Confessions of an olive oil virgin

Just sit back and malax.

Can I just ask:  does it make your day too, to come across a cool new word like malax?  Socially, you probably get out more than I do, but even so, you’ll have to agree that malax, or malaxate, to give the alternative spelling, has a certain allure, a certain degenerate intrigue to it. Or is that just me?  But the thing is, as a newbie olive oil producer, or oleocultor as the locals say, it’s a term you have to understand.

Dios mio, there was (and is) so much I didn’t know about olives. Baby stuff.  Did I honestly know back then, hand on heart, that if you leave green olives on the tree then they slowly become black?  (They do, by the way.)   You could just as well have told me that if you leave 7Up  for long enough then it turns into Coca Cola. (It doesn’t; I just checked.)  But the point is, I knew nada about the process, and had to pretend otherwise.

So, in the remote case that any of our readers should be similarly naïve, I thought I’d walk you through the basic procedure:

Though olive trees – olea europaea – can last famously for centuries, as saplings they are no slouches, and can begin bearing fruit within as few as three years.   They need watering, of course, as it’s almost a given that where there’s enough sunlight for them to thrive then there’s likely to be little annual rainfall; that’s certainly the case in the alpujarras.  They also require nutrition, ideally something which has passed first through the bowels of domestic livestock. They also need pruning, first to let in light to the middle of the tree, and second to eradicate the annoying and energetic shoots which emerge each year from the main trunk. These latter are known locally as mamones, a term which my elderly farmer-neighbour-tutors  seemed always especially keen for me to use…..and even now I blush, since yes, although it does indeed refer to an appendage of new growth, it also means something terribly rude; I’ll let you Google it.   I mean, how was I to know?

Come the Springtime and the branches are teeming with flowers.  On a tree of such  noble lineage you might expect something majestic, but in fact the flowers are dinky, so insignificant that you have to look twice to see them.  But insects adore them, and they pack a whopping pollen- punch, especially to the hay – fevered hooters of the anglo-saxon.    And so the incipient fruit  sit there, humming with bugs,  swelling all through the Summer, changing colour as they ripen. 

As Spain is  by far  the world’s biggest producer of olive oil, most of the mass production is now both efficient and highly-mechanised.   Those are not necessarily the terms you might choose were you to observe our own clumsy efforts, but the underlying principles remain the same.  First, whatever your methods, the tree has to be shaken in order that the fruit fall to the ground.  You can employ various means to this end: tractors with eccentric motors,  a system with vibrating clamps, or motor-driven,  oscillating silicon fingers.    We ourselves use a couple of sticks.

And as such I’m always vaguely reminded of skiing.  Don’t mock:  at this altitude we harvest late, usually January, when there is always snow on the peaks just above;   the days are short but filled with blessed blue skies, and  all around is that distinctive, nostril-burning smell of true cold, and the squinting brilliance of mid-Winter sunlight.  For many of our volunteer pickers a welcome by-product is the acquisition of a deep skier’s tan.  Perhaps less welcome is the knowledge that –  again like skiing – in just a  few short hours your body will begin to ache in places you didn’t even know you possessed.

But sooner or later you’ll be rewarded with a floor full of your lustrous,  elliptical bounty.  They land in a net, which if you twitch it, makes the olives jive, so that the image of a fisherman’s haul is hard to ignore.

And thus into sacks, whose size in these parts is a clear indication of a chap’s virility, followed by a loose sieving to remove excess leaves, twigs, nests, the belly-button fluff of assorted squirrels and any other redundant tree-stuff.  Next comes the weighing -in,    an event marked by much bickering and the source of grudges going back generations. 

Until finally, the whole lot is thrown into a large steel drum. The whole lot, mind, in other words the whole olive, including the skin and the stone in the middle.   And here, inside the drum, is a dull blade, which rotates slowly, so that the contents are at last ………malaxed.  (See! I knew we’d get there in the end!).  The dictionary defines this as an act of slow churning,  specifically in relation to the milling of olives, so sadly it’s not a term you can use every day, though Spaniards everywhere will no doubt recognise  Almazara, the word given to an olive press;  you’d have to conclude that the two are etymologically linked.

The mixture sits there for ……a while, let’s say, just the right amount, depending on the artisanal skills of the person in charge, but not for more than a couple of hours.  In Mairena this brew is kept at room temperature, resulting in the fabled cold-press variant.   A boffin would tell you that the temperature affects the phenol content and the residual peroxide values;  I prefer to trust the instincts of Adolfo, the owner.

This malaxed paste is neither pretty nor flavoursome, with the consistency of a lumpy yoghurt, and the colour of Bovril. It’s now spread thickly onto individual circular mats made of coir (coconut) fibre and esparto. Think of a straw frisbee, about a metre across. These are then stacked vertically, and trundled into a metal frame, at which point they are squashed together, top to bottom, using a huge hydraulic jack The power for this in Mairena is provided by two aged motors, painted lawn-mower green, with original brass camshafts and tappets; remember your lonely Uncle X, the one who enjoyed the traction engine displays at the village fete? He would have loved these. They were certainly built to last, and with a pleasing industrial aesthetic rarely seen these days, and make a din to scare the angels.

At this point, treacly dollops of goo, to use the technical mot juste, begin to trickle down the outside of the cylindrical stack of mats. Imagine the excess ketchup, if you will, on a Homer Simpson multi-decker-burger. This highly viscous fluid is then collected in a settlement tank, having been washed and mixed – quelle horreur! – with plain old H2O. This sounds so weird, and yet is the best solution, pun intended. Oil, of course, is by nature less dense than water, and will eventually make it’s way to the surface and float, thereby trapping any particles or impurities in the precipitate residue at the bottom of the container. Which is why, incidentally, so many of the clay amphorae you see strung up as decoration on the walls of restaurants across the mediterranean have a kind of pointed bottom part, and won’t stand up by themselves, but require a special stand to stay upright, for this pointy part is a kind of terra cotta sump, where all the oleaginous crud could accumulate.

You need time for this to happen, usually at least a year, and patience. But it’s worth it. Week by week the silt is drawn off from the very base of the vessel, and dumped, for it is considered to be essentially worthless, at least round here it is, and worthy only of a dreaded second-pressing. Shudder !

Is it such a bad thing to be a nouveau olive snob?

How (not) to build a clay oven



oven door and inside

The old folk knew exactly what they were doing, back in the day, when they cooked just about everything  in the great, wood-fired ovens that you still see occasionally, in ruins. That was my thought, anyway: just make a rough copy of the village oven, and all would be well…..

The hills behind us, you see,  are full of clay, but, mysteriously to this novice at least, this clay is composed  of different grades, so we were told to take the advice of a neighbour, who knows about these things. The old man in question is a lovely, lovely chap, only about four foot tall, but he knows everything that there is to know about the stuff in life that matters, and I listen to him slavishly.  He speaks in his own super-fast, super -thick Andalusian dialect, and employs a minimum of consonants, so, bending low to my guru,  I have to struggle to understand.  He clearly thinks that I’m an idiot.

He tells us very specifically where to look,  describing in detail various bushes and trees that will guide us,  together with many arabic-sounding place names given to marker stones, ditches and ruins.   After the third re-telling, and observing the thick-witted sheen of confusion that surrounds me, he sighs heavily, and suggests he comes with us. Phew.

It’s too far to walk so we heave him into the 4×4.  Eventually we reach the patch of diamond-hard ground where we are to begin.  Doubtfully I lift my pick-axe and crash it into the earth.  Nothing happens, so I spit in macho fashion on my palms and try again. This time the pick bites, but stays where it is, so I have to wriggle it free in less than macho fashion.  I try once more, but a Tom-and-Jerry-like boing vibrates through me and I let go of the handle,  and much of my self respect.  By now my English friend is laughing hard, and he takes over. Now, bear in mind that said friend is the kind of bloke who can out-dig a badger, and I’m expecting great things of him, that English pride and dignity can be restored.  Dear reader, alas,  I’m afraid  I must report that this was not in fact the case.  Despite much enthusiasm, much pain, and yes, perhaps some rather distasteful language, our efforts were largely in vain.

All the while my old neighbour, “Pepe”,  for in these circumstances I shall call him this, is looking on in growing stupification. I watch as his wrinkled face changes from bafflement to unbridled contempt, through to downright rage; the kind of face he might make if I’d just pissed on his  sleeping dog, say.  Eventually he can stand the comedy no more, and takes charge.  His skinny arms are a blur, and through the dust and the sparks a miraculous pile emerges, whilst we cower heroically behind, muttering that we must have weakened the ground for him.

“Now what?” I ask respectfully, holding out one of the tennis ball sized gobbets of earth to him.

“You beat it with your flail, claro”

“Erm…. Pepe…. I don’t have a flail….”

There’s no derision in his voice, no mockery, just confusion.

“ Eh ? Just use your mate’s then, okay,” he says gently, feigning compassion in the way he might use to an axe-wielding maniac.

My friend slowly shakes his head.  He doesn’t have one either. Claro.

Pepe whistles softly through his two remaining teeth, wondering just how he’d managed to find himself halfway up the mountain with this pair of mincing, foreign eunochs, whilst we stand side by side, heads bowed, humbled.  Now, I’d like to be able to say that, from time to time,  it does a fellow good to be completely unmanned by an aged country midget.  But it doesn’t. It feels rubbish, and the ride back down on the bumpy track was very quiet, with little Pepe bouncing around on the back seat of the jeep, the size of Action Man.

Spirits lifted as soon as we were back in the village.  Pepe scuttled off, glad to have survived the pantomime, and we carried home our sacks in some triumph.

Now, we might not have had a flail, but we did have a cement mixer, and this, churning with a lump of iron inside (oh yes,  I always have a lump of iron around, claro)  made short work of  it, and we soon had a decent pile of semi-powder to mix with water.

However,  to go with the absence of a flail, there was also the absence of a design.  But I did have a 1970s  SpaceHopper.  At least the kids did, but they were at school, and to my mind it would make the perfect so-called “former” around which we could shape our project.   And so the rest was easy: a solid square platform made of concrete,  some fire-proof earth tiles, a lovely cast-iron door from Granada, and a humiliations-worth of clay, spread a foot-thick over the whole caboodle.

emma oven

It looked great.  It actually looked exactly like the original, down to the colour, it had been infused by our own sweat and tears, and had cost next to nowt, almost.  So far so good. The debut was to be made on Christmas Day.  I confess that this maiden voyage was not the imagined perfect success: a combination of a long walk and rather too much cheap wine conspired to mess up our timings.  To my consternation our  15 kilo turkey had down-sized to a 300 gram carbonated sparrow, but that wasn’t the point: the point was, it worked.

Kind of worked.  The thing is, it took quite a long time to get hot.  Six hours, in fact. Okay, seven. And a colossal amount of olive wood.  Enough to build a decent-sized rowing boat. Not only did it look like the old village oven, it behaved like one as well;  it’s just too darned big; if we were to keep it alight for months on end, and share its use with the rest of the community, then it would be grand – even though I say so myself – but it’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d want to spark up in a hurry to grill your breakfast bacon.

bread in oven

Months later, our friends at Manna From Devon,  who are experts in the subject,  explained to me gently, diplomatically, soothingly, that our construction is perhaps, ahem, a tad over – engineered.  Pants, I think, was the adjective of choice, though I may mis-remember. Trouble is, they actually  know what they’re talking about, and a 1970s SpaceHopper, apparently, has all the thermodynamic properties of well, a SpaceHopper.

Not that it matters.  We light it up every month or so and it’s always a joy.  We’ve learned to light it more quickly, and with less fuel.  Just the fact of the sunshine, the flavour of the olive wood, the beguiling setting; it’s an event, a thing of beauty. We’ve cooked everything from fish to fruit, from sourdough to scallops, black pudding to rice pudding;  even, on one memorable Spring afternoon, Andrew’s eyebrows, for we do, occasionally, still make mistakes, though these days these are mercifully few and far between.

After listening to the experts we’re getting better.  Our boys Danny and Tom are the best judges, and they tell us we range between  PLS (Pizza-like substance) to WBP (World’s Best Pizza) so we’re getting there.  Though we can’t please everyone: the neighbours came out last time when we made a version of a sugar-coated bread they call “a-yoo-yeh” which  they’d all enjoyed as a treat as children; it was perfect, they all agreed, but,  Dios Mio,   a tantalising torment to them, for they no longer have the teeth to cope with the crust.

You should come and sample it some time.  Or try one of our bread making weeks;  there’s one up shortly with the magnificent bakers at Hackney e5 Bakehouse.

And, erm,   don’t forget your flail.

Confetti of the Gods

Let’s consider again the almond tree.  And what a fabulous, beautiful yet utterly dunder-headed bit of timber it is.  Completely, ethereally lovely, yet in truth an apple short of a picnic, if you can forgive this arboreal mixing of metaphor. As elegant yet  hopeless a piece of wood as David Gower’s cricket  bat, you might say, when he was enduring a poor run of form.20180125_161226

For it’s happening again, right outside our windows: the valleys are simply incandescent with  the most gorgeous display of blossom you could ever  imagine this side of  Eden, and the poor trees, bedazzled and distracted perhaps by the magnitude of their own beauty, have failed once more to consult the weather forecast.  And the snow is coming, together with the pitiless wind. And the trees, I’m afraid, are woefully unguarded, as dazzling and as foolish and as under-equipped as a sex-pot platinum blonde stepping out in (literally)  killer heels to scale the Eiger.

Again! Year after year we’re presented with this  same ravishing, heart-rending spectacle as  the gullible almond trees are led wide-eyed to calamity,  seduced by a  vindictive warm  Spring that is perhaps jealous of their prettiness. You would think by now that they might wise up to such chicanery, but alas no, and like femme-fatale lambs to the slaughter they disrobe and are blown in their meekness to oblivion.20180125_161304

You see them naked in the winter, hard and gaunt, leafless and lifeless and black against the drifting snow, the whole landscape a monumental monochrome charcoal sketch.  You admire them, skeletal  and unyielding,  and wonder at their tenacity, their hardiness.  Imagine them as they resist the awful cold of the long dark nights, the freezing dawn, the frost-bound gales: it’s heroic. These are muscular, stout-hearted, no -nonsense fellows.

And yet, and yet, as soon as the first mischievous, frolicsome warm  sunny days arrive to tickle their fancy they are suddenly, coquettishly deceived, and all thoughts of  virility and bravura are abandoned as they begin overnight to flaunt and shimmy in a way that is well, quite shameless.  It is a remarkable transformation, much  like the cross-dressing that often  goes on at the Rugby League  end-of-season  gala.  Though it must be said, far prettier.   20180125_161000

And so the snows are coming, and it begins once more,  the annual petal-violation at the stony-hearted hands of the brutish winds of Winter…..

Of course it’s all baloney.   It’s not as if the trees can exercise much choice, at least without an extended period of evolution. They, together with much else,  are  the  incontestable   victims of climate change, and are not so much consciously out-foxed  as simply confused.  The farmers suffer too: it breaks your heart to watch as after the storms the growers move tenderly along the rows of ravished branches, examining what’s left of the buds for the dreaded black patches that show up after freezing.

Likewise the bees. Often as not the almonds are the only trees in bloom at the start of the year, and numberless insects take advantage of their Kamikazi-like attitudes and generosity: just stand still and you can hear across the terraces the dull throbbing of millions of pollen-laden bees.  What happens then, to the bees, once the blossom blows away?  I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

But despite all this, despite the torment of the trees,  the bees,  and   the farmers,  the sight is nonetheless magnificent.  Whole mountainsides seem to  explode with fluffy white buckshot, the air is thick with weightless slivers of white and pink, and the arid ground is cloaked for a time in milk-coloured loveliness.

It is, you could say, the confetti of the Gods.  An Ancient Greek might have told you  that it’s sent to celebrate the Springtime union of Demeter and  Zeus.   Perhaps.  A whimsical hippy might suggest it is to bless and glorify the fanciful marriage of Mother Nature to Mankind.

A nice thought too, if potty.

Trouble is, even if it were true,  then with people like President Trump around,   chances are that they  – we –   are  heading for a messy divorce….




From time to time we now take little groups around the cities of Andalucia, and so there we were, having  tried and failed by minutes to see the Monastery of San Jeronimo.   That  doesn’t  sound  like much of a defeat , does it?  Not to normal people anyway.20160220_164536


But you’d be wrong to think that, for in fact it’s  a place of huge serenity in the middle of a rambunctious city,  and holds secretly within its confines  one of the most jaw-dropping churches you’re ever  likely to see this side of the Pearly Gates.    The uniformed, erm, gentleman who had refused us entry seemed visibly pleased to have darkened our day,   so I was keen to hide my disappointment, and  this in the end proved easy enough, for  Granada,  you see,  is chock full of delights,  so as one door closed, another opened.

The crypt beneath the Cathedral made for a good Plan B.    B as in bling, perhaps, for the whole place is saturated with enough gold and silver to sink a battleship. (It did, in fact, often –  just last year the San Jose was discovered on the floor of the Caribbean with 15 billion dollars worth!).   There is little sense of restraint, discretion or finesse here,  just this amazing in-your-face attack on the senses,  artistic and spiritual, with plenty of 18+ imagery from the Old Testament of boilings-in-oil and decapitations to discourage the would-be sinner .  It’s  wonderful.destacada-san-jeronimo

It’s the permanent resting place of  Isabelle and Ferdinand, of course, the undisputed Masters of the World  at the time,  so  they could afford to be flamboyant.   Did you know that  to this day every living European Royal is a direct descendant of this rather  fertile pair?   With a bloodline  and connections like that there’s just no need to do under-statement.   It was also very much an architectural response to the glories and harmony  of Islam,  in that anything-you- can-do- we can do better kind of way, though gilded, with knobs on, literally

That’s why Granada is such a gloriously  fascinating city.  Musically, imagine  J.S. Bach  and  Freddie Mercury  showing up at the same gig and you’ll get some idea of the contrast .    At the foot of the hill the mediaeval city is all self-promotional baroque spangly tight-trousers , whilst the Alhambra  at the top is an audacious Moorish fugue of botanics, arches and decoration.    And between the two a range of noble, cloistered buildings home to any number of convents, monasteries and gran familias.

An intriguing way to fend off hunger pangs as you stroll around the old town is to pick up a quick snack at one of the convents.   Seriously.  The story goes that each of the various orders is forbidden very specific foodstuffs,  so that group A, for example, must go without egg whites, and will therefore make – and sell – meringues, whilst the members of B, deprived of yolks, do the same with a particular sponge cake.  So, when you come across a little wooden door on the side of the chapel,  you can push a button and hey presto!  a disembodied  voice from within the severe old walls asks you to place your order.  The little door opens and yes, miraculously, there is the  cake of your choice.  We   could of course have done a runner at this point, but the immortal soul being more than ordinarily at stake we thought better of it.  It’s a brilliant way to buy food though, half way between  a confessional box and a Macdonald’s Drive thru’,  though the bun in question did have a rather ecclesiastical after-taste, shall we say;  I could imagine it had been kneaded on a pew.   For the record it was a cup cake, or Magdalena, as they say here.  I thought this appropriate to the point of sale.

alhambra3_2168406bMuch later, suitably attired against the night time chill, we found ourselves standing in the modest queue for the visita nocturna  to the Nasrid Palaces at the Alhambra, perhaps rather pale, dreamy  and blue-lipped in the light of a glorious full moon.   And  what a prodigiously romantic setting this is, all   marble  and fountains,  our  senses stunned by the perfume of orange blossom,  with glimpses through lacework arches of  snow –topped mountains beyond,  as  delicate and flouncy and quintessentially foreign as you’d  expect if you’d read the 1001 Nights.     Think of the Downton Abbey of Arabia and you’ll start to get the picture.

Tell you what though:  the otherwise beguiling atmosphere is not improved by the constant flashing of so many cameras.  Everyone is at it,  and the effect is literally dazzling.   Me included, I confess.  Suddenly, we’re all amateur papparazi, clicking away for dear life. Imagine, say, the effect were the Beckhams and the Clooneys  to stroll together down the High Street, with their kit off.  It’s a bit like that, though this time we’re shooting lion.  Marble ones.  Moreover, clean ones, for they, the celebrated feline inhabitants of the eponymous Patio de los Leones,  are now back in their enclosure after a spell at the lion cleaners,  which one might suppose is a fairly niche market.20160220_212731

And the loveliest thing?  At night they cover them with duvets, bless ‘em.  Seriously, and if ever you were looking for a metaphor to describe just how sweet, baffling, beguiling and bonkers is the city of Granada, then you might find some clue in this oddball  bed time  ceremony . I wonder if there is someone there to murmur a soft lullaby to them…….. it wouldn’t surprise me.20160220_212721






Confessions of a reluctant yogi

Let’s be clear about one thing :  As a Northerner,  a Lancastrian at that, I feel that it’s part of my birthright to be able to maintain  a position or bear a grudge which  is  completely devoid of  all intellectual or moral foundation.  Passionately,  vindictively,  eternally.  That’s just the way we do things up there.  Or maybe it’s because I’m a man.  Or I don’t know,  a human.  But let’s just say that over the years I’ve acquired enough basic self-knowledge  to suggest that perhaps not all of my firmly held convictions  would stand up to much scrutiny …. though I still cherish  them, of course.

A haughty disdain for brown bread with  walnuts on , for example, which is so clearly wrong-headed that I have refused ever  to taste it.    You see, the ability to hold an irrational contempt for the most mundane of things is often prized as a positive character trait, especially  East of the Pennines,  and I have a friend whose rancor and antipathy to any gravy made south of  Sheffield represents a preposterous dogmatism, nay faith, that I can easily understand.     The absolute need for cricketers always to wear whites would fit this absurd attitude,  as does the complete certainty that Coronation Street is so much better than Eastenders,  though I’ve never seen either.  Or anything to do with darts.

Or, for that matter,  yoga, which until recently I  respected  about as much  as  the Shopping Channel,  being more or less inoffensive but best left to the crackpots with too much time on their hands.

Because for a long time I knew, just knew, that deep down there is something essentially dodgy about the whole yoga caboodle.  Something, you  know, a bit  too right-on  that sits like a cloud of lentils above the entire business.    Or not so much above yoga per se as its followers,  perhaps.  And as  for all that crass, evangelical zeal to share the benefits with you ………grrrrrr.

The same would be true of say, fox hunting. I’m sure there are  proper  arguments   for and against  which needn’t trouble us here , but would you  really want your children  tally-ing ho  like that, in riding pink, whip  and jodhpurs?  Seriously?    Or have them among the numbers of those  lost  souls who  arrive in costume to attend Star Wars conventions.    Hmm.      It’s all perfectly harmless -unless you’re a fox –  but there’s still something a  bit rum , something that sets your teeth on edge, about the sheer earnestness of it all.

So thereCARRIE YOGA SHALA 1  I sat, legs firmly uncrossed, unlotussed.  An unbendy bigot.   An anti –yogi.    Until something happened.  Out of nowhere  came this ….this what, this revelation .  Yoga fell into my lap and…..

Reader, I married it.

Just like that.  Against all my better judgment I was persuaded to participate in a session  one early June morning  ,  and went and suffered  a good old –fashioned coup de foudre.    Bingo, as they probably don’t say in proper yoga circles. Karma ! still doesn’t have the right ring to it, I’m afraid.

Needless to say I wouldn’t admit it for a while.  A public changing of the mind doesn’t come easily to a fellow from Preston, if  ever,  and has to be handled with great delicacy. First, I had coyly to admit that yeah, it hadn’t been too bad , when in fact the whole thing had been wonderfully, improbably brilliant.  Also, I had to deal with this weird thing which involved putting on stretchy clothing and huge physical effort  and which was therefore  to my mind a sport, but which eliminated all aspects of competition.  Eh?  Previously, whenever Emma had returned toned and happy from  yoga , I’d  always  wanted to know who had won.     I had a lot to learn, apparently.

Meanwhile, imagine my surprise when I saw that everyone, teacher included, was completely normal !  I’d expected lots of embarrassing chanting ,  bonkers discussion  of muesli and the importance of being kind to worms and so on.  None of that.  Instead there was just the regular giggling and idiot chat that I so enjoy.  And lunch was pizza.  With red wine.  We never have pizza and wine at lunch. Amazing.

Pizza notwithstanding,  the real eye-opener was the immediate physical high I got from the experience.  Somehow I hadn’t quite anticipated that you can get the same endorphin-laced buzz that  you get from a run or a game of football, yet  without the bruising and muscle tear, so that not only can you walk without feeling stiff the next day, but can walk more easily.

Which has helped greatly, since after years of skiing and windsurfing abuse my knees are what the medical  world  refers to as  knackered.  Several times  specialists have suggested that the answer might lie in surgery, though I’ve  always resisted due largely to the negative experiences of certain friends and to a highly evolved sense of personal cowardice in the face of potential pain,  but now, two years down the line after first starting yoga,  I’m just so much more mobile.

In truth I’m still a complete novice.  I get up most mornings and do a half hour session, just enough to feel sufficiently limber that I can stand wobbily on my head for a few minutes,  something I would have found hysterically impossible not too long ago, but which tells me that if I can do this before breakfast, I can face the world. It’s not by any stretch (pun intended!) proper yoga, but a series of imperfectly-remembered manoeuvres that I can manage without discomfort.  But I tell you what:  it’s sorted out my knees, improved my posture and made me calmer. Sometimes, adds Emma.   But after such a volte-face it’s also reminded me that you can teach  new tricks to old dogs (me, that is, I’m not being unkind, woof)  and meanwhile has forced me to re-evaluate my attitude to change generally.  I’m not quite yet ready to face walnut bread, but who knows?

So there you have it.  That worst of all possible things, the evangelical convert.

Move with softness as my yoga teacher exhorts.

Or is it  just going soft, as they say up North.


Emma’s moveable breakfast

figs      I am busy re-acquainting myself with the delights of the moveable breakfast.  If ever you should want a good mood improver then try  popping mulberries.  Their sunny flavour seems to me the essence of every red fruit you’ve eaten, simmered for a month and then repacked into an explosion of taste.  There’s something essentially decadent about starting the day with something so well…. delicious.  A bit like starting dinner with chocolate mousse, except with mulberries you can taste the vitamins zinging.IMG_6566

This is all thanks to our black Labrador Molly who, now a dignified but rather portly eleven,  isn’t up to much more than the gentlest of morning walks,  especially in summer.   So in these long warm months instead of a long invigorating route, the way we go is the equivalent of the perfect revolving sushi bar , though   it’s the two of us that are doing the revolving and the food, in place of sushi (even I draw the line there) is foraged.

First course is berries (see above) .  Whilst I balance on a large fruit-splattered stone, Molly takes a rest in the purple shade. I know the tree intimately now so can stand confidently and reach out only for the fruit which local knowledge tells me will be perfectly ready. This is not because mulberries change colour like blackberries – or indeed most fruit as they become perfectly ripe – no nothing as simple as that.  But because those which are black but not quite  ready will squirt as you pull,  like an octopus with her ink,  refusing point blank to come off the tree and thus, day by day, I build up a map of the tree dividing it into zones of ready fruit and reluctant fruit.   As a dedicated fruit lover I am not to be put off easily by a bunch of stroppy berries and instead continue to research diligently, and suck my blood red fingers clean whilst  musing on the pros and cons of food that is itself opinionated.  How would it be, for example, if dippy eggs spat at you if their yolks weren’t done to perfection or a steak gnashed its teeth  when left  in the pan a second too long?almonds

Grabbing a handful of mulberry leaves, which according to the villagers is the most effective hand cleanser for mulberry juice, we walk up past the seam of fairy rock.  (Actually haemotite if you want to be more scientific, but as it flickers and winks along your route like natural cats’-eyes there is something   of the sprite world about it, so the family name of fairy rock seems more appropriate somehow)   We move quickly on to a young almond tree whose fruit is already scattered on the path, all  ready for cracking between two stones for the perfect milky nutty mouthful.  Time to digest a little, then, and admire the views whose pink-tinged morning light is paling as the sun rises, until we stroll on to fig alley,  where the ancient  wild trees have grown out over the path to create a cool figgy tunnel.  Here you can reach into their dark canopy to retrieve the small white figs which are used for drying in these parts (as opposed to the larger purple horquinas which are sweet but more watery.)   Picked just as the white green skin is starting to pucker, these higos are dense, fructosy and sticky with a pale pink fibrous centre which  when torn open  looks like some exotic flower.

But there is always something else to add another layer to this hedonistic start,  apart from the  food.  A bit like the conversation or a favourite piece of music between courses.  This morning, as the bee-eaters played rainbow coloured hide and seek in the blue pool of the sky I heard singing from the fields.  It was our neighbour, Juan , in fine voice, surprisingly light  given that his normal speaking voice is delivered with such diaphragmatic power that he sounds like a jolly tuba.   He was hidden in  the forest of bamboo cane struts and runner bean plants that now stretch out behind his mother’s cottage, and the pile of empty crates by the track suggested he had a long morning’s picking ahead of him.  His wife Lola was with him though I couldn’t see her, but just hear her voice.  I was told yesterday that her elderly father had died whilst we  were away on holiday, and I have yet to give her my condolences.  As she was hidden from view I resolve to pop round to her house to speak to her later.   As I moved on I was pleased to hear her husband singing, to her I like to think, and even more pleased to hear her laugh as his steady patter and gentle banter punctuated his song across the fields.tomato

So on we walked, past their white mastiff  who trotted over to greet us, his stride jaunty as he enjoyed the early cool air.  As the two dogs sniffed each other inquisitively I smiled at Bear dog, as we like to call him, as his colour and shape give him the look of a fluffy polar bear.  He is fully grown now, with a teenager’s gangly limbs, but his funny square face and doleful pink-tinged eyes still have that puppy what’s-going-on expression which he wore when small enough for   Alba to carry around in her arms and bottle feed. ( Though let’s be clear – it was Molly looking inquisitive – Bear-dog just doesn’t do inquisitive.)

So back home after a month away it isn’t too hard to be reconciled   to so-called normal life.  I do have quite a lot to do like everyone just back from holiday, but that’s ok.  If time at the computer gets a little wearing I have plenty to distract me.  Perhaps I can extend the idea of a moveable breakfast to a moveable lunch.  Stroll down past the fountain and on to the finca, grazing on grapes and early walnuts as I go.  Or perhaps an on-the-move salad.  Everywhere you look there are fresh green peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes winking on the vines.  The weight of our own cherry tomatoes are starting to make their bamboo frames sag like an aged mule’s back, in truth we have more than we know what to do with – that is, if Tom and his best friend Giovanni are not let loose on them too often.  Yesterday I saw these two hungry growing eight-year olds abandon their bikes skew-whiff by the veggie patch and spend a full wordless ten minutes eating cherry tomatoes in a red blur as fast as their dusty fingers could pick them….

And then there would be dinner.  This would have to be gathered on the move and then cooked later,  at leisure, as even the most ardent raw food connoisseur would be stumped eventually as to how to enjoy grazing on limitless courgette flowers and uncooked aubergines.  Perhaps not?

So yes.  Late summer and early autumn in Mairena.  A moveable feast.  Now where have I heard that phrase before…?

Emma: Reflections on a parade, with flowers.

It’s pot planting time again.   Maybe it was the arrival of the large white van, whose  driver sells huge quantities of  lupin, jasmine and margarita, which  prompted the sudden rash of pot planting over the weekend, or perhaps simply the prospect of settled weather.  Whatever, enthused by the general gardening spirit, we decide it’s time to dust off our own  tools and set to work on Las Chimeneas terrace and pool.

It was towblue flowersards the end of the morning that I had a small epiphany.  Stretching for a particularly stubborn weed I found  myself engulfed by a helmet of wispy tendrils of wisteria flowers and, even though a hay fever impaired nose, the scent was astonishing.  Ignoring the small army of thumb-sized  black carpenter bees which seem to like hanging out on the  wisteria’s delicate purple blooms , I stood up, stretched and smiled.   It was a great moment.   After what has been for one reason or other a couple of difficult months, I stood with my arms sun-warmed and sucked up a great big lungful of sweetness.   And with that it suddenly dawned on me with great pleasure– the good weather has arrived.

It’s always some time in April that we get a first taste of summer.   The first sight of bee-eaters is always a highlight – the flash of kingfisher blue as they flit between the telegraph wire,  the poppies, the feeling of warm air on bare arms – and a firm favourite – sitting on still sun-warmed stone flags in the darkness listening to the distant hoot of our local Scops owl.    And, of course, making sure I give a balanced view of what my aunt calls our small patch of paradise– we also see the arrival of the flies. They appeared overnight ( between April 8th and April 9th to be precise) dancing their infuriating zig zag dance and silently squeezing through even the narrowest gap and I wondered how we had ever forgotten them.  So – yes – the flies are also here to stay along with the sound of evening cicadas and the baby geckos hiding out on the kitchen terrace wall.

035April is also the month for Mairena’s spring fiesta, in honour of San Marcos, patron saint of our village and spiritual caretaker of the animals and all things agricultural.   It’s now over fifteen years  since I first, somewhat shyly,  took my potato peeler and joined the women preparing  the fennel and pork stew in the annexe to the church.   Each year it’s the same ritual  – the men tend the olive wood fires along the side wall of the church, about a dozen in all, and the women take charge of the great vats of simmering food.   That first year I went to join the group of women busily stripping the thick thistle caldo sticks and peeling vast heaps of potatoes and  sat next to Anita who must now be in her late 80’s. We still regularly bump into each other as she comes daily to fill her jug at the water fountain outside our house and around the end of February  or, sometimes earlier, she always brings up the fact that San Marcos and potato peeling will soon be upon us.  To be honest I’ve missed the last two years of the preparations but she seems, pleasingly, not to have given up on me and  as we go our own ways she still uses the now rather old-fashioned  vaya usted  con Dios or go with God.    I find this strangely touching.IMG_7801

Hard work though it is there is something about this particular fiesta which is very special.  First we process up to a specific, spiritually important but otherwise insignificant stone just outside the village, …… along with any animals (this year only a few mules) in order for the earnest young priest to bless the countryside.    For this fiesta  it falls to the women to carry the heavy saint up the road, gently rocking as they process to the stone font which looks out across the fertile terraces of the alfaguara below.   Later we are given roscos  or round circles of bread which bring good luck and then finally, around trestle tables you take along your own spoon and bowl for the stew.


This year we didn’t need the large black cloth suspended over the church doorway in case of rain but several years ago the weather was so bad we had to get the priest’s permission to take the food indoors as  the black clouds finally yielded a great big Alpujarran glush of torrential rain.  Later as the sound of thunder echoed round the church I noticed a subtle change of mood as everyone shifted uneasily as they spooned up the food and perhaps more to the point, glugged from the communal bottle of wine.

So  the first taste of summer is here again and as this evening Tom and I go and check out the chickens and watch the white donkey munch slowly through his pile of straw, his rickety back soaking up the sun’s rays like a lizard I try in vain trying to stop rubbing my hayfever itchy eyes and  find myself pondering the ups and downs of Alpujarran life.    Winter in so many ways is grueling and part of you, however much you love the crisp days and long evenings with an olive wood fire, longs for summer again.    But that’s the thing in the Alpujarras.  However hard the winter at least you know April is on its way and the intensity of the newly green grass terraces will soon be enough to make you sing.   Yes, the return of the loveliness of summer seems hard earned this year but, if I had to put my finger on the essence of  life in the Alpujarras maybe that’s one of the reasons I love it : it is that very intensity of life here rather than some dream-like haven from real life.  Indeed with its biblical rains, clear intense blue skies,  cold winds that whip up from nowhere, scorching suns, flower-silly terraces and even the ear-splitting sound of the rocket of fiesta you somehow feel that you are getting a taste of life in all its crisp and varied colours.   Maybe that’s what it is –– a sense of distilled life or even life in high-definition perhaps.   Black and white is okay or grey even, but once you’ve had a taste of hi-definition it’s hard going back……

Yearning for a special place. And beer.

I was taking a chainsaw to bits the other day, and as you do, reflecting  lightly on theories of ethnolinguistics  and general  principles of linguistic relativity.   Funny  ways foreign people have of saying stuff, in other words.

Aigle botté Hieraaetus pennatus Booted EagleAnd the path that set me to wondering about  this was led by a bit of putrescent  rabbit left  smattered  in a nearby tree, for this meant to my trained eye two things: one, that the rabbit in question was probably not very well, and two, that the Booted Eagle is back.   For the latter, despite his boots, feels the cold, poor chap, and is a migratory fellow who spends his  winters some place warmer.

Thus  some deep migratory instinct has brought him home to Spain, and the people here have a wonderful word to describe this sense of home-ness which is almost impossible to render into English, and that word is Querencia.

Amongst other things it’s a term used in bull –fighting to describe the often invisible spot in the arena to which the panicking bull will always strive to return.    As such it’s a haven, a place of refuge.  But to the mystical, poetical mind of the Spaniard it’s so much more  than that;  it’s a special place, a mysterious, impenetrable, enigmatic spot where one can feel true unto oneself, a place to draw strength, a place to feel empowered.  If you want it’s an anchorage for the spirit, a safe -house for the soul.

Olive treeWe all have one, I guess, though we might lack the terminology  to describe it. There’s a nook on the path not a mile from my house that somehow just does it for me.  There are flowers, the air is scented with rosemary and thyme, a brook tinkles. It’s  not especially lovely, no lovelier that is than  elsewhere hereabouts, nor ethereal in any meaningful way, it just feels right, and in my mind I can  go there when I  need to.  And I am spoiled, for I have several querencias.

In fact a querencia might not even be  a place;  it can equally be a person, or a thing you feel on a very deep level that you just need to do, really need to do.

There are days sometimes when   I feel just need to be scudding over the waves on a windsurf board,  and if I don’t get the chance to indulge this I feel, I feel……well, funnily enough, there’s another untranslatable term  for how you might  feel:   Saudade.

This word and our inability to completely understand it is an example of what fancy linguists describe as the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis, which in brief suggests that different peoples somehow conceptualise the world in such different ways that they require a distinct lexicon to describe it.   Saudade is a case in point, to the extent  that you can’t just translate it into English, but have to convey the meaning sluggishly through illustration and example.

At heart it is a yearning for something which you know you cannot have, something just beyond reach, though sublimely tempting.  Or someone.  It’s been described as the love that remains for someone after that person is no longer around. It’s deeper than sadness, keener than regret.     It’s a strange nostalgia for the future, a missing, a longing, an absence, a desire, an ache which you might even enjoy.  Imagine when Juliet met  Tantalus.  Picture the sailors of old who would climb to the top of Porto’s Clerigos Tower on the eve of a journey and would  excitedly  look forward to the perils of a voyage to the end of the world  from which they might never return, and at the same time weep for the sweethearts and families who they would shortly be abandoning. The tower might well be their querencia, and the further away they would find themselves, the greater the saudade they suffer. Or  savour.


Complicated, huh?

The English “I miss you” is a fairly potent message, but somehow doesn’t quite cut it in the way that the lament of tenho saudades tuas does.

Not even “I miss you.  A lot.”  I think we just have to face it:  the anglo-saxon world is just that bit less whimsical, a bit less romantic , a bit less effete, perhaps.  A Scandanavian friend once told me of a norse concept that contrasts sweetly with the dreamy, quixotic aspect of the languages of Southern Europe, and that is the notion of bier-fier: the anxiety and distress the Viking felt when he realised that the booze was running out.

I think that sums up the north/south divide quite nicely.