Posted by: puebloman | October 21, 2014

Chefchaouen and the gentle art of Haggling

Women selling mint and coriander in the medina at Chefchouen

Women selling mint and coriander in the Medina at Chefchaouen.(Photo by Jude Farrar)  Every so often one sails into the square with a tray full  of toffee sized soaps wrapped in cellophane and dubiously perfumed. One for 10 dirham (€1). Buy one and you get three for 20 dr (€2). Do that and your friend gets a special offer. And so on . . . these women are a lot sharper than they look!

When I was very young and lived in Portsmouth, me and mum would go to Charlotte Street market when she wasn’t at work or being a post-war housewife, and insult the market traders. She took me to the market to show me what would happen to me if I didn’t work hard at school. Mum worked at Marshall’s and at  Woolworth’s and thought herself a cut above stall holders.  “I wouldn’t be so thick with them” she would say, which I’ve worked out means that she wouldn’t help them cheat her. She was very sharp, loudly pointing out to me in my push chair, that the brilliant display on their stall was not what you got when you bought the fruit. You got the “pecked stuff” behind the counter. She would insist on the trader dismantling his display, although for all her bluster I can never recall her asking for a reduction in the price. She would feel demeaned. If she was buying something big like a ‘fridge and she had cash though, she would expect a bit off.

Taking the moral high ground and striking a threatening pose was enough to ensure that you got value for money in weight or quality or both and that the trader would be less likely to cheat you. If you returned to the same trader regularly, you could expect him to give you a special deal – “Ah Mrs Perry! I have something here you might like – kept some back for you!” and so on. It was up to the trader to add value to the transaction and keep his customer. As I got older, if I came back from the market with a “Rolex” watch powered by an elderly cockroach that expired in twenty-four hours, or a bag of overripe fruit that would yield under the weight of mother’s finger, she would look me in the eye and say “He saw you coming”.

Markets haven’t changed much since then, though there has never been a custom  in English  food markets for the buyer to try to haggle down the price of the goods. Can you imagine going to the poncy London Borough market today and saying ” A hand-crafted Cornish pasty with slivers of Dexter topside, small-diced French fingerling potatoes and “hand-shaved” Kentish swede for eight quid? I’ll give you two, and think yerself lucky!” I don’t think so.

The great British car boot and the old flea markets on the other hand, now sadly “cleaned up” by the general gentrification of the inner cities can still be still great theatres of British barter. My wife Judy is obsessed, and has hauled me along to them for decades saying “you never know!” And she’s quite right. I once went to a car boot looking for a second-hand cello bow and a 1960′s retro coffee grinder. I found both and knocked each one down for a fiver, on the first stall I came to.

 

Ali

My friend, my name is Ali, and you must buy from me today because tomorrow I am gone. In the morning I leave for Fez, then to Marrakech  and thence into the desert sands to emerge, God willing, but when? Take a photograph my friend as a token, and buy today.  For we may never meet again .

So why are Brits so gauche and unconfident when it comes to bargaining and buying in a Moroccan Souk (arabic expression meaning “the market neighbourhood)? When I talk to friends they seem worried about “hassle” and many otherwise adventurous tourists are put off by “hassle”, but  surely “hassle”  is really only cultural difference?  In the mother country we Brits are “hassled” day and night waking and sleeping, to buy things we neither want nor need. There is hassle on billboards, radio, television to buy buy buy – much more violently than any Moroccan street trader who invites you into his shop. In our country “hassle” doesn’t stop at the street either. It comes right into our living rooms and bedrooms. At the moment I am watching an advert for biotic (or is it bionic?) yoghurt. Five beautiful women of a certain age are discussing  how they pass wind while enjoying a morning coffee in one of their kitchens . I begin to yearn to join that happy band, or at least to transform my kitchen into an ideal, cosy, fart free idyll by the simple purchase of a moderately priced dairy product. Hassle. I am endlessly slapped in the face by the orange and red plastic of hamburger joints – colours that make me drool for a slab of minced beef like an experimental dog.  I’m not offended  by this slurry of adverts because it’s normal life. We are hassled en mass. It is normal and ordinary, we buy and sell like mad things and that’s why we are richer than Moroccans. I don’t know what a Moroccan market trader would make of it though.

One difference is that for us shopping is a literary experience. The prices are all written down and we like to read them and read the product description. Shopping is also private. We have an internal private discussion with ourselves about whether to buy without the shop keeper interrupting. So when that market trader comes up to me in the Souk  and makes me an offer I can’t refuse I feel “hassled”. Of course it isn’t hassle! Why shouldn’t I accept an invitation to go into a shop to drink green tea?  Or into someone’s brother’s shop that just happens to be on the way to where I actually wanted to go? What’s wrong with meeting a young man’s mother, who is in fact a virgin? Well perhaps not . .

No photos! What do you want? Here is a man, there are fish. What more to say?

No photos! What do you want? Here is a man, there is fish. What more to say?

I lost my fear of being sold into white slavery when I turned sixty, so here are my tips for surviving the Souk.

My first tip is to SMILE. I don’t say this as an expert in smiling. My mother used to say “For God’s sake smile! It’ll change your life!” I didn’t and it didn’t. Mum was not renowned for her smile either so perhaps it’s genetic. When I was in the Navy I was called to the captain’s cabin to be told that my face was bad for morale. So before I go a haggling I practice smiling in front of the mirror.

Always smile when you are saying “No”. It eases the pain for both  parties. Being offended is part of the salesman’s tool kit so don’t offend by expressions of irritation or tightness. Ideally, come across as a fruity old buffer who loves everyone and agrees with everything. If someone invites you down a side alley, smile wave and say something like “Of course dear heart!” as you walk in the opposite direction. Agree that the rug is beautiful, the only one of its kind, is made by a co-operative of starving women, and laugh charmingly when he asks you to buy.

Secondly KNOW YOUR PITCH. At today’s rate a Moroccan Dirham (MAD) is worth about €0.90, so if you estimate ten Dirhams  to the euro you will be about right. If a trader wants 500 Dirham  for a rug, he is asking for about €50. The convention is to offer just over a half of the asking price and settle at between two-thirds and three-quarters. The more you are pressured the more you laugh. “I couldn’t possibly pay that much”, “I simply can’t afford that” is a much better gambit than. “How dare you! Are you trying to cheat me?” Remember you are on holiday. You are not some scum bag ex pat in Africa to rip off honest traders, neither are you a fool who comes to Africa to be bullied into paying more than he would in Spain.

Travelling salesman with his brooms and brushes

Travelling salesman with his brooms and brushes

Thirdly REMEMBER IT’S ALL A GAME. The stakes are much higher for the trader than they are for you. You are on holiday remember. The worst that can happen to you is that you pay a little more than necessary while learning to haggle. Look on it as a small tuition fee. He has to feed his family so he needs all the sales he can get. Very skilled traders can make you feel like a lifelong friend, or an imperialist interloper or a man who has traduced their honour, in a few minutes. Within a few more minutes they will have forgotten all about you and be on to the next customer. Whereas if you are inexperienced or like me you will cling on to the feeling of having been “done” and seethe all week.On no account give in to the temptation to feel guilty. Guilt is the first step to anger and if you get angry there goes your holiday

Goat trading inthe main square

.  Goat trading in the main square

PAY FOR HELP. You won’t know where everything is and you’ll probably ask for directions or need other minor assistance from the locals. It’s a good idea to have some ten and twenty Dirham notes in your pocket. These represent one or two euros. If someone physically takes you where you want to go, does some research for you, enlists other local help, guides you through the crowd to the restaurant you are looking for, a small tip completes the transaction and usually ends the relationship. It’s an efficient way of getting round a strange place and your generosity doesn’t actually cost you much.

Last of all,put yourself into the hands of God, even if you are an atheist. ITS NOT YOUR FAULT. You will win some and you will lose some. There is an element of luck and chance in the art of haggling, and you are never entirely in control. Enjoy your winnings and forgive yourself your mistakes. You can make a mistake just as easily in a conventional British store. When I think all that yoghurt I ate –  and I still fart like a trooper!

 

 

 

Posted by: puebloman | October 11, 2014

Chefchaouen, a long weekend in the Blue City of Morocco

 

The original blue pigment from what I have read, was derived from a type of Murex shell, which is usually a shade of royal purple once prized by the Romans and Byzantine empires.  Is was brought by the Jews, to whom it is sacred

The original blue pigment in which Chefchaoen is painted was made by grinding a special type of Murex shell. Murex also yields a shade of royal purple, which was prized by the Roman and Byzantine empires. The blue was brought to the town by Jews, to whom it is sacred

In 1970 I was an officer under training in the Royal Navy. In my second year I was posted to HMS Eagle, docked at Gibraltar for refit. Gibraltar is the Croydon of the Costa del Sol, boring as hell and remarkable only for duty-free fags.  The captain decided to send us on “exped”. We were to walk the Rif Atlas mountains with no kit under the command of an army chap known as the “Mad Major”. He packed a heavy revolver but was better company in the open air than cooped up in a dry dock. We flew to Tangier in what felt like a motorbike with wings, and bussed to Tetuan. From there we walked into the hills, sleeping in the open under huge stars, hiring donkeys to carry our packs from village to village. In those days the towns were edgy and violent but in the villages we experienced the genuine and ordinary kindness of people much poorer than we were.

The blue washed streets are restful to the eye after the starker white villages of Andalucia

The blue washed streets are restful to the eye after the starker white villages of Andalucia

Well, that was some time ago. These days I prefer my holidays a bit less swashbuckling, so when we started to plan a weekend in Morocco with a couple of friends we looked for somewhere reliable that we could explore on foot for a couple of days. We wanted an exotic, African setting with enough home comforts to make the experience a relaxing one. These included having a nice bed to sleep in, some good eating places, and retail opportunities that didn’t involve getting chased down the street or “hassled” as our friends put it. So we chose to explore the Medina at Chefchaouen or Chauoen – the Blue City of Morocco, which lies about one and a half hour’s drive south of Tangier.

Chaouen is related to Andalucia and in some respects extends it because to this little town, tucked in a fold of the mountains and hidden from the world, many Jews and Moslems fled, persecuted and expelled from Spain by Spanish Christians in 1560. These refugees bought an additional level of skill learning and culture to an already mature civilization, and also an understandable hatred of Christians. No Christian was admitted into the city until 1920, when the Spanish army marched in and the it became part of Spanish Sahara. Since those times this deeply orthodox  Moslem city has opened itself to foreign visitors while maintaining its traditional  lifestyle. The Medina itself is populated by arab workers and, at a time when everything beautiful has its price, hasn’t yet been flogged off to rich foreigners.

As a tourist you are never sure how you will be received because the whole country is in a turmoil of transition regarding its attitude to foreigners. Tourism is a major source of income for Morocco and like Andalucia it knows that if tourists run roughshod over its culture it will soon have nothing left to to sell.

My wife Judy did all the work planning this. She booked a long weekend (2 nights) for four of us in two double rooms. You can extend to three nights for a bit extra. She used an agency called SMS vacaciones, and booked an “Escapada a Chaouen” holiday. Judy “upgraded” our accommodation for an additional €15 per head. We have found that it’s good value to do this. The entire package cost €703.12. That’s about  €178 per head. The package includes return ferry ticket from Tarifa to Tangier, transport by car/bus to Chauoen and back, and two nights bed and breakfast in the “Dar Echchauoen”. “Dar” means big house, but it is in fact hotel like in the sense that it does have a permanently manned reception but has no bar. There are about ten hotels to choose from (slightly different prices) and one is called the Parador. It isn’t a real Parador. It has a bar serving beer and spirits at exalted prices, poor value food and possibly the filthiest toilets in Morocco so avoid it. We were very pleased with the Dar Echchaouen and with the whole package we got from SMS. This consisted of vouchers for the boat, transport and hotel plus Mapfre travel insurance and papers for passport control.

There are hundreds of little workshops honeycombing the narrow streets of the Medina. Carpenters, silversmiths, tailors, loom weavers, shoemakes and so on. This is a handcarver's workshop selling walking sticks, honey pots, bowls, kitchen utensils and knife handles

There are hundreds of little workshops honeycombing the narrow streets of the Medina. Carpenters, silversmiths, tailors, loom weavers, shoemakers and so on. This is a handcarver’s workshop selling walking sticks, honey pots, bowls, kitchen utensils and knife handles

Our ship, a turbo-catamaran called a “Jet” left Tarifa at 12 am and we had to check in an hour in advance. The journey from Velez-Malaga took three hours including a break for me. I was the only driver so I insist on a break if I feel even a bit sleepy. I always fall into a deep sleep immediately, and I am completely refreshed after 15 minutes. Then I can drive all day. The car trip including the break took three hours and cost about €15 in toll roads round Marbella. These roads are good value especially if, like me, you drive an elderly and beat up Kangoo that finds it hard to overtake.

Tarifa, though further west than Algeciras, it is a much nicer place to leave your car for the weekend. While Algeciras is a scabby port teaming with scum bags and wide boys, Tarifa has the genteel air of a broken down seaside resort. We parked for nothing just outside of its little port. The sea crossing lasted about an hour and on board you have to queue up to hand in your entry paper and get your passport stamped by immigration.We were picked up at Tangier by Luxotour, who I suppose were subcontractors. Being the only travellers for that trip, the four of us were driven across country in a people carrier. I fell asleep  and am told I missed a lot – roadside markets, roadside displays of pottery and crafts, super rich and super impoverished urban and rural development, peasant ladies in eccentric straw hats and so on.

We were driven to the hotel at ChefChauoen where the driver arranged to meet us for the return journey. The hotel was very good. We were taken to a suite of rooms consisting of two double bedrooms each with balconies with a fine view of the city. There was a large lounge with a flat screen television and a fridge. We had asked for double, not twin beds. In Spain this request is always ignored and you always get singles. These rooms had linkable singles and they had been linked to create huge comfortable doubles. The walk-in shower was powerful with unlimited hot water. The room suits were set in gardens including a swimming pool and a large tent against the sun with loungers inside and out. At night waterfalls were turned on and lit and the gardens lit by oil lamps. Breakfast consisted of a variety of local breads muffins and pancakes with butter jam honey and savoury spreads. There was coffee ad lib and fresh orange juice. The hotel was five minutes walk from the Medina.

The main square of the Medina is an attractive place to have a coffee and watch the world go by. Animals are traded, sellers arrive and depart, gaggles of children make their way to school and columns of tourists trudge on led by an umbrella. To one side of the square is the Fort and its gardens enclosed by the old city walls , open to tourists. On the other side are the main square restaurants. Shop around to find a fairly priced coffee and use this bar as you meeting point. A coffee should be about 10dr or one euro – the same as in a cheap Andalucian bar.

There is very little “hassle” apart from the odd small boy selling key rings or with a single euro to exchange for local currency at an enhanced rate. “why aren’t you at school?” gets rid of them.

We sallied to and fro our bar/meeting point along the labyrinth of little winding streets stuffed with tiny workshops in which hand workers were producing a huge variety of traditional goods. Chaouen is famous for its crafts and it is said that the craftsmen of Fez and Meknes have trained in Chaouen. The people of are charming – reserved, courteous and helpful.

Two tips. If you are alchoholically inclined like me, take some booze. Chefchauoen is a city of 40,000 people and I have no doubt that alcohol can be got at a price somewhere, but not in the Medina, which is the specially holy part of the city. At the hotel they told us that they could do us a favour and “find” us some alcohol, but it would be expensive (not expensive for our sort of people of course said the receptionist). The alcohol had to be drunk privately in our rooms. Had I thought ahead, I could have packed half a dozen bottles (no! less than that) and had a quiet drink on my balcony before and after going for a meal. The hotel is fine about discreet drinking. You are not supposed to carreer into the pool singing “My way”. As it was I almost diluted myself beyond redemption with bottled fizzy water. We were forced into the hideous “Parador” for a tiny bottle of weak beer (wine only served with meals) or a miniscule shot of whisky for €4 and €8 respectively. The interior of the hotel reminded one of Hackney social services ( not that I’ve ever been there!). Some so called “designer” had hung railway sleepers from the ceiling by chains. If you feel you might have to avail yourself of its servicios, make sure you go to the lavatory BEFORE you leave your hotel.

If you are a dope head on the other hand you are fine. I have no idea where or how you would buy marijuana, but the fields around the city are literally bursting with it, and is called kif.

My other tip relates to the first and is also about the holiness of the Medina. The “call to prayer” does not respect your need for a good sleep or a siesta. The call itself blares out on speakers and happens all day and night but the call at 4.30 pm and 4.30 am were most memorable to me. They were recorded, not live. No doubt the Imam was in bed enjoying one of his mistresses.

Street children playing

Street children playing

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: puebloman | 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: puebloman | 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: puebloman | 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: puebloman | 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.

2047_11170046

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.

2047_11170036

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: puebloman | 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: puebloman | 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: puebloman | 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

Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 211 other followers

%d bloggers like this: