Posted by: puebloman | August 9, 2009

August is the cruellest month . . .

We are sailing into August, the month of heat and dust. Andalucia’s winter. It’s a hot winter in which nothing can grow. The toughest perennial weeds shrivel up. The damage that ice does in England is done here by dust. Your brakes start to squeal as the heat kicks in. Jude and I move the bed out onto the terrace and drape a huge net over it so that we aren’t eaten alive by flies. Ants take the place of worms here in the south but are infinitely more agile. They encrust anything edible.

Mangoes and grape ripen their fruit now and are miracles of nature. How does the fruit swell without water? Only through unimaginably long tap roots that together bind the crumbling rock, and hold up the very hills. The caulk around the almonds has split. The crop is ready. It has to be harvested before there’s any hint of dampness in the air or the caulk will close and stick to the nut and you’ll break your fingernails trying to peel it off.

The muscotels are almost ripe. Muscotels and mango are your two chances to get money from fruit. Grapes hang from the vines without benefit of wires. The hills are so steep the grapes hang free in the air. Everything here has to be done by hand, so you lead your donkey where no machinery can go. You pick your grape and pack bunches into little wooden crates on the donkey’s back, each lined and covered in vine leaves, just like the Romans used to do. Then you trek your donkey, load at a time, to your raisin beds. It’s 40 degrees and a thermometer left in the sun will explode.

Raisin beds are a feature of the Andalucian landscape. A series of little white concrete triangles top lozenges of carefully cleaned bare earth. The grapes are placed directly onto the earth and turned every day by hand for two weeks to a month, depending on the weather. They turn yellow, then gold, then bronze, then deep brown, and so does the entire landscape. You have tens of metres of canvas piled at the top of the beds. If there is even the smell of rain, the whole family charges down to the beds and pulls the canvas over the little white triangles to make tents over the drying grapes. A spot of water on the drying raisins, and its a year’s work down the drain.

grape drying in cutar

When the raisins are ready, bring out the poor old donkey (and yourself) one more time into the blistering heat and load him up as before. Take him and the raisins to the biggest garage your family has, and your family will be waiting for you – your sons and daughters, their children, cousins, aunts and uncles, sitting between the spare donkey, the dogs and caged partridges kept for the winter hunting and a few singing goldfinches. Everyone has a set of clippers and as they begin to clip the raisins from the vines a chorus of sound arises like the patter of autumn rain. It goes on for a fourtnight.

The raisins are clipped and graded. The very best are left in shrunken bunches for “best”. Some are put aside for the rich brown wine called “pasero”. The sweet luscious wine made from fresh muscotels is called “Dama de la Vina”. This stuff is drunk as a passing pleasure like sherry, not with food. Raisins retail at around 10€ a kilo, and “Dama” is 6€ for a 2 litre jug so no one gets rich. The whole of the operation is directed by the over 70’s, so when they die, so does this sort of summer.

Man and donkey with their dinner


  1. Maybe you should come north to the basque country for the summer… it’s a pleasant 20 degrees here today! Just found your blog, and starting to have a read. Like your writing!


    • Thanks for your comments – I exaggerated the discomfort a bit! Thanks for directing me to your blog and the fascinating article on the Civil War memorial


  2. Not as hot here in the mountains of Andalucia, either. The locals here don’t put the grapes to dry as raisins, but make a local white wine (which, as I like to say, is an acquired taste!!).

    Interesting also how hot and dry it is near you, which is not all that far from us! We grow veg and fruit all through the summer and autumn. Our butternut squash and melons are just now ripe!


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