It transpires that I am supposed to guess the weight of my fruit. She then has it weighed and dispels my fantasy of what I think I have produced. She then writes down the actual weight in triplicate using carbon paper, giving me the bottom copy. Again it has no marks on it, so she writes the weight in  very large numbers, so that my feeble foreign brain can grasp it. A hundred and forty-three  kilos. They take 14%. I shall be lucky to clear 50€ for the lot. Pay day is in November. They require my NIE number for tax purposes.

When Maria and Antonio, our neighbours sold us our parcela of sub tropical fruit trees, they told us that they were the very first farmers in the Axarquia to grow mangoes. Well they would, wouldn’t they? In those days apparently you couldn’t market them – the wholesalers didn’t care for new-fangled ideas, so Antonio had to sell them from a van direct to restaurants and hotels for “enormous” amounts of money. It’s very different today. Five years ago farmers tipped their lemon crop into the Rio Velez saying it was cheaper to do that than to take them to market. Oranges and lemons were coming in from Morocco, Valencia was undercutting the Axarquia so farmers pulled up and burned their citrus groves and planted mangoes instead. Today grape farmers say that it takes as much work to produce a muscatel pasa (raisin) as it does to produce a mango. A raisin weighs next to nothing whereas a mango weighs a kilo. So where they can, they are ploughing up the grape and planting mango. Avocados need water now, just when there isn’t any but  once a mango tree is established it can swell and set fruit even in times of drought. Obviously, where the avocado is dying, plant mangoes. Same with almonds. So this landscape of  sub tropical mixed fruit is losing almost by the month the extreme beauty of its cultivated hills. The huge range of produce, the mixture of shape colour shade and texture is giving way to a vast uniform army of mangoes with their serried ranks of glossy palmate evergreen leaves. As the fruit floods and overwhelms the market the price it fetches of course, plummets. Farmers are very conservative and reluctant to take an innovative step unless it feels safe, but once their neighbour makes a profit, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Fashion in mangoes also changes as the competition hots up. Ten years ago our “Tommies” were the tops, but last years the Mayorista only wanted “Osteen”. Any fruit farmer will tell you that you can’t change your fruit trees like your underwear. It takes five years to rear a tree from sapling to fruit-bearing . And the price per kilo! Two years ago we got eighty cents per kilo for our best mangoes. This year we will be lucky to get fifty. Fifty cents? I’m going fishing for tourists. They are the best crop I know!

Sensation. Ready to eat and sweet as honey

Ready to eat late cropping variety called “Sensation”. The size of a man’s fist and sweet as honey

Posted by: John Perry | August 20, 2014

Almond time

Fruit of the Almond (Prunus Dulcis)

We are bringing in the summer fruit,  Summer harvest, like the winter harvest reminds me of childhood Christmases in England. Our fig trees are heavy with higosthe second crop. These figs are the little sweet fruit, very different from the fat watery brevas of spring. Judy sterilizes them in boiling water for a few seconds, threads them on wooden skewers and hangs them from our clothes horse to dry. I remember summer figs as Christmas treats, squashed into a box and dusted with something white that wasn’t sugar. Flour I think.

Almonds are also ready and here in the hills they need to be picked immediately at the height of the summer heat when the caulk splits back to reveal a fat wet nut inside. If you don’t shuck almonds as soon as they are ready, even a little shower of rain will make the case roll back over the nut and stick to it like glue. Then it’s hell’s own job to get the nuts out.

My childhood memory is of the Xmas mixed nut bowl that consisted largely of almonds mixed with walnuts hazelnuts and Brazils. Pistachios and other posh fripparies were unheard of.  A child’s hand is not strong, so you hoped for a walnut that would shatter satisfying under the crackers. Failing that a hazel nut, and finally you could try several Brazils in the hope that one might split and you could pick out the meat with a fork. Almonds were hopeless. You might as well try to crack a steel nut on the end of a bolt. If Uncle Fred came round on Boxing day, he might get your Dad’s four pound claw hammer and smash almonds in the kitchen, against one of your Mum’s delicate working surfaces, which never looked quite the same again. By the time you took the decorations down and everything had gone – the Cadbury’s selection box, Huntley and Palmers’ mixed biscuits, peanuts and raisins, dates, dried figs and the mixed nuts – the almonds at the bottom of the bowl remained. Mum would decant these into a smaller more decorated bowl and put them on the side until about June, where they attracted spare stamps, hair grips, paper clips anonymous keys and the like. She would then dust them down and slip them into a paper bag next to the spare crackers and serviettes, ready for next Xmas. Like people, almonds get harder with age.

The ancient almond trees on our parcelas however, are good as gold.

Cascade of flowering sweet almond trees

Cascade of flowering sweet almond trees

The trees are typical of the mixed fruit landscape of the Axarquia and stand out clearly with their soot black trunks. In January and February these are smothered in white or pink blushed blossom that shimmers and blows in the winter winds. The early blossom is vulnerable to hail and heavy rain bursts, however the Axarquia is more or less frost free so these cold-tender trees do well on more or less any terrain that’s well drained. They grow on the steep upper slopes where not much else will grow and while they respond mightily to a little TLC and some water, they don’t need it and once established will survive and produce on their own.

The almond is a tree of Chinese origin that spread into the middle east by merchants travelling along the ancient Silk Road.

 Almonds come in packets, their shells, that keep them good for years and  are highly portable and very nutritious, so were always a practical food for merchants on the move or nomadic tribes. They are a great source of vitamins and minerals if you more or less only eat grain  – rich in calcium and vitamin E, high in protein and cholesterol free fat and mineral rich. Unsurprisingly in this era of celebrity fruit and veg., all sorts of superstitions abound regarding their status as a “wonder food” . These range from old wives tales to current medical fashion, all to be taken with an identically large pinch of salt, but here’s a list of the medically fashionable ones just for fun:

Almonds reduce heart attack risk, almonds protect the artery walls, almonds lower blood sugar, almonds aid weight loss, build strong teeth, aid brain function, moderate the nervous system and support the immune system. What a surprise.  All you readers who aren’t stuffing yourselves with almonds must be amazed you are still alive!

Almonds may have come to Spain via the Romans (no not the Moors! They didn’t do everything!) who were very aware of their culinary merits and regarded them as an aid to  fertility. Sugared almonds were given as wedding gifts and almonds were scattered like confetti at weddings.

Spain is now the second largest producer of almonds in the world, and Andalucia makes the largest contribution to that crop. Almonds are a drupe, which means that they are part of the family of plums and peaches and like almost all fruiting trees, they are cultivated by grafting fruiting wood onto more vigorous growing wood called root-stock. The growing root-stock on a modern tree is likely to be peach, but our old Spanish trees are grafted onto bitter almond.

Bitter almonds are produced by the wild almond tree, which is very vigorous. It is a sub species (Prunus amygdalus var. amara) of Prunus Dulcis and the little nuts taste bitter because they contain glycoside amygdalin. When eaten, glycoside amygdalin turns into prussic acid, which is  hydrogen cyanide, the very theatrical  and deadly poison popular in murder mysteries. We shouldn’t get carried away though,  glycoside amygdalin is also present in apple pips and people who eat apples aren’t dropping dead. An adult would have to eat about fifty nuts to get ill, however it is illegal to grow or sell these nuts in the USA or the UK although they are very widely available in Spain.

Here in the village one or two bitter nuts are put into the mix of ground almonds for that added almond savour. Bitter almonds also figure in herbal remedies for spasms, pain and coughs. Volatile oils not to be taken by mouth are made from bitter almonds and these oils can also be produced from all the drupes that are the other members of almond family including apricot (Prunus armeniaca), peach (Prunus persica), and plum (Prunus domestica). Like the bitter almond, all these  fruit stones contain glycoside amygdalin and the volatile oils made from them are considered poisonous.

Spain has a variety of sweet almonds. You can buy soft shell almonds these days but they are not Spanish. Spanish hard shell almonds are usually grown on dry farmed orchards and if, like ours they are on steep hillsides they are very difficult and dangerous to harvest. If you can find anywhere to lay an olive net, that’s the best way. Lay it round the tree and then beat the tree with a long cane. You always lose a percentage of the crop. Production from non irrigated trees is lower than on the large irrigated orchards, and sometimes our trees miss a year or produce every other year. But dry farmed almonds from the hills are of outstanding quality because of their high oil content which makes them moister and better flavoured. There are five main commercial types – Marcona, Largueta, Planeta, Valencias (Common Almond) and Majorca. The first three are native.

Our Marcona almonds. They are plump and very sweet. The darker ones are last years still hanging onto the tree

Our Marcona almonds. They are plump and very sweet. The darker ones are last years still hanging onto the tree

We have a big Marcona tree, and this yields our favourite almonds – five or six kilos every year with no water and no care. Regarded by the Spanish as the best dessert nuts, they taste like butter and make California almonds taste like wood. Marconas are ground up and mixed with Spanish honey to make finest nougat.

Foods and confections from almonds are almost too many to mention. Before they built the roads, ground almonds were a substitute for flour and as you would expect almond sauce is the ubiquitous dressing for any meat in the Axarquia, also the famous ajo blanco soup the “white gaspacho” is typical of this area. Many speciality almond biscuits and cakes are made here. Almond sweets with a hard white sugar coating called peladillas are a traditional Spanish Christmas treat.  Spanish almonds are always used in the production of the highest-quality turrón and marzipan. At ferias and along the streets in winter arises the candy floss perfume of garrapiñadas, almonds coated with caramelized sugar. You can buy almonds roasted and salted on any street corner at any time of the year.

Grove of old almonds in bloom

Grove of old almond trees in bloom


 

These chicks are nine days old and live in a "brooder" - an artificial mother chicken

These chicks are nine days old and live in a “brooder” – an artificial mother chicken

I thought you’d like to see these baby chickens. A month ago I ordered two dozen fertile eggs from Lugo in Galicia, north west Spain. They arrived the following day, 27 eggs packed tight in sawdust. I set 24 in an incubator, 5 were clear (unfertilised) and from the remaing 19, 14 hatched.

Gallina  chick, Piñeira with full eye make up

Gallina Piñeira chick with full eye make up

Piñeira are a new race of chickens developed from the  campo (countryside) chickens of Galicia, developed by a vet who has a special interest in poultry in association with elderly chicken farmers of Galicia, whose chickens were almost wiped out by the incursion of the Rhode Island Red – an American commercial chicken quicker growing and more productive than the  Piñeira.

chick face

The breeding programme was started 20 years ago by a vet called Arzua Jesus Garcia Rodriguez who wanted to preserve a typical Galician hen. He wanted to preserve a non commercial, slow growing breed, a hen absolutely adapted to its environment, not needing special facilities to breed, nor a commercially fortified food.

Four chicks drinking from a dish. You have to put in marbles so they don't drown

Four chicks drinking from a dish. You have to put in marbles so they don’t drown

He aimed for a fertile breed that was a dual purpose bird, good for meat and eggs, capable of laying at least 150 per year with no special food or artificial lighting. Using local farmers he sought to use what remained of the existing gene pool to develop the rare breed that had existed before the arrival of the Romans 2000 years ago. So the chickens are a new breed and a rare breed and an ancient breed, which even in ancient times was on the verge of extinction because the size of the cock’s comb was an aphrodisiac symbol to the Romans, and the Piñeira has a small comb!

Portrait 2

They are tough as anything – ballsy little birds already flying, which is unusual for domestic chickens. The cock bird when fully grown has a magnificent spectrum of colours from reds and yellow to the green sheend black, but the hen is patterned in brown and black and  has the mottled feathers of a pine cone. Hence the name “Piñeira” – like a pine cone. The meat is supposed to taste  like a cross between chicken and game. We will have to wait a while to find out!

Posted by: John Perry | July 8, 2014

Wonderful carob

Green Carob detail with landscape

Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) is also know St John’s Bread or, in Spanish Algorrobo

In 1974, at the beginning of my working life, I joined something called a “co-operative” , based in Kentish Town. It was run by an elderly (we thought so anyway – he was in his 30’s) American gentleman who described himself as a Maoist. He paid University graduates £6 per week – but only if they needed it. No stamp no pension no holiday pay, real communism in action. He spent the day reinventing the world and we challenged it by debating, for example,  whether it was acceptable for us to have our own clothes or whether a communal wardrobe might make life fairer.  We thought we stood for life and liberty, but were really just another bunch of neo-puritans arrogant enough to think we could tell everyone else how to live.It was during that brief era of alternative careers.

Camden Council had moved the entire working class of Kentish Town out of their homes to build them smart new flats. The council subsequently discovered it didn’t have the money to do it and so had a load of empty property on its hands. Afraid of  being squatted, it let houses go at a “peppercorn” rent to anyone who’d keep a building locked up and maintained. Terrible for ratepayers but who cared? We moved in, so did all sorts of other alternative types including purveyors of alternative food.

Just down the road from us was an “alternative” wholefood snack bar selling fashionable grey slabs of brown rice, lentils and barley, all cooked we were told with “kindness”, though how you can boil anything kindly defeats me.  We were served by a person with yellowing skin and incipient herpes scarcely recovered from last night’s binge and trailing an unhappy two year old plastered with dirt and grease from a shop floor that smelled faintly of mice. In the shop window was a tray of Carob cake, touted as the “alternative” to chocolate which, we were told was “evil”. Don’t ask me why.

I was pruning our lovely Carob tree yesterday and all this came back to me, though I doubt the north London junkies ever knew where any of their their powders came from. The carob is a true native tree, not just to Spain but of the entire Mediterranean coast. It can grow right down to the seaside being salt tolerant. It thrives on drought, loves rocky terrain and will spring up to thirty feet high while your back is turned. I looked up to see its great shiny pods – hundreds of them among leathery glossy evergreen leaves that burn poorly and make the Carob tree the foresters’ choice when planting firebreaks in mountain forests.

Each carob pod contains a sweet pulp and several bean-like seeds. You eat the pod not the seeds, though the seeds have their use, being absolutely uniform in size and shape. This made them useful as a measurement of weight in antiquity. The word for “carob seed” in Greek kerátion(κεράτιον), evolves into the Arabic qīrāṭ (قيراط), which in the mid 15th century English becomes “carat” the unit measure for gold! Get it?

Carob pods, dried and ripened

Carob pods, dried and ripened

Ground up Carob pod, raw or roasted is a very fine food, though its reputation has suffered partly because it is sold in “health food” shops as a substitute for chocolate. It is no more like chocolate than chicory is like coffee. It has its own flavour, more akin to caramel than chocolate, especially when roasted. Carob is also denigrated because here in Spain  it was always the food of the poor peasant, resorted to in times of famine. Spanish farmers now feed it to their donkeys. Last year some enterprising mid European workers asked us and our neighbours for the right to glean the pods for animal food.

Processed and sometimes roasted and ground to a powder for human consumption it is quite expensive though you may think as I do that that life is too short to pick the pods, boil them, split them to take out the seeds, dry and roast them before pulverising them in a coffee grinder.

Bought or home made, carob is one of the finest and healthiest forms of sugar you can eat. The sugar content can be higher than 50 percent in varieties harvested for direct human consumption. Carob contains 7 to 16 percent glucose or simple sugar and 7 to 16 percent fructose or fruit sugar.  It also contains 50 to 70 percent sucrose, which is like table sugar. The great difference between serving refined sugar and carob sugar is that carob is very rich in fibre and this slows the absorption into the bloodstream as well as contributing to a high fibre diet, making it a heart-healthy ingredient that can benefit your cardiovascular and digestive systems. One of the components of carob fibre is Pinitol, which has been shown to regulate blood glucose and therefore has potential value for diabetics. Carob flour has 41 grams of fiber per American cup — 2.4 grams per English tablespoon. To assess the difference between commercial sugar and carob sugar it’s useful to look at their position on the Glycemic Index. This tells you the speed with which sugar is absorbed into the blood stream. The quicker the absorption the worse the food is for you and the crankier the person eating it,  because it produces a spike of high energy that suddenly goes out, leaving a depressive under energised  person behind. The higher the GI number the quicker the absorption and the worse the food. Glucose syrup scores 100, carob powder scores 15.

Its worth mentioning micro nutrition in connecting with Carob – those ingredients which, occurring in miniscule quantities have created “wonder foods” out of fruit such as as pomegranate among the fashionably inclined urban middle classes. In 100 grams of carob flour there are about 200 milligrams of flavonoids and flavanols, which have anti inflammatory and anti oxidant functions in the body. They are supposed to  benefit circulation and aid the burning of body fat.

If you want to buy carob flour and try it on your family before you discover that the public has read this, bought all the carob and put the price up, you can flavour milk with it, or add it to breakfast cereal or bake with it. It is useful wherever sugar, especially added sugar is required, though you will need more than if you used commercial sugar. Or what about the inevitable breakfast bar get say 100 grams of  almonds, chopped 300grams of whole oats and 50 grams of sesame seeds. Roast them golden and let them cool. Then finely chop up 150 grams each of best Axarqian moscatel raisins and the same of best Axarquian figs. Add three or four tablespoons of carob flour and mix in enough softened butter to bind. Taste for sweetness and add a little honey if necessary. Press into a square pan and put in the fridge to set. Cut into fingers. Something like that!!

 

 

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.

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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.

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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

Caballeros

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

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