7 Dec 2016

32. 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

31. Figs

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

30. Autumn

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 Sept 2016

29. Almonds

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.

12 Aug 2016

28. Aging Rockers Never Die

When I’ve invited friends to come and stay with us on the island, several have expressed fears of a third world medical service. Understandable but unfounded. The Spanish public health service is one of the best in Europe – so much so that the government recently had to take steps to curb “medical tourism”. The Canary public health service is one of the best in Spain and, obviously, includes the service we on the island receive, both residents and visitors. Despite bad press engendered by highly visible protests by some of the sector’s professionals, many patients I have talked to have experienced an improvement in attention and general efficiency over the last few years.

There is, however, a protocol you have to follow, whether you like it or not. You have to go to your local centre of primary attention. You will be seen by a general doctor who, in most cases, will prescribe treatment. If they deem it necessary they will refer you to a specialist. On occasions, the patient will be gently bundled off in an ambulance to our hospital in Valverde. Yes, the population of the whole island is less than that of a small town anywhere else and yet we have a beautiful little hospital with resident and visiting specialists in all areas, state-of-the-art equipment, operating theatres, laboratory etc … If, at the hospital, they think it advisable you’ll be whisked off in a helicopter to the main general hospital in Tenerife. It sounds interminable, doesn’t it? But this year, two young women I know suffered strokes in the village. Within a couple of hours they were being operated on by neurosurgeons in Tenerife. One has almost completely recovered and is leading a normal life, the other has had several more operations and is in rehabilitation.

I, for my sins, suffer from a rather nasty condition. My sister, who works in a hospital in England and has something similar to my illness, was surprised by the barrage of tests I had had and the short waiting time for each. I have had two successful operations on my eyes and I continue to see the specialist in neuropathy in Tenerife. The last time, he ordered an electromyogram and NCS as soon as possible. I went to the desk to book the session. The man taking note was probably misled by my appearance after an early flight – unruly hair, haggard face, bristling moustache and braces holding up my jeans, accompanied by a fashionable young woman – for he finished his paperwork and looked at me with a smile saying “Aging rockers …”  I completed his sentence with “… never die!”
“Not if we can help it!” he added. We laughed and I got my test immediately.

Our hospital, Nuestra Señora de los Reyes, built on the only bit of flat land in Valverde.

The medicalized helicopter from Tenerife touching down in order to evacuate a patient waiting in the ambulance.

20 Jun 2016

27. San Borondón

The Canary Islands from West to East, or left to right if you are looking at a map, are El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. Some people add La Graciosa and Isla de Lobos, but these are really tiny. None of our modern maps, however, show the island of San Borondón. I don’t think this is because of military secrecy or anything like that, it’s just that every time some geographer establishes its exact coordinates it goes somewhere else. This has not always been so. Way back in the sixth century some intrepid sailors made the crossing to San Borondón. As was the habit in those days, on landing they stuck a cross and a flag in the sand and claimed the island for some king or other. The island didn’t like this and immediately submerged. The sailors just managed to get back to their boat before that too went under – they had tied it to some rocks – but for one unfortunate man who couldn’t swim. He was condemned forever to live on San Borondón, above or below water, and as soon as someone sets foot on the island he appears, chops off their head with a his cutlass and feeds their body to the fish.

A small boat for so many!
Saint Brendan on Jasconius, perhaps.
University of Augsburg, Germany 
The name, San Borondón, comes from Saint Brendan, an Irish priest. He, like another famous and earlier Irishman, Bran, mythical and most likely Celtic, set out from Ireland in about 520 A.D. to find the Blessed Isles with seventeen others in a currach made of wattle and leather. If, in fact, they did reach the Canary Islands, and many of us believe they did, the isle of the dog may well be Gran Canaria; the island of blacksmiths and the volcano sounds like Tenerife; the isle of sheep, El Hierro, and Jasconius perhaps the coming-and-going island later named in honour of the Saint.

In those times the ocean was crowded with huge sea creatures but we have hunted them to near extinction. Recently, monsters like those drawn on ancient maps have been washed up on our shores to the amazement of the press and the laboratories. A leviathan whale or a colossal squid could easily destroy a leather boat like Brendan’s. Those sailors believed. Even though the chances were they would not be coming home, they believed. And so do I. It’s necessary to believe even if it’s not rational. Perhaps you believe in Heaven or Asgarth, or that a road accident or a terrorist attack can’t happen to you, or that your husband will never find out. You may even believe in the boon of the EU. But we have to believe in things. I believe in San Borondón, in unicorns and in quite a few things you might scorn at.

Way out on the horizon you can see mountains rising above the cloud. I can swear there is no land there today
and there wasn't any yesterday. This is my last sighting of San Borondón, from my garden looking southeast
on 15th June 2016.

9 Jun 2016

26. Apañada at San Andrés

San Andrés is more or less in the centre of the island. Three times a year, country people came to sell or barter their animals at the fair held there. There would be cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and mules, pigs and even chicken. What was particular about this fair was that once a deal was struck there was no going back on it and for this reason these three fairs were known as ‘apañadas’. ‘Apañar’ is one of those numerous curious words in the Spanish language that for English speakers should really be two words that have almost contradictory meanings. ‘Apañar’ means to solve a problem, manage to get something done but it also means to do something dishonestly, deceptively.

The story goes that a man had a donkey that had found the way to avoid work. As soon as the lightest weight was loaded onto the pack saddle she would collapse to the ground and refuse to get up. At the fair he met another man with a donkey and they agreed to exchange their animals. The second man asked if there was anything wrong with our man’s beast.
“Nothing!” he said, “She’s the most intelligent animal I’ve had. As bright as my daughter! What about yours?
“Intelligent, you say! What do you know about intelligence? Mine will run circles round all of you. OK, my friend. You need a bit of luck! Here you are …” And they exchanged tethers. Back home, our man loaded his new donkey with a couple of sacks of maize and, pleased as Punch, started off down the path. It was all right when he led the animal but as soon as he tried to walk beside or behind it, the donkey left the path to move in a wide uncertain circle, tripping over roots and stones and bungling into bushes. The poor creature was blind in one eye!

About a generation or two ago the island evolved rapidly from a subsistence to a consumer economy and the apañada lost its original raison d’être. It was transformed into a general agricultural fair held once a year on the first weekend in June. The sale of animals was replaced by competitions, and representatives of firms selling oenological supplies, fertilizers and farm machinery had stands to exhibit their wares. There were also stands of local produce and handicrafts as well as promotional exhibitions run by the local authorities. Horse races and similar events were also held outside.

Because of the crisis in recent years the fair has again adapted to popular tastes and needs. The organizers program many workshops for adults, youngsters and small children – traditional sports, handicrafts etc. There is an exhibition under cover open to artisans, wineries, cheese makers, market gardeners and so on, and, outside, a host of events including horse dressage, Canary wrestling and, this year, “arrastre”, an ancient Canary sport in which a yoke of bulls pull a sled carrying up to a ton or more of weight.

It is curious how the real craftsmen are disappearing and are being replaced (if at all) by what I call pseudo-artisans. A few years ago we still had men who made real pestle-and-mortars of mulberry wood, baskets of wicker softened in the sea, wrought iron tools, fine Canary silver-handled naifes (pronounced 'knifeys'), pack saddles of hay and leather ... . Such things were inevitably expensive. Today we have cheap knick-knacks made in China, fly-curtains made with bottle-tops and the occasional craftsman from another island. It is as though the modern world, in the form of the bulls of the arrastre, is chasing the craftsmen out of the picture!
However not all is lost! This year I was surprised to see the stand of two luthiers who have a workshop on the island. They will be the subject of future post.

30 May 2016

25. Our Wines

 A good wine is best kept in the memory.

Don Vicente’s wine was like a beautiful woman. Elegant and refined, its unblemished complexion pure pale gold, its aromas those of maturity with suggestions of a persistent springtime and a promise of sensations never to be fully known. Maybe our memory has magnified its virtues, maybe our memory falls short, but my wife and I often recall that day forty years ago in Don Vicente’s house in Sabinosa. He had made that barrel of wine sixteen years before, sixteen years untouched, peacefully evolving in the cool darkness of his little cellar.

You are unlikely to find a wine like that today. Don Vicente, one of the last really traditional winemakers, has left us and, like all the others, took his knowledge with him. So today’s winemakers have no tradition of generations behind them. They are, so to speak, still learning their craft, and their products suffer from a malaise typical of our times: they lack identity. They may be very good, but there is rarely anything intrinsic that tells you they come from El Hierro. Nevertheless, things are changing. Some of the winemakers have realized the possibilities this open situation offers and perhaps quite soon more really distinctive wines from the island will be on the market. Another advantage is that some unique pre-phylloxera varieties have been conserved on the island. Among the red varieties are Baboso Negro and Verijadiego Tinto and, among the whites, Verijadiego Blanco, Baboso Blanco and Verdello. Look out for these varieties on the labels.

Our young white wines are fresh and lively and compare favourably with any within their category. The reds have improved substantially in the last few years as the winemakers have experimented with our endemic varieties. As far as I know, there are no aged wines on the market. It’s up to you to try the wines and find those that you like best. In any case, remember these general rules:
        -    Whites: during the year following that of their harvest
        -    Rosés and Carbonic Maceration: during the first six months of the year following that of
             their harvest
        -    Reds: during the two years following that of their harvest
        -    If you can, get the advice of someone who knows what he/she is talking about

I personally believe that one of the most promising futures lies in sweet aged wines somewhat similar to ports and sherries. Our Atlantic location, our climate and varieties of grapes and, from what one reads in the accounts of visitors in centuries gone by, such wines may well mirror the real tradition of El Hierro, as Don Vicente’s did. In fact one such wine, “Salmor”, has won several awards but today it seems difficult to find.

The other day I went to visit a neighbour who has been making wine for perhaps only ten years, or less. He proudly gave me a glass of red wine: it was exceptional! Not only the best red wine from El Hierro I have ever tasted but distinctive, too. So by the time you come to the island, perhaps it is on the market and you will have found the treasure you were looking for.

Meanwhile, if you read Spanish you may like to look up our Designation of Origen site

An informal winetasting event presided over by the President of the Denominación de Origen de los vinos de El Hierro.

22 May 2016

24. History, Part 1 : Bimbache

The Canaries are somewhere people come to but not somewhere people go from. Today we come for holidays or to retire, or to run away from something, but very few islanders leave ... voluntarily. Some time two thousand years ago, or perhaps a little longer, it was just the same. The original inhabitants came from North Africa, the part we call the Maghreb. Perhaps they were fleeing the Punic Wars or the Roman occupation, or famine or religious persecution – nothing much has changed! But they brought sheep, goats, pigs and dogs and seeds, so they were coming to stay. They probably came in different expeditions over a relatively long period of time and, given their probable agricultural origin, they most likely hired the services of professional seafarers to make the voyage. Of course, a trickle of stranded seamen, adventurers, misfits and refugees continued to come and mingle with the established population throughout history, just like today. (See my post KILROY.) There was not much ethnic or genetic variation among the aboriginal populations of the different islands in the archipelago.

Now just imagine that you and your family, with four or five other families, are the first to arrive here in El Hierro. It’s a desert island. Literally. There are no people, a lot of birds but no edible animals (except for some huge lizards). There’s a lot of rock, sand and volcanic badlands. There are dense forests in some places where it seems to rain all the time, although there is no rain in the clearings. Worst of all there are only a few miserable springs and seasonal streams. Later you discover your bronze or iron tools are the only bits of metal here. You remember seeing at home some things made of flint and the way old craftsmen knapped that material, but you cannot find any flint or even any workable stone like it.

There are things that you brought with you that you and your contingent are unlikely to change. Firstly your language. But even that evolves. By the time of the conquest in the fifteenth century, your vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax has changed enough to make it difficult for someone from Tenerife to understand you although you and his people have the same origin. You could say the same for your myths and religious practices, the seasonal festivities, your social behavior and so on. Your socio-political organization remains pretty much that of the village you came from. One romantic member of your group hammers into a petrified lava flow a jumbled collection of petroglyphs like those near the village back home, most likely without knowing what they represent. At the same time you have learnt to capture and conserve fresh water. You make the basic stone tools, crude but efficient enough, from basalt. You catch fish with a line and gorge and you eat vast amounts of limpet. You have learnt the properties of the local plants, their fruits and poisons. Notably you have adapted to your environment and in doing so you have simplified your material culture to the minimum – a few tools, mostly wooden, some elementary pottery made of poor quality clay – just enough to satisfy your basic needs as you move around the island’s pastures with your herds. No need to build hovels or carry tents: there are plenty of caves. You are no longer a proto-Berber resident on an island. You have become a Bimbache, or Bimbape, the prehispanic inhabitant of El Hierro.

Regrettably I have never had the opportunity to take a photo of
a Bimbache. But we can easily imagine her feelings of despair
and frustration when, however beautiful she may have thought
the evening colours, she saw almost at arm's length away the
silhuettes of  Tenerife and La Gomera above the sea of clouds.

There is one thing that intrigues newcomers to the Canaries today. Their prehispanic inhabitants, including those of El Hierro, had no means of travel by sea. They made no boats, canoes or rafts of any sort. One intrepid Guanche is supposed to have swum from Tenerife to La Gomera using inflated kid skins as waterwings - but I bet no-one from El Hierro did the same! The prevaling winds and current would have been too much even for an heroic Bimbache!

That’s about all we know of the island’s earliest people. We have very few of their artifacts, a few skeletons and all the rest is pure speculation. We’re not even sure that they called themselves Bimbache, since the contemporary chroniclers did not bother to tell us. We do have a lot of revealing place-names, though. But more of that in a later post.

20 May 2016

23. Wild Mushrooms

A forest with no wild mushrooms is like a pond with no fish. It has no magic and is pretty useless if you’re hungry. I presume the term “wild mushroom” suggests interest in the edibility of the thing whereas if I were more scientifically interested, I would have used the title “Mycology”. We have both kinds, edible and inedible, in abundance, in fairy rings around twisted old trees, brackets climbing up pines and colonizing tree stumps, small toadstools squashing underfoot in grassy clearings … but only for short seasons.

I have three favourites. The first two, the dotted stalk bolete (suillus granulatus) and the saffron milk cap (lactarius deliciosus), appear in autumn after the october rains. The first, if harvested young, has a marvelous taste. I have found it is better if you take the trouble to remove the damp skin of the cap and the tubes under the cap. The saffron milk cap is my wife’s choice with its nutty taste and served with meat. Both of these are found in the wet grass in clearings in the pine forest. My third favourite is the morel (morchella esculenta) which grows in the evergreen forest after the spring rain in March or April.

Field mushrooms of different sorts grow in the evergreen forest. But I have learnt to be careful and I no longer eat them unless I am very sure. There is one sort that is only distinguishable from the really edible ones by its stalk which is thinner. When you fry it, it has a slightly inky smell and can upset your stomach. I have found really nice field mushrooms high up in the grazing fields of Nisdafe in late autumn.  Another type of field mushroom sometimes fruits at a lower altitude and I collect them on our property.

There must be many edible mushrooms for the taking but I don’t know them. I have seen presumable parasol mushrooms, several different russules and pleasantly perfumed little puffballs. Luckily most of the local people don’t even have my limited knowledge of the matter! The only one they seem to be enthusiastic about is a sort of cross between a truffle and a puffball, white and smooth like a new potato and of that size, too. They call it “nacida” – the new-born one. I find them somewhat tasteless but we have sometimes used them together with potatoes in a stew where they add an interesting texture.

Morels collected yesterday, cleaned and cut in half. We'll have some with pasta for lunch and freeze the rest. The grandchildren who come in summer love them!

20 Apr 2016

22. Fiesta!

If there is one thing all the islanders love, it’s a “fiesta”. I often find it difficult to decide whether any particular festivity is primarily religious, an occasion to meet distant relatives and old friends, or something else. I suppose that’s always been the same and I imagine the majority are a mixture. In any case, the people of El Hierro are passionate about their fiestas. So much so that the most important – the Descent of the Virgin – attracts expatriate islanders from the other Canaries, from mainland Spain and even from Venezuela and Argentina.

The Patron of the island, the Virgin of the Monarchs (de los Reyes), was a miraculous gift to some shepherds who had aided a vessel in distress off the westernmost point of the island in 1546. This is celebrated every year at the cave where She was first housed close to where Her hermitage is now. Today’s shepherds offer a lunch of mutton stew to everyone. Of course you don’t have to attend the mass beforehand. For the festivity of The Lanterns, people carrying lanterns walk throughout the night from all parts of the island through the forest to the Virgin’s hermitage.

He's not too sure about this minister of the Church
waving a lollipop of holy water at him!
There are many other local festivities that have their special colour. In Sabinosa there is one (celebrating, I think, Saint Simon but I get so many saints mixed up) when the wine flows freely and you eat dried sea-serpent (moray eel). In El Pinar, Saint Anthony is taken out into the sunshine to bless the animals:  farmers bring sheep, goats and pigs; old ladies cradle their cats in one arm and hold a canary in a cage in the other; hunters in flat caps bring their dogs, and young men recently returned from Venezuela come on horseback. In San Andrés (Saint Andrew, the highest village on the island) the villagers, who are reputed to be somewhat rough, hang their Patron Saint upside-down by his feet deep down in a dried-up well in times of drought. In Frontera, some time before Carnival but apparently unrelated to any specific religious heritage, men dressed in sheepskins chase children and youths and smear them with blacking and soot. At the end of October the wineries traditionally open their barrels and the vintners go from one to the other tasting the brews and eating roast chestnuts. The Cooperative Winery in Frontera has institutionalized this and everyone is invited to dinner and to the dance that follows.

The Descent (Bajada) of the Virgin is held in commemoration of Her answering the prayers of the Islanders after a terrible drought.  In 1740 the people and their flocks were dying of thirst and as a last resort they carried the Virgin from the west of the island to Valverde in the east, following the route along the crest of the island. On the way it began to rain torrentially. Now we have mains water but it was then decreed the procession should take place every four years forever. And so it does. The Virgin is carried in Her sedan-chair and accompanied by male dancers dressed in white skirts (I imagine the white trousers underneath and tennis shoes are a late addition), white shirts and colourful accessories including a most peculiar headdress. The teams of proud dancers representing the different villages take turns at set points to accompany the Virgin. The dances are evidently very ancient (remember Luis XIV danced “le Canarien” dressed in feathers?) and so is the music. I would say that during the Descent and the rites that follow (lasting from the end of June until the beginning of August) the island has at least double the population it has during the intervening four years. My mental image of the last Descent we went to is of thousands of brightly coloured people running, scrambling, tumbling down a slope of scree, sending up clouds of dust into the hot impossibly blue mountain sky, with the dancers and the Virgin’s sedan ahead of them. What I would have given for a glass of water! Not even wine!

Personally I prefer to avoid crowds. But I do enjoy seeing and, especially, hearing a procession from a distance. There is something eerie, indescribably primeval, in the ancestral sound of far-off bass drums and the trilling of distant flutes.

A procession in El Pinar celebrating the Day of the Cross (3 May). The dancers in white and red lead the two sedans housing the crosses, each representing a different part of the village.

6 Apr 2016

21. Walls

You might well imagine the boys born to the islanders being anointed with oil and water to the priestly words “Go forth my child, go forth and build walls.” There are walls everywhere. Straight walls; meandering walls; walls you can step over and walls three men tall; walls that go straight up one side of a volcanic cone and down the other and walls that spiral up cones making ziggurats; there are walls that enclose fields, pastures and even individual trees and those that enclose nothing; there are crumbling walls and walls standing proud after perhaps centuries of volcanic tremblings; mossy green and gay lichen-covered walls; cyclopean walls; bare walls and botanical walls; retaining walls holding back cultivated terraces and little straight walls in the middle of a field that do nothing. How many millions of rocks and stones have been dug up, picked up and carefully positioned in these dry stone walls, generation after generation? After all, what else but build walls can you do with them as you clear land for sowing and planting?

Our walls are not like the easy dry stone walls you see in some places built with one flat slab of limestone on top of another. The stones here are lumps of heavy, dense, hard basalt often so irregular and rough they can tear the skin off your hands. The walls, up to about two and a half feet wide, are built by placing the larger stones on both sides of the wall so that a relatively flat side faces outwards and forming an interlocking pattern in the centre. The idea is to support the weight of the stone on three points, two at the front and one at the back. As the irregular courses get higher, smaller stones are set in the gaps between header stones and in the space in the centre of the wall. All this gives strength and stability to the wall, besides using up a vast amount of stone.

If you ask me for one thing that characterizes, that is most typical of, El Hierro, I would not say the dripping Garoe tree or the twisted Juniper, both beloved of the island’s publicists. I would say WALLS. They are omnipresent. They represent the efforts of generations and their determination to extract every gramme of nourishment from an unwilling soil. They are the unwritten chronicle of a certain episode, full of mistaken illusion, in the island’s history.

Well maintained walls near San Andrés, the island's highest, and coldest, village.
There a few fences on the island but these are usually just a line of rotting posts and two strands of barbed wire to stop the horse belonging to some returned emigrant from straying. As for hedges … no more than a status symbol outside the “rustic” home of some civil servant or businessman!

Walled fields, now mostly abandoned, in the highland area called Nisdafe. This whole area was once a huge forest that was destroyed by fire many years ago. It burned for three months.

24 Mar 2016

20. Spring album

Spring is sprung,
The grass is ris,
I wonder where my camera is!

That little ditty was imagined before the age of mobiles. Now no-one need lose that shot that proves he was there or that reminder full of colour and selfie smiles unless, that is, he forgot to charge the damn thing!

El Hierro is not grandiose like the Rocky Mountains. Its beauty is more intimate, on a more human scale, not only in size but also emotionally. It's not the unchangeable mountain reflected in an unruffled lake but the unpredictable response of life to the equally unpredictable elements life feeds on.

This year Spring is indeed strange. It was warm in January and the plums blossomed even before the almond trees. Then it was cold and windy and now the plums are blossoming again, rectifying their mistake. Our Wistaria brought out one early tentative bunch of blue perfume at least six weeks ago. Now it should be in full flower but it isn't. Just a few young bronze leaves. Then again, since October it has only rained less than a half of what it usually does by this time. Between them, the NAO, the Niño and Climatic Change are doing their best to promise us an interesting year, to say the least.

I'll be going out with my camera (if I can find it!) and my mobile over the next few weeks and will add new photographs to this album. So do come back to this post from time to time.

These fig trees will soon have tender green leaves and the first of their two yearly crops

The bright pink blossom of a peach reveals abandoned terraces

Clumps of some sort of daisy cover the high pastures in the west of the island

The giant dendelion endemic to El Hierro in the garden next to an almond tree with a few late blossoms

This year the most photographed field in El Hierro, at the turning to El Pinar near San Andrés

The birth of a new cane on a grapevine with a baby panicle which will become a bunch of grapes.

Small figs growing on last year's wood. These will be the first crop ripening at the beginning of summer. The second crop which ripens in autumn grows on this year's wood.

The wonderfully scented orange blossom. A suggenstion of fruit to come is on the left.
At last the Jasmin and Wistaria

The vegetable garden was earlier this time last year. Apricot in blossom on the left.


Wild peas

21 Mar 2016

19. Farewells and friends

I’ve been rather quiet recently. February and March are for us quite busy months, in terms of work and socially, too. The vineyard needs a lot of attention: the grass and weeds need cutting and the vines need pruning. But the wonder of seeing, often in a question of days, new growth sprouting from the buds we carefully left on the cut-back canes and the minute inflorescences that will become future bunches of fruit make it all worthwhile. It’s also the time when friends who every year spend part of the winter here leave to get some skiing in the north or to see the spring start further south. It’s a time of farewell dinners, glasses raised, and seeing-off trips to the airport.

As in most places where people go on holiday or become “foreign residents”, it’s difficult to make real friends with the locals in the Canaries, so foreigners tend to mix more with people like themselves, usually of their own nationality. This is especially so in a small island like El Hierro. The Herreño is hospitable, funny, easy to get on with (if you don’t mind unexplained delays when getting the plumbing done) and often surprisingly generous. But he is the islander and you will always be the outsider. His society, despite apparent internal rifts and quarrels, is closely knit. Like the people from La Gomera, the people of El Hierro are all cousins, perhaps not literally but family ties are strong and very, very extensive. They had to be like this since it was a forgotten island, left to itself, and conditions were sometimes so hard that, as in the middle of the twentieth century, the population had to emigrate en masse. So, if you spend some time here, you’ll get to know a lot of people, acquaintances not friends although they’ll call you “amigo”.

An Herreño I once knew, he’s long dead now, was a man who had led a convulsive, hard life but was still able to talk about it with clarity and devilish humour. We were talking about “amigos”. He maintained he had never had a real friend and I said I had.
“What is a friend?” he asked.
“You tell me,” I said.
“A friend is someone you can wake up at two o’clock in the morning and say ‘Come on, get up, I’m going to kill Eusebio!’ and who pulls on his trousers to go with you to help.”
There aren’t many like that, especially if Eusebio is their cousin!

They can't see us behind the tinted airport glass but they know we're there. So they wave.
Or are they waving goodbye to the island?

18. Kilroy was here

People have an almost irresistible urge to leave their mark wherever they go. I remember going up to Las Cañadas in Tenerife many years ago. The road passed a spring called "Fuente de Joco". Over most of the other graffitti, some British hooligan had painted in huge white letters on the rock-face behind the spring "JOCK'S FONT". Criminal but funny! Luckily, on El Hierro we don't get many hooligans, just occasional lovers cutting his and her initials into a wooden guard rail appropiately at the edge of a precipice.

The last persistent Kilroys we had in El Hierro were here probably six hundred years ago, perhaps much earlier.They left words in an ancient alphabet inscribed into the surface of rocks. Juan Álvarez Delgado, in my opinion the best authority on these questions, called them "Libico-Berber inscriptions". The alphabet appears to be ultimately derived from the Phoenician which later spread, with variants, via Carthage (now Tunis) throughout North Africa and the Sahara. One variant is still used by some Touregs.

Our seaman's name may have been read from top to bottom
or from bottom to top. In any case it should be translated as
"Kilroy"! This inscription was found recently near
La Restinga.
It's fairly certain that the Canaries have been visited by seafarers since at least 500 BC. North African seamen were often crew and it is likely that some were left, voluntarily or not, on the island. Significantly, these inscriptions are often located near places where ships could approach the coast. So we can picture one of those stranded seamen anxiously watching day after day for a sail on the horizon. He may not have been literate but he could probably write his name, and so he did, into the surface of the rock. Some of these inscriptions are accompanied by simple figures that are clearly not letters. One repeated figure is a circle exuding clouds and could be a sort of helmet or hat with feathers. If so, these inscriptions may even be medieval (in our sense of the word).

There is another totally different sort of inscription on the island, similar to those dating at least from the bronze age and found in many parts of Europe and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Perhaps better described as "rock art" they consist of circle, lines, squiggles, spirals and other forms distributed apparently haphazardly on the rock face. These will be the subject of another post later on.

If you like exploring for this sort of thing, take a bottle of water with a spray trigger. Often the inscriptions are only fully visible if the rock is wet. One of the latest ones to be discovered was found by a tourist near La Restinga, so don't lose heart if you're not lucky first time.

"Kilroy was here" was, and perhaps still is, a common phrase scribbled in jest on the walls of public lavatories, historic buildings, classrooms, prison cells, phoneboxes etc.

23 Feb 2016

17. The wind, the wind, the wicked wind …

 The wind, the wind, the wicked wind
That blows the girls’ skirts high!
But God is just and sent the dust
To blind the old man’s eye.

Of course El Hierro is windy. It’s an island. It’s in the Atlantic directly in the line of the northeasterly Trade Winds that blow for most of the year. Like water in a rocky stream, where their passage is obstructed they whip around the sides and over the top of the island. Little more than persistent sea breezes at sea level, higher up and in the east and west of the island solitary trees become wind-cripples – in fact the island’s emblem is a grotesquely twisted juniper (Juniperus phoenicea). Sometimes we get stronger winds, usually from the north or northwest, with gusts above 100 km/h. The strongest I’ve experienced were gusts of over 150 km/h which broke a large apricot tree in half and blew away our greenhouse!

However, our wind is also responsible for one of our island’s claims to worldwide fame. We will one day generate from the wind 100% of our domestic consumption of electricity. When you come up from the airport you’ll go round a bend and suddenly see five gigantic windmills peeping over the mountains at you. They gyrate slowly and don’t make that “wishy” sound that some do, only a deep baritone hum of heavy gears. The idea is that the electricity they produce supplies the grid and also pumps water up to a deposit which is really just a crater lined with plastic. On those days when there is no wind the water from the crater rushes down through turbines to generate the electricity the still air is not generating. In other words the craterful of water is a sort of gigantic battery!

A visitor the other day said our electricity must be cheap. It isn’t. Electricity is the same price to the consumer everywhere in Spain. The advantages to the island are others, the praises of which are sung at almost every mention of the system so I won’t go into them. If you are really interested in this fascinating project check out the official site in English:
and then these two opposing evaluations:

An afterthought: as far as I know this project has hardly any negative effects on the environment. In fact, I think the wind farm actually livens up the rather desolate landscape where it is sited.

9 Feb 2016

16. Classical Music

The appreciation of Classical Music has a very long tradition in the Canaries and some thirty-one years ago the first edition of The International Festival of Music of the Canaries was held. The Festival is financed by the Canary government and almost all the concerts are programmed in the two provincial capitals, Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which makes it difficult for the inhabitants of the smaller islands to attend. In compensation, I suppose, some of the smaller groups visit us during the Festival.

We are lucky. Not only are they first-rate musicians of international reputation but our concerts are gratis. It is true the Festival cannot ship whole orchestras, pianos, harpsichords and organs around the islands so we are very unlikely to have Beethoven’s Ninth
Symphony. But we do have less pretentious music at the hands of trios, quartets … up to chamber orchestras of twenty musicians playing pieces from Purcell to Shostakovich. This year we have had musicians of the relevance of the Trondheim Soloists and the Signum Quartet. The concerts are usually held in churches: wonderful settings and the acoustics are excellent. On the down side, it is January or February and churches are always cold and, secondly, pews are notoriously hard, so bring a pullover and perhaps one of those discreetly thin cushions.

During the rest of the year there are occasional musical events of a lighter nature and there is also a privately organized alternative festival. Otherwise, you always have the Spanish Radio Clásica 24-7.
The Signum Quartet playing at the church of El Pinar, February 2016.

4 Feb 2016

15. Guachinche

Guachinche (pronounced wachinchey) is a sort of primitive eating-house that originated in Tenerife where local winegrowers opened a makeshift tavern and sold a few simple dishes to accompany their wine. When their year’s wine had all been sold, they would close the establishment until the next year’s was ready. These guachinches became so popular in Tenerife that proper restaurants began to protest. Especially because the guachinches started offering more extensive menus, commercial spirits and other producers’ wines. The authorities stepped in and regulated the sector.

Recently several guachinches have opened in El Hierro, and others have closed. They are not true guachinches because the person who runs them does not produce the wine, but that doesn’t matter to you, does it? You obviously won’t find them advertized in the restaurant guide, but driving along you may see a tatty hand-painted sign pointing down, or up, a side road. Go and have a look. A good tactic is to ask what they offer and when they are open so that you can come back another day. See how many people are there and what the food looks like. If there are tables with ten people happily shouting at one another and you see huge grilled pork ribs and jugs of “vino de pata” bandied about, you’re probably onto a good thing. Remember though, local people don’t eat at European times. They don’t turn up for lunch before two or three and nobody is ready for dinner before nine. And don’t expect anything fancy: for starters fresh cheese or “garbanzas” – chickpeas in sauce; the main course is usually grilled meat – pork chops, pork ribs or steak – or perhaps they only serve grilled fish. Chips are more often provided than the famous Canary “papas arrugadas” – wrinkled potatoes. Be wary of salads. Dessert is most often reduced to commercial ice-cream from a freezer.

One final suggestion: make sure you go with someone from the islands, preferably El Hierro. He/she will be able to make things easier and help create the jovial laid-back atmosphere that going to a guachinche implies.

One of the more elaborate guachinches. The boss is trying to convince me his wine is better than mine! Photo: C. Axelsson