12 Mar 2017

The Village

The writer warned:
Anything you say or do may be
recorded and used in a story.

There is on the Island a village – it shall be unnamed but herein known as the Village – the inhabitants of which have the ugliest of reputations. Such notoriety is always doubly unjust for it invariably hides uncomfortable truths about ourselves. No, the Villagers are not irresponsible, ungovernable and irreverent, they just disdain any authority imposed on them from without; they are not untruthful and undependable but creative and independent; and they are not lazy, they simply place work on the scale of everyday priorities in the place it deserves: right at the bottom. They may be envious, that most essentially human of all feelings and arguably the one that has most contributed to our species’ evolution, but so are you and I.  And so on.

Now it so happens that the Lord, as busy as usual at being ubiquitous, got late word of the Villagers and their unfortunate reputation and decided He would have to get rid of them. This was rather tricky in an age of transparency and accountability such as ours, so He called in the Devil for help. The first scourge to hit the Villagers came from the Devil: a forest fire of huge dimensions that threatened to consume the whole Village but eventually only had the inhabitants coughing and sneezing. It was now the turn of the Lord. He had heard they were always complaining about the scarcity of rain the Village received so He sent a deluge. The gullies burst with muddy water that swept away cars and buildings but miraculously spared the Village church. But the Villagers took even that in their stride. Meanwhile the Devil had heard that they had long demanded a town council for themselves and he and the Lord decided that if the Villagers had one, their competitive spirit would be their downfall. It took the Devil quite some time to negotiate this with the politicians and administrators of the realm but he was the more suited of the two to do so and eventually a deal was reached and the Villagers got their municipality

At first it looked as if the Lord and the Devil had been right but the villagers, far from coming to blows, finally came to their senses and did the right thing. They called in a team of civil servants – one for every 100 Villagers on the greatly inflated roll – and from then on ignored the pen-pushers and the institution they had so much wanted. The civil servants still try to establish their importance by nitpicking; the town councilors meet monthly to vote on ineffective resolutions, and the Villagers get on with their lives: old women shrill insults across the street at one another and laugh; young girls dream and flirt; boys double-park their speedy, noisy discotheques-on-wheels for the Village has no municipal police; labourers fill The Village’s six bars and shout about football and then go off fishing, planting potatoes or building houses without planning permission; couples come together, undo and then regroup with ‘variable geometry’ thereby ensuring a vibrant, vigorous gene pool; even the Church has fallen into step choosing more carefully the Village curate after two previous men-of-the-cloth married local girls and then another became an actor. Goat farms and vineyards proliferate, apparently the first being one of the Devil’s conditions for his intervention, and the wineries, well …

Dylan Thomas would have been at home in The Village!

5 Feb 2017

Whispers from the past

Some time ago one often used to hear that the people of El Hierro spoke “fifteenth century” Spanish.
I suppose the argument was that since no-one could deny they spoke differently to other Canary islanders and that since El Hierro had been isolated for so many years, the way they spoke was derived from the Spanish of the early colonizers and therefore in some way “superior”. I don’t know how a fifteenth century settler spoke but I do believe there must be something in the claim.

Cloud mist coming up the cliff to the "letime" near Jinama
at more than 1,000 metres above Frontera. To get an idea
look at the posts "First Impressions 1970's" and "First
Impressions 2015".
First of all the islanders’ pronunciation was quite unlike that of speakers from the rest of the islands. Some examples: in the Canaries the “s” usually sounds more like an English “h”, on El Hierro most people pronounced it as an “s” and in some cases, more a question of exaggerated identity I believe, even a powerful “sh”. Among other, perhaps primitive, features were the use by some speakers of stressed “or”, substituted in modern Spanish by the diphthong “uer”, and “u” instead of “o”. For example, “portu” instead of the modern Spanish “puerto” (port). I often thought such speakers’ rich, deep intonation sounded very much like that common in northwestern Spain.

You’ll have noticed I have used here the past tense. This is because it is a rare pleasure to hear this speech today, mainly replaced by an often brazen sort of mid-Atlantic Venezuelan drawl brought back by returning emigrants.

Apart from the accent, there are certain words commonly used the meaning of which suggests an early origin. One of the most surprising is “luego” which here often means “soon, shortly” while in modern Spanish it means the opposite “later” as in “Hasta luego!” (See you later!).  Another word is “jable” a kind of gravelly sand from the French “sable”, perhaps the only word that the first Norman settlers may have bequeathed us. There are also certain words that are clearly of Cuban origin. You very rarely hear on any of the other islands the word “candela” to refer to a forest fire. And “sitio” here may refer to a “homestead”, a self-sufficient extended family home. Another peculiarity, evidently a product of living on what is basically a huge mountain sticking out of the sea, is the way “abajo” (down) often means “towards the sea” rather than that something is “lower” than the speaker. The same happens with “arriba” (up) meaning “away from the sea”. Just like people in England going “up” to London although much of the city is very much lower than they perhaps are.

The beautiful aromatic bush called "Mol".
Except for a huge number of place names, surprisingly few words may date back to pre-Hispanic times. At a guess, I’d say that at least 50% of the island’s place names are aboriginal while there are hardly any native terms for everyday life, something that may reflect on how the language of occupation replaced the vernacular. Of course we have no idea of the meaning of the place names but many of them begin with “Te-” or “Ta-” and coincide with a hill or vantage point. Then there are plant names that are clearly pre-Hispanic, for example, “barrasa” a kind of wild garlick, “garacera” wild rocket and “mol” a wormwood known as “incienso” (incense) on the other islands. El Hierro was recognized to be the island that made most use of edible wild plants so there were likely to have been a good number of pre-Hispanic plant names that were in use long after colonization but are forgotten today.

There are one or two very special words that refer to geographical accidents. The one I like best is “letime” (pron. le-tee-may) which means any piece of flat ground at the top of a cliff. Ideal if you were a proud aboriginal prince contemplating suicide rather than slavery!

27 Jan 2017

History, Part 2 : Occupation to Emigration

The conquest of the Canary Islands took almost
Iluminure of the opening page of the original Le Canarien (1490)
the whole of the fifteenth century to complete. El Hierro was one of the first to be absorbed by the new order perhaps because, however wayward the princesses or brave the warriors legend will have us believe, it was a walkover for the Normans. In 1403 Gadifer de la Salle reconnoitered the island and in his chronicle, Le Canarien, he says he and his men spent 22 days here but, uncharacteristically, he mentions no skirmish with the natives. After years of slave raids by Barbary pirates, and by others from nearer home, the native population, never very numerous, must have been decimated and could have afforded no resistance to the invaders. The occupation by the first Norman settlers, then, represented an abrupt change, not transition, from prehistory to history.

Like Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, El Hierro became one of the feudal domains of the Norman adventurer, Jean de Bethencourt, who owed allegiance to the Crown of Castille. These domains changed hands several times until the abolition of the feudal system in the nineteenth century. Under this system the at best precarious economy of the island meant that the islanders, burdened by levies and tithes, must have lived in the most abject misery. The new society following the demise of the Bimbaches was for centuries based on a similar subsistence economy and it was only with the growth of the wine and spirit industry in the eighteenth century that things began to change. But only for a short while. At the middle of the nineteenth century even this collapsed and the islanders were back at square one, faced with emigration.

Gradually, emigrants to Cuba, Argentina and later Venezuela began to send small sums of money to the families left behind in order to buy from impoverished or absentee landlords the humble homes they had grown up in and the fields they had worked. Emigration peaked with the droughts of the nineteen-forties. In the late seventies we found every family on the island had a son, father or husband in Venezuela and many women had been left behind to bring up the youngsters. This period of intense emigration had profound effects on the people and the landscape. The land was parceled up, areas that were traditionally pasture were put to cultivation, the walls we see everywhere were built, as were most of the typical houses in the villages. The famous “muda” – a seasonal household transhumance – was slowly abandoned. The port of La Estaca was no longer the end of the islander’s world but a doorway to freedom and, hopefully, a better life. Customs and traditions that regulated village life gradually fell into disuse and even the islanders’ speech changed. Most importantly, the islanders’ collective memory was reset to coincide with the period of emigration, as though all that had gone before was better ignored. Perhaps it was.

This period lasting at least seventy-five years represents a change even more profound, though not as abrupt, than the initial occupation which took no more than perhaps two or three years. And, this time, it prepared the islanders for entry into the modern world.

7 Dec 2016

Old Ladies

Old ladies, in my opinion, seem to be the guardians of what was and how it was and, as they "pass over", they leave parcels of emptiness that their menfolk - mostly concerned with football and politics - and their children cannot fill, or perhaps don't want to. Of course, they don't say "here's a bit of tradition" and, if you do hear something like that, forget it: it's probably invented since islanders everywhere love inventing their past. Just observe what old ladies do and say and you'll gain insights into the real Hierro lingering on in the collective psyche.

When my vineyard produced its first fruits I noticed that as they ripened the occasional bunch of grapes disappeared. I was approaching one morning when I saw an old lady with a straw hat and little basket of grapes coming out of the gate, carefully closing it behind her. Trying to sound as stern as I could I called out “Good morning! Excuse me!” She turned a pleasant, round rosy face at me.
“Is it normal here to steal other people’s fruit?” I asked.
“I didn’t steal anything. I just took what I needed. I’m sorry if I have upset you.”

Another old lady, this time in black widow’s weeds and not at all round and rosy, once came to the house to offer us a nearby piece of land.  I said I might be interested and asked the price.
“Well. I’m asking a million pesetas, but for you it will be two million.” 

On both occasions I felt like hugging the old women. There seemed to be something innocent, totally without malice or sophistication in their responses. But not so. The islanders, of their generation at least, had a completely different understanding of things. Their village society may have been small, inbred and vicious, but there had also been a sense of solidarity and community. The concept of trespass did not exist and no-one needed go hungry for a bunch of grapes or a plate of figs. Outsiders were welcome but since they were from elsewhere they just had to be rich, they had to be learnéd and were probably going to benefit at the cost of the locals. So, for an outsider, everything was double the price.

Things have changed since then but the possession of land still occupies an inordinate position in the minds of women over sixty, as it no doubt did years ago to whole families. The emmigration of the early twentieth century was not only about escaping starvation in years of drought. Socially it was far more important as a means of social mobility, of freeing the peasant family from serfdom by buying land from the impoverished landowners of the capital with the miserable savings sent home by those in Cuba, Argentina or Venezuela.

Living right next to the church belfry that chimes every half hour, the old lady in the photo had no need for the watch - perhaps it didn't even work! Someone had given it to her so she proudly wore it. Inside her two-roomed house there are only the bare essentials. Here she is enjoying her only luxury: sitting on the cushions on the stone bench outside her door of an evening. After a life of hardship, privation and emmigration she seems to exude resignation.

3 Nov 2016


Ico was dark and crippled and, it was rumoured, also a wizard. Otherwise how could he have married Icota, the prettiest girl in the village, fair haired and bue-eyed? One day Ico was pruning his grapevines on the gravel slopes of a small volcanic cone just outside the village of El Pinar, each little trunk black and straight as a ramrod. Icota, from her vantage point in a leafless fig tree at the bottom of the slope called out to him. "It's not right! You're crookéd and your vines are straight!" And she cast her spell. Ico's vines writhed and twisted at his feet in the most capricious ways - Icota had learnt a lot from her husband! He laughed and looked down at her, "Wickéd woman! Perched in your tree, watching me work! From now on, that tree will bear figs in your semblance, white outside and pink and sweet inside!" And that, it is said, is the origin of the "cotia" variety of fig.

Ripe figs of the nogal variety
The best figs in the world come not from Smyrna but from El Hierro. And the best in El Hierro, although some may debate this, come from around El Pinar. Here many different varieties grow, not just cotias but little round black figs, fat juicy white figs, "vicariños" dark outside and white inside, "breveros" long thin and black, ... The most appreciated of all, and most rightly so, is the "nogal" so called for its walnut colour of dark purple, green and brown. The flesh of this variety is delicately flavoured, very sweet and with a perfectly balanced acidity. It is also the best for sun-drying.

Gathering figs near the pine forest at more than 1000 metres above sea level
Most fig trees bear two sets of figs each year - the first on the previous year's wood in late spring and the second in late summer on new growth. By the way, the fig is really the flower and not a fruit. The first set, "brevas", tend to be large and juicy and are not very good for drying. The second are slightly smaller and contain an enormous amount of sugar. Fig trees require some upkeep, though not much more than thinning and ploughing. Regrettably their cultivation and the subsequent drying of the fruit is in decline even in El Pinar where figs were so important to the subsistence economy in the first half of the last century.

A drying tunnel on the southern slopes of El Hierro
Traditionally the figs were gathered with a short stem and then spread out in the open air on a bed ("tendal") of pine-needles to dry in the sun. Sometimes, in the rare event of rain they were dried in ovens. The ecological balance that kept the drying figs free of "undesireable guests" has been upset and so today open sundrying is being abandoned - or perhaps in the past people simply ate their figs worms an'all. A recent development is a plastic drying tunnel that creates a current of warm air to do the job.

The dried figs are then sorted into three grades: sale, home consumption and animal feed. Fifty years ago the second grade figs were gently flattened and then put into large boxes where little barefoot girls stamped up and down on them to exclude air. The resulting block of dried fruit would see the family through the winter. Older people today praise the taste of this staple together with fresh goat cheese or gofio - at least as they remember it from their hungry childhood!


2 Nov 2016


To be quite honest, before the first rain in six months the countryside of El Hierro is not much to write home about. The grass is reduced to a greyish buff and the leaves of all but the most tenacious bushes are shrivelled and dulled by the the final vengeful agony of summer. The pines and the evergreen forests are as black and green as ever but our only deciduous trees are fruit trees in gardens and fields and, if they can get away with it, even these surreptitiously shed their leaves rather than allow the island the pleasure of some autumn colouring..

Around this time of year we sometimes see the odd heron, presumably a stray individual blown off course by easterly winds on its migration south. Yesterday one of these huge birds flopped down onto a wall outside my study window. I hope he knew what he was doing for when he took flight again he seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction!


A more reliable indication of the season is the ripening of the ugliest of all fruits, the quince. Our four quince-trees provide us with our yearly supply of quince jelly, although my wife says we make it mostly in order to perfume the house!

But the rain eventually does come and we know it's not the end of the world after all! It beats down on the dead grass flattening it into a sort of soggy mulch. In two or three days, even before this spate of showers is over, new grass starts forcing its way up through the dead carpet. For our spring is now, the spring of rebirth, the spring of the Green Man.

Then, at the turn of the month, October to November, the smells of russets and smoky chestnuts, although it seems to me, much less pervasive than they used to be. And, of course, this year's dried figs - but more of those in another post.

But there is one thing that can be spectacular in the autumn of El Hierro - the vineyards. Personally, I think winegrowing should be a tax-free activity. The few days' explosion of colour is worth far more in terms of identity, attraction and indirect revenue to the island than the meagre taxes our institutions extract from the activity.

27 Sep 2016


If almonds were not called almonds they would be called by another name that would sound the same. Almond, amande, almendra, mandorla, amendoa … A nut that is exotic and desirable, pure white when stripped of its coverings, sweet but sometimes bitter, capable of killing – a femme fatal of nuts. Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern. North African, too. But not of the cold northern climes: she leaves those to the oily walnut and the hazel.

High on the dry southern slopes of El Hierro the almond trees are the first, with their cousins the apricots and the nectarines, to blossom. Sometimes as early, individual teasers, as New Year’s Eve, but normally in February, and thousands of almond trees dress El Pinar in white and pink.

A snowfall of petals from almond trees. They blossom before the leaves appear.
These trees were once essential to the subsistence economy of the area but today the harvesting of almonds seems to be undertaken only by romantic old traditionalists: shelled almonds from California are bigger and quite cheap in the supermarkets. But what can you expect, a cake or praline made with your own almonds tastes so much better – I’ll swear to that!

Beating the almonds from the tree.

The almond tree doesn’t give up her precious fruit so easily. The almonds are about ready for harvesting in September when the husks start splitting open like clams to reveal what remained hidden for so long. Of course, you could spend all month gently picking the fruit one by one, but she likes to be beaten with long sticks. This causes a shower of hard green lumps the size of big plums to pelter the children gathering them off the ground underneath and, at the same time, prunes the tree of dry and dead twigs. Next the husks have to be prized off the hard shell of the nut – if it’s too early they stick and if it’s too late they are too hard and dry. 
Even my little grandaughter does her bit. Although
she prefers shelling the nuts to husking them as
she is doing here.

Then the nuts in their shells have to be dried in the sun to avoid fungus during storage. Later, when you want to use them you have to crack open the hard shell without breaking the kernel inside. The little girl in the photo does it perfectly every time – except when she wants to eat one! Finally, most recipes call for blanched almonds stripped of the brown skin that covers the kernel. You do that by putting them in boiling water and then taking each skin off one by one. 

Curiously I know of no specifically local recipe that uses almonds predominantly. But if you're in Valverde go to the people that make "quesadillas". They make some spectacular "almendradas" - almond cakes similar to those coconut ones we all know but incredibly better.