Posted by: puebloman | February 3, 2012

History of Cútar in objects 6 and 7: The brasero and the “mesa camilla”

Preparing the brasero with buring vine prunings

It's raining today so Antonio is preparing the brasero on his terrace

It was pretty cold yesterday. It had dropped to near 10 degrees and I was seriously considering putting on my long-sleeved shirt. Villagers, on the other hand, regard this season as deep winter. They go swamped in pullovers and fur. They are masters of the  traditional pseudo consumptive hacking cough, which crackles round the streets. I know it’s winter here because each morning my neighbour, Antonio Pino, places a bunch of dry vine prunings tied in a leathery tendril by his patio gate. Sometime during the afternoon he brings out his brasero – his brazier – and sets fire to the twigs. Only, he says, to drive off the smoke. He is practicing the very ancient art of Neolithic central heating. He assures me that it’s absolutely safe – safer than electricity (I can believe that!), clean because there’s no smoke, and free because the fuel is a by-product of grape production. Although wood is relatively scarce here, vine cuttings are plentiful and free.

The brasero is an ancient device, supposedly invented by Etruscans, though referenced in the Iliad in the form of princely engraved bronze or copper fire bowls. Antonio’s version, the poor man’s peasant fire bowl is made of plain iron and sometimes has legs. It is supposed to have been brought to Spain by the Romans.

Antonio explains how it works. First you must line bowl with “lima”. In my dictionary this means sand, which I suppose would do as well. In fact Antonio is referring to fine wood ash. He lines the bowl with a thick layer of this and lays the dry prunings on top. He then places the bowl in the road for “safety”, leaving just enough of a gap for a small car to squeeze between the fire and a concrete wall opposite if any of us want to leave the village. The ash, he tells me, insulates the bowl and stops it getting too hot, while directing the heat (upwards I suppose) and conserving it. The wood burns fiercely, driving off steam and smoke, and Antonio carefully heaps ash around it in a sort of miniature version of the charcoal burners’ technique.

The brasero burns for about an hour. “An hour to burn it down gives twelve hours heat” says Antonio. The brazier can be simply put into the middle of the sitting room without fireplace or chimney. There are no fumes or smells. However the traditional way is to use  a “mesa camilla”. This simply means “round table”, but a shelf underneath has a hole to take the brasero. The brasero is seated in this lower shelf and the family sit around the table which is covered with thick blankets. Their legs are warmed under the  table by the brasero. Most older couples in the villages regard this as normal “central heating”, often to the disgust of the younger members of their family who complain that you must be glued to the table in order to stay warm!

The mesa camilla, ready for the brasero, note the thick blankets, ready to cover cold knees!

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