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

3 Feb 2016

14. Vino de Pata

Sooner or later someone is going to sing you the wonders of "Vino de Pata". They'll tell you it is the traditional wine of El Hierro, strong, unadulterated, home-made just like their grandfather made it. All this is true, well, more or less ...

The name "Vino de Pata", which means something like "wine made with the feet", is a brilliant example of modern marketing. It gives the impression of colourful young peasants with their shorts rolled up, treading the grapes in the sunlight to the sound of guitars and pretty young voices. It is true that after the middle of the nineteenth century winemaking on the island became a household rather than business activity. It was a fairly alcoholic beverage (around 14-15% alcohol, the maximum the natural local yeast produces), often somewhat oxidized and with a high level of acetic acid. These factors gave it its characteristic taste, its stability and a headache the morning after. In the 1990's the first modern winery was opened and the few families that actually sold wine felt their source of extra income was threatened. They spread the rumour that, unlike their "natural" brew, the new winery made "chemical" wine with artificial colours and taste. One of them called his wine "Vino de Pata" and the name stuck. There wasn't a bar on the island that didn't offer "Vino de Pata" as well as a small selection of wines from the mainland. Wines from the island's legal commercial wineries were often boycotted.

Of course, since that time the producers of "Vino de Pata" have improved their brews and they quite often resemble modern commercial wines. Occasionally you may even find one that is better than some of the wines guarranteed by our "Denomination of Origin". But, as they may not have passed any sanitary control or been declared to the taxman, nowadays they are less often promoted in bars and restaurants. Anyway, if you decide to try one, remember it has no pedigree.

What more do you need? Conversation over a glass of wine at sundown, a few locally grown olives, a chunk of matured goat's cheese ... For the ladies, perhaps something a little less rustic?