30 Nov 2019

54 Tafeña

Samhain, Halloween, Tafeña

The Celts had Samhain. The Catholic Church changed that to All Saints’ Day. Tot of malt in hand, the Scots put some of the Celtic fun back into it and abbreviated the name of the day before to Hallowe’en. The Irish took Halloween with them to the USA. The States commercialized it and exported it back across the pond to Europe, pumpkins, Harry Potter brooms, pointed hats ... And all along, we had had our Tafeñas.

Folk Dancers from the village of Sabinosa performing at this year's Tafeña
I'm not sure whether the qualilty of this picture better reflects the amount of wine consumed
or my feeling of being transposed way back into the past.

Tafeña (pronounced ‘taffenya’), is a pre-conquest word which, I believe, is common to several Canary Islands, especially El Hierro. According to some it refers to ‘a meal of toasted cereal’, to others ‘sugared toasted wheat’. Maybe, but here on El Hierro it is a celebration at which we eat roast chestnuts and drink the first wine. Is it only a coincidence that our Tafeñas are held, like Samhain was, and All Saints and Halloween, at the end of October? I think not. I’m not saying that all these celebrations are the same or have the same origin but that, as the saying goes, ‘En todas partes cuecen habas’ (People cook beans everywhere). Chestnuts are the last fruit of the year and the wine is new, from grapes harvested two months ago. The evenings are getting cooler. Unlike Christmas, which is above all a family affair, this is a good time to look back over the year with friends and acquaintances, to remember the ‘Faithful Departed’ and to make plans for the future.

This is exactly what our cooperative winery offered us last Thursday. By ‘us’ I mean everyone on the island, visitors included. It started around 8 o’clock and was still going strong when we (that is, our party) left at midnight. They had set up outdoors at least a dozen long trestle tables seating fifty people each, as well as a stage for the performers, among whom I include a selection of tipsy, local ‘worthies’. These set the ball rolling with the inevitable speeches, to which some of us pretended to listen, while bottles of the latest brews were plonked on the tables – more than 400 litres were drunk last year when fewer people attended. The politicians were followed by a splendid show of folk-
This photo, taken just before,
represents perhaps a third
of the public.
dancing, more wine and dishes of traditional goat-and-chickpea stew, and live music from different folk groups. The air filled with the smoke of roasting chestnuts (what a primeval sensation!) and everyone was talking to everyone else. The wine continued to flow. Kids were running and shouting all over the place and for once no-one payed attention to them. People changed places or got up to speak to old friends and, by the time there was a pile of empty chestnut shells in front of each of us, and a couple of empty bottles, the music had changed to a less demanding style, in terms of footwork, for the general public. What most amazed a foreign visitor I spoke to was that, with so many people – at least 500 this year – and so much wine, there were no arguments, no fights. He was even more surprised that this particular Tafeña is put on every year. Free, gratis and for nothing, for everyone.

Many other more private Tafeñas take place around this time, organized by associations, clubs and so on, even families. Basically, they are the same but without the folk-dancing and performances. What of course they do have are chestnuts and wine.

4 Nov 2019

52. Wait-and-See

Most of the islanders have been kind, helpful and hospitable towards us over the years, but the “wait-and-see” opportunistic streak in their makeup is definitely just as characteristic.

El Hierro is not Hawaii. Drinking water does not flow from pristine springs and bread does not fall from trees. Before the 1970’s, El Hierro was not the romantic quaint backwater some would have us believe but a relatively hostile environment for many of its inhabitants. Their survival strategy was to respond to the dictates their world because trying to adapt it to themselves ususally ended in disaster. Their traditional architecture shows us just this, as did their reliance on livestock rather than cultivation.

Even today, the islanders show a surprising unwillingness to experiment, offset by an ingenious capacity to exploit existing circumstances. Many, for example, show their doubts about having optical fibre communications installed (although they know sooner or later they will have to) until it is running smoothly for others. “Mercahierro” was set up by the Cabildo (Island Government) to channel local small-scale agricultural production and facilitate export to the other islands. It failed. Market gardeners signed a contract of exclusivity under which they would receive a fixed year-round price for their produce. But as soon as the market price went above the fixed price, MercaHierro discovered the gardeners had arranged their own distribution.

The wait-and-see philosophy is often adopted even by local institutions. Many private initiatives are frowned upon or even actively discouraged. If this is not possible, the strategy is to sit back and wait for failure but, if the private project succeeds, officialdom joins in and supports it, or sets one up with public money to compete with it. Some years ago a few enthusiastic young divers started diving schools in La Restinga. ‘That won’t work here!’ they were told. But it did. And now the Cabildo fully supports the activity. A young woman in Frontera started up a holiday guest house and one of her activities was the Bimbache Open Arts Festival. She worked hard for a very long time at promoting it outside the island. I saw official local recognition of the festival for the first time only last year.

Most likely the visitor and the foreign resident will not be affected at all by such adverse effects of the wait-and-see philosophy. I’ve written about it only to suggest a reason, one of many perhaps, for the slow pace of change – something which we appreciate so much – and the dearth of small-scale initiatives that could make the island even more attractive than it already is.