30 May 2016

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

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

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!


8 May 2016

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.