29 Mar 2021

65 Three Men


I tried to imagine some time in the future when I look back at our 20+ years in El Pinar and recall my most rememberable places, events and people. I was surprised to find the three men and three women I came up with were all of the same generation and had all passed away. I am sure there must be many others, then and now, who are equally noteworthy but, I am sure, as “Piñeros” not so authentic. I don’t want this to look like obituaries so I am not accompanying the text with their photographs.

      When in the early 70’s the intelligentsia at the University of La Laguna rediscovered El Hierro, they discovered Eloy Quintero.  After years of insignificance and hardship he was suddenly a somebody. I first met him in the passage outside his workshop where a small group of people had gathered to pass the time with this small, wiry, unread man. His audience included a doctor, a university professor and a German nuclear waste engineer … Eloy promoted himself as a craftsman. He wasn’t. At least not in the usual sense of the word. He was just incredibly able at anything he turned his hand to. From wood he made everything from castanets to adze handles, and from looms to bird cages. He had a small forge where he fashioned horseshoes, knives, and tools. He worked tin and made flutes from plastic conduit pipes, and sandals from leather. He made wine, grew potatoes and onions, and knew the best fishing spots on the coast. He built dry stone walls and roofed part of my house. In other words, he could do everything that a subsistence peasant on the island had had to do for centuries. Including traditional dancing and stick fighting.
      But Eloy was not only hands. His knowledge of local plants seemed boundless, but he was botanically pragmatic: once he saw some flowers I had planted, “Very pretty,” he said, “but what do they give you?” Every wild plant I asked him about was good for some ailment or other, though I imagine much of his knowledge of folk medicine was made up on the spur of the moment. In truth, if he did not know the answer to any question on the island’s history or folklore, or for that matter about anything else, he would not hesitate to invent a quite plausible one.
      Eloy’s abilities, energy and resourcefulness made him invaluable to any inquisitive visitor to El Pinar. In fact, his name became a referent, something which undoubtedly generated not a little envy among many in El Pinar. On his death, a street was named after him but over the last twenty years I have not even once heard him mentioned. I don’t think this matters: Eloy fathered a large family which is now a huge clan, including great-great-grandchildren who are not likely to forget the ancestor they never met.  

      I think it was on our first New Year’s Eve in El Pinar. My wife and I and the children were more tired than in the mood for celebrations as darkness fell and the cold night air crept into our house, at that time little more than a pile of stones. Then, Juan Pascual and his wife Eulalia appeared bearing a cake, some dried figs, a fresh goats’ cheese and a bottle of wine. I thought of “Greeks bearing gifts” but I was quite wrong. They said they were lonely and had no-one with whom to welcome in the new year. Of course, that was not really true: they did not want to make us feel embarrassed. We were surprised by this hospitality from an older man I had only once met briefly and we spent a very pleasant evening swapping stories, and jokes.
      Juan Pascual’s sense of humour was something few people saw and fewer appreciated. It was rather like English humour, if such a thing exists. On one occasion, a couple of locals and I were waiting at his house for him when he arrived carrying on his shoulder a hoe. The head of the old tool was very worn down. One of us pulled his leg claiming the hoe was his grandson’s beach toy. Juan Pascual squinted at it for a moment before saying, “God! They don’t make them like they used to! This one was new when I left this morning!” Juan Pascual lived almost next door to Eloy and there was a discrete rivalry between the two very different men. Juan Pascual was taller and heavier and, in consonance, quieter and more circumspect than his neighbour. He made no attempt to impress you with knowledge of “things Herreñas” and, if stumped by a question, he was likely to respond with a preposterous assertion – I once asked him why seagulls flocked up to the village at 850 metres above sea level. He replied, “They are the souls of dead villagers come to check on their wives!”
      He had emigrated to Venezuela and had come home with a little money which he invested judiciously in pieces of land, to the envy of some of the villagers, especially those who had sold. He was accused, rightly or wrongly, of cheating when he slaughtered a sheep and sold off the meat. It’s true he was thrifty and recycled everything. I once helped him set up sprinklers to water a field of potatoes – the main hosepipe had been patched up with strips of rubber so many times you could hardly see the yellow and black stripes of the original plastic. And he worked hard and was strong for his age. I saw him carry on his shoulder an ard with a four- or five-metre draft-pole.
      With apparently no previous warning he fell ill and was taken to hospital. He seemed cheerful enough but suddenly aged. He told me he would only be discharged feet-first. For three days after his funeral, as I worked in the garden he so often mocked me for, I felt distinctly uncomfortable with a solitary seagull perched on the roof of the winery observing me. Coincidence?

      As a boy he used to impersonate the village curate and so Pancho became known as Pancho Cura. Since nicknames here are passed down, I’m not really sure whether it was my Pancho or his father who was the original imitator. In any case, the Pancho Cura I am writing about welcomed us to the island on the day we arrived for the first time. It was high up in the mountains at the vantage point of Jinama. Although it was August, we were frozen. He took us into his stable, ecologically heated by fermenting sheep dung, and gave the children sheep’s milk straight from the udder in grimy plastic yoghurt pots. The children loved it and his hospitality was the beginning of as close a friendship as any foreigner can have with an islander.
      It was just before our first Christmas here and we decided to have lamb on the 25th, so I went up into the mountains to find Pancho. Despite the dense swirling mist, I did find him, wrapped up in a shepherd’s blanket and huddled against a stone wall. He pointed to his barely visible flock and told me to grab whichever lamb I fancied; he was going to stay warm where he was. I managed to convince him to go himself because he knew better, and he soon appeared holding up a lamb in front of him by its hind legs. I realized he had made a mistake (or was he testing the Englishman?). Shepherds usually want to keep the female lambs. He dropped the creature and came back, this time with a lovely little fat male lamb. I had obviously impressed him, for he refused any payment.
      Pancho, like Juan Pascual, had a fine sense of humour. I found him one day at home watching a grainy black and white television retransmission of Los Panchos, a group of even then aging Peruvians who sang boleros. He looked up at me and said, “You want to watch these. If they keep on practising, they are going to be pretty good one day!” He had quite a lot of land, especially mountain grazing land where he kept his sheep. When he seriously started feeling old and tired, he found a buyer for the flock and sold off the fields as well. This was to be the end of shivering for him and the end of cheesemaking for his wife. He did not tell her anything about his decision for some days. When he did, she naturally protested she would have no milk for her cheese. “Don’t worry, old girl,” he said, “From now on we’re going to milk the savings bank!”
      They did, but he did not live much to enjoy it. But the tradition continues in his son, Panchillo Cura (Little Pancho the Curate).

31 Dec 2020

64. Back to nature




Like all young people, my generation insisted on believing we could defy the inevitable. We imagined, for instance, we could opt out of the rat-race and go back to nature to plant potatoes in idyllic villages somewhere. A few managed to make it, perhaps even to the Cotswolds or Brittany. But most went back to a ‘proper job’ in London or Lyon, even Brussels. We had not counted on crude reality, nor foreseen how the world was to change.

Not surprisingly, the dream lives on and even goes from strength to strength. For many, life has become unbearable: our cities are inhuman, our work unrewarding, our food tasteless, our relationships bitter, our future uncertain … Today’s ‘back-to-nature’ people, though, are different, savvier. They know there are no derelict farmhouses to be picked up for coppers. They know the earth is way below their knees and that they must have an income. But they also know that today they have a brilliant chance to make it work.

Hideaways ‘far from the madding crowd’ are no longer the exclusive prerogative of successful writers and painters. The pandemic has shown that many of us really can work from home. Air transport since the 80’s has made the world a lot smaller. Computers and modern travel open up all sorts of opportunities, not only to work where you are but also to make where you are work for you.

El Hierro has outstanding potential for initiatives, modest and ambitious, partly because of what it intrinsically is and partly because most of the footwork has already been done. To begin with, its accessibility. Being one of the Canaries, it is easy to get to from anywhere in Europe. IT communications are far better than in most comparable areas on the mainland. The island itself is beautiful. It is quiet and the air is clean. The roads are good and so are our services, especially medical. As long as you don’t pine for the snow, anyone can find within the confines of the island the climate that best suits them. And, of course, El Hierro has none of those things `back-to-nature’ people don’t like. The island is practically virgin territory, just waiting for ideas.

13 Dec 2020

63. Rain


Rain, rain, go away,
Come again another day!

Children's ditty


To most people the idea of pleasure is incompatible with rain. It dampens everything, including our spirit, it floods the pavement with grimy traps for our soggy shoes, our hair clings to our crown and cheeks like seaweed at low tide, passing traffic soaks our trousers up to the knee with a decoction of cigarette ends and dog poo … That’s how I remember it when long ago I lived in a city. Perhaps they have cleaned things up since then …

But here on rural El Hierro, I taught my grandchildren a very different version of the jingle:

"Rain, rain, stay today
And come again every day.”

It won’t, though. So, we can afford to appeal to the gods for it. If it did rain every day, the island would be lush like Honolulu, inevitably full of American tourists in flowered shirts and young Herreñas in grass skirts. And we don’t want that, do we?

We could do with more rain than we get now, perhaps twice our average of 450 mm (about 18 inches) a year on the southern slopes. No, we wouldn’t mind that at all. We know that here the rain can never last more than a few days at a time and that the sun will soon be out in a blue sky like no other. It all depends on old man NAO sending us low pressure and westerlies. No, you’re not alone, a lot of other people haven’t heard of him either. NAO is an Atlantic version of the Pacific’s Niño. Then, we have no rivers to break their banks flooding roads, basements and garages as they apparently do everywhere else. The island’s “barrancos” (gullies and ravines), dry most of the time, are quite sufficient to carry off excess. And third, our soil, volcanic and porous, simply soaks up any rain falling on it faster than a Russian can drink vodka.

Here’s something else you might never have heard of – horizontal rain. No, it’s not rain in a gale, but something far more gentle. The western Canary Islands rise high out of the Atlantic Ocean right in the path of the Trade Winds coming thousands of miles from the north. The winds are laden with moisture which, as they are forced over the mountains, forms clouds.  These clouds, in turn, condense on every leaf and pine needle of the forests high up on the northern slopes of the islands, millions of jewels of the purest distilled water falling drip, drip, drip, onto the leaf-mould below. The volume of horizontal rain that soaks into the forest floor each year must be immense, but the weathermen don’t even attempt to include it in their statistics. And, as far as I know, no-one has ever seriously tried to cash in on the phenomenon, except, that is, for the aboriginal “Bimbapes” at the famous Garoé tree.

Yes, we look forward to rain. Vertical or horizontal, we know we need it. After all, we ourselves are ninety-five percent rain ... indirectly, of course! 

9 Dec 2020

62. Regrets


I have no idea where I am. On a deckchair somewhere, I'm uncomfortable. The light is blinding me to my surroundings. After an age of anguish I begin to recognize my garden. Outside my house. I relax in relief. I close my eyes again. I hear, far off, the grumbling of the sea as the waves crash against the rocks a kilometre away to the east and a thousand metres below me. I don't understand why my relief is laced with regret.

      A blackcap forces out his crystalline riff and is answered by a flock of wild canaries landing in the almond tree, giggling and chattering like a thousand futile fashionable young things. The regret turns to melancholy at the song of a distant blackbird. Blackcap, blackbird … black and white stripes of a hoopoe not ten feet away, jabbing the earth with his long, curved beak. Somewhere between sleep and awakeness, I see him beside the curry plant. I smell the curry plant, immortelle. I don’t know if I really smell it or if I remember the smell. In my mind I sense the wood in the house, warm, dry and resinous, and the stone walls, slightly acrid with age, like me. The native artemisia by the kitchen patio, they call it Moll – as in Flanders – and say it purifies the air. I recall the refined perfume of the stephanotis that climbs the kitchen wall, and the more brazen jasmine, too, and the sherbet of the wisteria. I smell the woodstove in winter and the earth wet with rain in the garden, and the olive tree and the orange and lemon blossoms and hear their beautiful Arabic name “Azahar”. I can’t hear or smell the grapevines but I can hear and smell the winery, and the wine, and I can taste the grapes. And the plums, too, and figs and apricots.  Melancholy …

      I remember my wife and I forty years ago. We looked at each other when we came here, to this our friend’s house. We smiled: this was our place. Neither knew why. We just knew. But things happen, things change in ways we could never have imagined. And we know it’s time to move on. Like our friend did. The house is up for sale.

10 Aug 2020

61. Real People, Summer Islanders, Alemanes and Others

It would have been suicide to try to pass the car in front, stationary as it was on the hairpin bend on the main road through El Pinar. After waiting patiently for a few minutes, I got out and asked the driver to move to the side so that I and the other cars behind me could continue on our way. She sized me up and emphatically said, “On my island, I do as I please!” before resuming her conversation with another woman standing across the road. As I returned to my car I noticed her number plate was from Gran Canaria, nothing especially strange here on El Hierro. Later I told a friend the anecdote, he laughed, “Evidently she was an “herreña de verano!”

The “Summer Islander” lives elsewhere but returns to his/her island in the summer or for special events like local patron saint celebrations. The Summer Islander is excessively patriotic, as Georges Brassens sang “Le con qui est né quelque part” – best left untranslated for those who do not speak French! But the story does illustrate the deeply possessive relation of the islander to the island and to people from elsewhere.

To the islander, people born here are “gente gente” –  roughly “real people”. If they have returned from emigration to America they may initially be referred to as “retornados” – “returnees” – but soon become real people again. But their children born in Venezuela, despite having Spanish nationality, will always be “Venezolanos”.

Everyone else is, as some English used to say, “not one of US”. We are very rarely fully accepted. We are tolerated, welcomed, even admired, as long as we don’t rock the boat. Of course that’s the same everywhere, but perhaps nowhere so innocently admitted. One Easter holiday years ago, a neighbour said to me,
“We didn’t know you were here! We haven’t heard you.”
“We don’t make much noise, you know.”
“That’s why we tolerate you.”
Had I come from Tenerife, Seville or New York, her response would have been the same.

On the other Canary Islands, people from the mainland are often depreciatively referred to as “Godos”. Not so on El Hierro. All Spaniards from the mainland, and from the other Canaries as well, are lumped together as “los de fuera” – “outsiders”. For example, if you don’t know who your landlady is talking about, she might say, “You know, that woman from outside (“esa de fuera”) who drives a yellow Volkswagon.”

Fifty or sixty years ago, the few people from Europe who made it to El Hierro were mostly Germans, young, rather colourful, and had some money in their pockets. At least more than the average local. Consequently, they stood out wherever they squatted, drank or stoned themselves. They were soon seen by the locals as rather comical and game to be fleeced. They were fleeced. Of course, that contingent is no longer here but the name remains. Today, anyone from Europe apart from Spain and Portugal is called “alemán” – German. And not only by the ignorant: I finally gave up trying to convince one of our leading politicians of my origins. I suppose his island culture was stronger than his education and managerial experience. As you might well expect, Germans still form the majority of the European visitors to El Hierro. The story goes that when the underwater volcano was erupting near La Restinga, aerial photographs showed a black-yellow-and-red striped beach-towel pegged to its rising dome some thirty feet below the bubbling waves.

It is not my intention to suggest the islanders are xenophobic. They are not. The curious categorization of others that I describe is the islanders’ strategy to come to terms with the changing circumstances that have overcome them in a shorter time than is the case elsewhere. For four and a half centuries, 1400 – 1850, the simple people of El Hierro survived in isolated subsistence. The only contact with outsiders was with a few clergymen and the occasional administrator of the absentee lord of the island, in both cases collecting tithes. In the nineteenth century, the pressure on the peasants increased and the period of emigration commenced. In America, the islanders clung to their island precedence, the only identity they had, and magnified its virtues, in the face of their new role as underdogs in a foreign society. Their return, largely in the second half of the twentieth century, more or less coincided with the advent of massive tourism, a few representatives of which made it to the island. Some islanders have also been to places other then America as soldiers, students, taxidrivers, shopkeepers … But the fundamental vision of himself and El Hierro that the islander has is the one the emigrant imagined. He is on his island. True, it has changed but he and the other islanders can still cling to their picture of it. There are also a lot of other people here, but he doesn’t quite know why, what they are doing here, how long for, or even whether they should be …

Before Covid
Before Covid, the Sunday morning market at Frontera used to be an untidy boisterous event, one of the few where
you could expect to see in one place the full variety of the island's human fauna. It still is. You might not be able to
identify in the photo the full spectrum but we are all here: real people; summer islanders; a few outsiders, returnees
and Venezuelans, and, of course quite a few 'alemanes' including, apart from myself, real Germans, Italians,
French, Swedes and perhaps a Russian.
Incidentally, if you decide to go and see the market for yourself, don't expect to see stacks of the fruit I mentioned
in my last entry
, most of the produce comes from Tenerife at the nearest!

3 Jul 2020

60. Our Fruit

Some sixty years ago, enterprising farmers from La Palma decided to set up banana plantations in El Hierro. The idea was to truck down from the central highlands fertile soil with which to cover the volcanic badlands at sea level in El Golfo. Some of this earth was just tipped over the edge of the surrounding cliffs. Walls were built to encompass the future plantations and wells dug to supply irrigation. But the island has a mind of its own and the Palmeros had not counted on the wind, the wicked wind, fatal to banana plants. The Palmeros cut their losses and left, leaving all their investment to the rejoicing Herreños. Gradually the new agricultural land was reconverted to other, less susceptible but more profitable, tropical fruit crops. Bananas are still grown in El Golfo, mostly in greenhouses, while the main single producer is an enormous greenhouse in the south of the island.

Hundreds of steel posts form the structure of this enormous greenhouse measuring 120,000 square metres, or

Hundreds of steel posts form the structure of this enormous greenhouse measuring 120,000 square metres, or
30 acres, covered with fine mesh netting to protect the banana plants from the wind and insects. The lorry
and wharehouse on the left give an idea of the size. I find the geometric austerity of the greenhouse somehow
fits in well with the cruel beauty of this desolate landscape in the south of the island.

The area of El Golfo produces excellent pineapples and fibreless mangoes, called ‘mangas’ here in opposition to the smaller fibrous kind. Most of the production of bananas and pineapples is exported to mainland Spain, and mangoes to the other islands. Pawpaws and other exotic fruits are also grown.


Terraces of pineapples. Notice the cruel points have been cut off the leaves to spare the workers on these dense
plantations. The shaddows of 15 foot banana plants show up against the netting on the side of the greenhouse on
the left. The earth for these terraces built on the volcanic badlands may well have been tipped over the 3,000 ft
cliffs in the background.

All of these tropical and subtropical fruit are, of course, relative newcomers to the island. Historically the most important fruit crop in the island was the grape for wine and brandy. And it is gradually making a comeback. Several posts in this blog discuss our viticulture and wines.

Another fruit is the prickly-pear. It seems to have declined in grace in recent years. The cactus it grows on was once farmed in all the Canary Islands for the carmine dye of the cochineal insect that infests the paddles and was used to colour Campari, Moroccan flowerpot hats, lipstick ...

Post 31 in this blog is all about figs. The ubiquitous fig trees are extremely hardy, long-lived and drought resistant and so thrive particularly well on the southeastern slopes around El Pinar, as do almond trees.

Almond trees blossom sometime between Christmas and the end of February and El Pinar is dressed in all tones from white to blushing pink. We know one Scandinavian couple who passed through the village while on holiday and were so enchanted by the spectacle they came to live here. Some say the pinker the blossom the more bitter the nut, but in my experience that is not so. One kind of almond I had never seen before is the ‘mollar’ (pronounced ‘moyAR’), meaning ‘soft’ in reference to the husk and shell which you can separate from the nut with your fingers. Like figs, almonds were once important to the countryman’s subsistence economy, but now California produces them cheaply and you don’t even have to shell them! Nevertheless, in late summer we wake up to the dry “tap tap” of nostalgic old women (and sometimes men) beating the almond trees with long poles to gather the nuts.

Most fruit trees you can buy today are on dwarfing stock for ease of picking. These have by nature very superficial roots and so do not flourish under our conditions of poor rainfall and sandy soil. But an almond tree grown from seed has a good root system, including a very long taproot. So here it has proved an excellent rootstock on which to graft other drupes, like peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums … All of these are grown locally for home consumption.

The russet apples, called ‘Reinetas’, from San Andrés were very much appreciated. Undeservedly so in my opinion. But their production is now barely testimonial, presumably by being priced out of the market and/or climate change. We have found that one pome fruit (of the same family as an apple) that does well here with a little irrigation is the quince. It produces large fruit that ripen in autumn and make a very good jelly. Incidentally, the word ‘marmalade’ appears to derive from the Portuguese word ‘marmelo’ meaning ‘quince’.

Citrus fruit, despite there being a lemon tree in nearly every house’s kitchen garden, demand too much water. In Frontera there were, a few years ago, several plantations of oranges, most of which have been abandoned. They could not compete with imports from Valencia, and now Morocco.

Given the variety and quality of the fruit that grows on the island you would expect some sort of secondary industry such as the production of jam, even on a limited scale, to be successful. But it is not easy to deal with EU rules – devised to favour large manufacturers – nor the idiosyncrasy of established distribution networks ... Never worry! At home we always have a good supply of delicious jam, deep-frozen plums and apricots, fresh pineapple, pawpaws, seasonal mangoes, homemade wine …!