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.