8 Dec 2019

54 bis Tafeña



Los Celtas tenían Samhain. La Iglesia Católica lo cambió a Día de Todos los Santos. Con un vasito de guíski a mano, los escoceses le devolvieron un poco del humor celta y le pusieron Halloween. Los irlandeses llevaron Halloween a los Estados Unidos. Ahí lo comercializaron y lo volvieron a exportar a este lado del charco, junto con sus calabazas, escobas estilo Harry Potter, sombreros puntiagudos y todo lo demás. Mientras tanto, aquí nosotros teníamos nuestras Tafeñas.

Tafeña es una palabra aborigen que, creo, se usa en varias de nuestras islas, especialmente El Hierro. Según algunos, se refiere a una comida de cereales tostadas y para otros a trigo tostado con azúcar. Puede ser, pero aquí en El Hierro es una celebración en la cual comemos castañas asadas y bebemos el vino nuevo. ¿Es solo coincidencia que las tafeñas se celebran, igual que Samhain, Todos los Santos y Halloween, al final de octubre? No lo creo. No estoy diciendo que todas estas fiestas sean lo mismo, ni que tengan el mismo origen, sino que ‘en todas partes cuecen habas’. Las castañas son la última fruta del año y el vino es nuevo, de uvas vendimiadas apenas dos meses antes. Las noches se refrescan. La Navidad es, sobre todo, para la familia, pero esta época es propicia para repasar el año también con amigos y conocidos, para recordar a los ‘Fieles Difuntos’ y para hacer planes para el futuro.

No hay sino platos y vasos de plástico pero se pueden llenar tantas
veces como uno quiere. Se ve que se toma muy en serio esta parte de
la Tafeña. Las castañas vienen después. Y el baile.
Es precisamente esto lo que nuestra cooperativa vinícola nos ofreció el jueves pasado. Por ‘nos’ quiero decir toda la isla, incluidos los visitantes. Empezó al oscurecer y todavía seguía cuando nosotros nos fuimos a medianoche. Se había montado al menos una docena de mesas de caballete para unas cincuenta comensales cada una, además de un escenario para los artistas, entre los cuales incluyo unas cuantas achispadas autoridades locales. Estos dieron el pistoletazo con los inevitables discursos, a los cuales algunos fingimos escuchar, mientras los estudiantes dejaron en las mesas botellas de los caldos nuevos – más de 400 litros se bebieron al año pasado cuando asistió menos público. Les siguieron a los políticos un espléndido espectáculo folklórico, más vino y las tradicionales garbanzas con carne de cabra, acompañadas de más música en vivo de diversos grupos folklóricos. El aire se llenó del humo de castañas asándose (¡qué sensación más primaria!) y todos hablábamos a los demás. El vino fluía. Niños corrían y chillaban por todos lados y, por una vez, nadie les hacía caso. La gente cambiaba de sitio o se levantaba para hablar con viejos conocidos y, antes que hubo un montón de cascaras de castañas y un par de botellas vacías delante de cada uno, la 
música había cambiado a un estilo menos exigente, en cuanto a coreografía, para el público en general. Lo que más sorprendió a un visitante extranjero a quién hablé fue, que a pesar de tanta gente – al menos 500 este año – y tanto vino, no hubo ninguna disputa ni trifulca.  Aún más le sorprendió que esta tafeña en particular se repite cada año. Gratis, para todo el mundo.

Se realizan muchas más tafeñas privadas en esta época, organizadas por asociaciones, agrupaciones etc., incluso familias. Son esencialmente iguales, pero sin los bailes folklóricos y los espectáculos. Lo que sí tienen, claro, son las castañas y vino.

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.


24 Nov 2018

53. Tourism in El Hierro

There have recently been protests in many parts of Spain against foreign tourism artificially raising the price of accommodation, making nights unbearably noisy, debasing tradition ...We really are the most fortunate of the Fortunate Isles, as the Canaries were once called: we have virtually no tourism, and certainly no massive tourism with hordes of drunken hooligans. Why not?

The most obvious reason is that El Hierro does not have those things that tourists really expect, not what people profess to want. We have no beaches to crowd with rented loungers; no little Englands complete with pubs, tandoories and fish-and-chips; no ‘vibrant’ night life; no souqs with the suggestion of poverty hidden just round the corner; no quaint bougainvillea-bedecked piles of white cottages; no exotic fruit split open by spectacular machete-wielding bronzed gods … El Hierro only has its unique beauty, varied and condensed into a few square miles emerging from the ocean. It has peace and unpolluted air – you can even see the Milky Way at night. It has, or could have, everything that makes for a real holiday.

The second most obvious reason is the cost of getting here. For example, a regular return flight from London to Tenerife in October (not especially high-season) last year would have cost you from 92€, BUT a return flight on the same dates from Tenerife to El Hierro would have cost you 118€. Residents in the Canaries have a 75% subsidy on inter-island flights. Please come to your own conclusions.

Thirdly, the island has never been promoted, sensibly at least. Few visitors believe the official blurb proclaiming the excellence of our ‘rich folklore’, ‘traditional craftsmanship’, ‘diverse cuisine’, ‘inimitable wines’ … If they do, they soon enlighten their friends when they get back home. And I don’t think the condescending articles by travel writers help much (1).  At one time there were offers to develop hotels, spas and so on from private investors. Our authorities quickly, and rightly, saw that the islanders would not put up with it and the projects were scrapped. In their place we promoted ‘quality tourism’, i.e. big boots and little woolen socks that consumed sandwiches (one a day made with half a roll of bread and two slices of cooked ham bought in a supermarket). Eventually we must have understood this kind of tourism went no way even to cover the cost of maintaining the ancient public footpaths crisscrossing the island. Recently, the idea has been revamped and, additionally, we now cater for bikers (hired mountain-bikes), long distance swimming and cross-country running.

The area known as Las Playas seen from almost a thousand metres above in the pine forest near El Pinar.
The building on on the coast in the centre of the photo is the Parador.



Then, of course, there are the questions of where to lodge the tourist and things for him and her to do. There are two or three very nice small hotels, some boarding houses and a very agreeable ‘Parador’ – state-run hotel. Quite simply insufficient if this is a sector to be developed. Some years ago I investigated setting up a ‘casa rural’. I came away with a fly in my ear convinced that it was a closed shop set up by and for a chosen few. Now there seem to be quite a lot of ‘casas rurales’ so things must have eased up considerably. And a new figure: "VV" - Holiday Home - a sort of casa rural which is not quaint.

As for things for the tourist to do there is very little available at present. But the municipal and island authorities are at last waking up and beginning to recognize and encourage private initiative. There are of course things in this sector that are already working. And others that are beginning to surface. Scuba diving (that was not a joke) at La Restinga is perhaps today’s major single attraction to the island. Paragliding from the spectacular heights above Frontera is becoming more popular.

So far we have indeed been lucky. The wait-and-see attitude of the islanders has paid off and preserved us from the terrible effects of the tourist industry’s insatiable appetite. Now we have to sit down, put aside vested interests and decide about the future; how to use what we have – our forests and protected areas, our coastline and waters, our weather, our mountains, … There are hopeful signs: the lighthouse at Punta de Orchilla, at the deserted westernmost point of the island, may be converted to a luxury hotel; winemakers are promoting visits to wineries and restaurants are taking gastronomy more seriously; there is talk of converting the island into a sort of organic oasis, etc. And then there are future oportunities for development that have hardly been considered yet. The island would be ideal for "residential tourism" especially for the retired, and also for specialized health centers, creative hubs ... Such things, though, require political and financial involvement.
 

Meanwhile, do come and visit the island. Before it's too late. Before someone decides for you what you should do and see, before our festivals become shows for television, before our history is rewritten, before what is typical becomes blandly comercialized ...

(1) https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/feb/07/el-hierro-lost-in-the-canaries



8 Jul 2018

51. Biodiversity among the grapevines of El Hierro

Vines cultivated in El Pinar under the unique conditions of El Hierro. Volcanic soil high above the clouds, to the east
 La Gomera and Tenerife and further still, Africa.  (Photo, O P Harris)


You might be forgiven for drawing a parallel between the biodiversity of the grapevines of El Hierro and that of the island’s wild plants, or even Darwin’s finches in the Galápagos. There is every reason for doing so: on the southern edge of the northern hemisphere’s winegrowing zone, the Trade Winds and the rugged mountainous terrain of the island provide a thousand microclimates and dozens of volcanic soils, and … remoteness over time.

We boast of our distinctive wines produced from varieties of grapes specific to the island – Dr Francesca Fort of the University of Tarragona and her team have identified, using DNA analyses, nineteen varieties specific to the Canaries of which nine correspond to El Hierro alone. Statistically this is a disproportionally high degree of diversity. As far as I know this is not the result of intentional breeding – artificial selection – although a couple of the varieties are considered ‘crosses’.  It seems to be taken for granted that the ‘exclusive’ varieties have evolved through mutation over time on this remote island. This in turn suggests that natural selection has been at work. I cannot accept this attractive idea.

Natural selection requires sexual reproduction, i.e. parents pass characteristics on to their offspring. As the DNA of both parents is recombined, mutations (errors) occur. If the mutation is beneficial, the offspring prosper. If it is harmful, it is not passed on to successive generations. Grapevines are not propagated sexually from seed but by grafting and from cuttings. In a sense every vine in my vineyard is a part of a much older vine that has been growing for many, many years. My second reason is that there has been ridiculously little time in evolutionary terms since the introduction of grapevines – they do not predate colonization at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

From the beginning, settlers brought with them from ‘home’ cuttings of their favourite varieties. Every labourer’s ruined hovel, and there are thousands of them throughout the island, bears witness with a skeletal ghost of a trellis. Many of these imported varieties may have succumbed to the brutal new conditions on the island but some flourished. Some of these, in turn, formed the basis of the island’s wine and brandy industry while others remained testimonial. Winegrowing boomed until the 1850’s when our vineyards were wiped out by powdery mildew. The landowners went and did something else, but the labourers could only remain, scraping out a living. They also looked after their household vines.

In contrast, on the mainland and the rest of wine-producing Europe, the tradition was too ancient and the landowners too wealthy to abandon after phylloxera had gutted their vineyards, too, in the 1850’s. These were replanted with choice European varieties grafted on American stock. Minority varieties were lost.

Phylloxera has never reached El Hierro and the powdery mildew that struck us on the island can be treated with sulfur. In this way, El Hierro became a sort of unique conservatory of pre-phyloxera varieties of grape, perhaps not Merlots or Chardonnays but pretty good all the same. And if one of our varieties, lets call it "X", differs from its supposed parent "Y" somewhere else by a significant degree (in DNA terms), then its more than likely that we have supposed wrongly and had better start looking for "Z".

It seems to me our biodiversity may result from a quirk of history rather than any evolutionary process, that our special varieties are marvelous ‘Rip-Van-Winkles’ that have been asleep for 500 years while their siblings elsewhere fell victim to diseases and agribusiness. Now that we have woken them up, let’s hope we don’t make the same mistakes.

1 May 2018

50. Roast Chicken Wings



The two villages, San Andrés on the right and Isora on the left, where Ramón Barbuzano spent much of his life, appear to be resisting the ominous shaddows cast by encroaching cloud.
 
“The Herreño is someone who expects you to turn the pages so that he can read the newspaper.” At first I thought my friend’s judgment harsh but I later came to understand there was more than a little truth in it. The islander shows very little initiative: he will let others innovate and, if the experiment works, only then will he adopt the idea. He is wily and manipulative, looking only after his own interests, even at the expense of friends and relatives. The Herreño is not lazy, but to be employed is a last resort: the emigrant islander was almost invariably a market stall-holder, taxi-driver, shopkeeper or taverner.

The only explanation I can find for this is that it is a response to centuries of abject misery.  Earlier posts in this blog suggest the historical hostility of the environment, the droughts and famines. It stands to reason that if your family is on the verge of starvation you are unlikely to invest your last seeds in experiments into new methods of cultivation. Solidarity has its limits if sharing the little food you have means your children will go without. And if there’s a chance windfall going for nothing, you’re not going to let someone else get there first. But what I have hardly mentioned before is the pitiless exploitation of the humble people by landowners, traders, money-lenders and ‘authorities’. Not, of course, that in this respect El Hierro is different from anywhere else - it just lasted longer.

I recently read a book by Ramón Barbuzano Morales, “El Precio del Silencio” (The Price of Silence) which relates the author’s life from 1916 to his death in 2014. The book shatters the romantic, harmonious, Rousseaulian picture of life in El Hierro that many would have us believe. Despite a certain understandable repetitiveness and victimization, Barbuzano describes in brutally clear language the penurious life of a peasant family in the cruel, hypocritical, oppressive social structure throughout much of the twentieth century. Curiously, the ancestral strategies and values that had made existence possible, though not always livable, still linger on, even among younger generations, despite the collective memory of the islanders going back no further than the 1970’s, or at the very most to the emigration of the 1940’s.

Curiously, reading between the lines, it is clear that Ramón was no different from those he so bitterly criticizes. He was a man of his circumstances and, like others, he created a better life for himself and his wife by emigrating and astute management during more recent years of bonanza. Of his quotes, the pearl must be: “Si te dan las alas de su pollo, quieren la pechuga del tuyo.” (If they give you the wings of their roast chicken, it’s because they want the breast of yours.)

El Precio del Silencio, Ramón Barbuzano Morales, 2017, Ibukku – available in paperback and Kindle editions

9 Feb 2018

49. Boxes, water and old men

The visible edge of a dike of grey basalt
cutting vertically up through different
layers of mostly porous rock. The brown
layer in the middle is possibly that colour
because it was burnt by a very hot lava
flow of basaltic material which formed
a fragmentary sill whose vertical prisms
are just visible to the left of the dike.
The Canary Islands are huge piles of volcanic rubble sticking out of the sea. Much of this rubble is made up of layers of porous rock on layers of hard impermeable rock, called 'sills', so that each island roughly resembles a many-storeyed wedding cake. As the cake consolidated it cracked and into these cracks lava was squeezed up from the magma below. This lava solidified into impermeable walls called 'dikes'. Inside the island, then, the dikes and sills together formed a stack of boxes with impermeable sides whose porous contents filled with water filtering down over millions of years from rain and snow on the surface. Consequently, at least in the western province, there are few vertical wells and the islands’ supply of ground water is extracted by horizontal wells, called galleries, that break through the walls of the boxes (the dikes) as they burrow at different levels into the sides of each island.

Unfortunately, in our island there are few effective sills and few boxes. The precipitation we receive simply leaches down and down into the heart of the island, then out into the sea. Traditionally there was no point in digging wells near the villages. Attempts to harness runoff in dams in the gullies proved useless because without modern materials the porous ground absorbed all the water. So the only water available to the islanders was the rainwater they collected in their domestic cisterns, a few minor springs and a natural lens of freshwater at Icota near El Pinar. And of course the Garoé.


In the middle of the twentieth century some enterprising islanders from La Palma tried to cultivate bananas in El Golfo. They finally gave up but they did leave us a part of the solution to the island’s water problem. Wells can be effective if they are cunningly located and designed. One such is the “Pozo de los Padrones” on the straight road through the badlands to Frontera, just after leaving the tunnel. There is a panel on the wall of the pump house explaining how the excavation begins as a well (pozo) going straight down and then continues as a horizontal gallery under the imposing 3,000 foot crag opposite.

A view of Frontera on a day of sunshine and drizzle in February. The mountains part-hidden by cloud capture the moisture from the Trade Winds and this water filters down through the rock. El Pozo de los Padrones is at the foot of the crag in the centre of the photo and burrows right into the heart of the mountain.

There is a tap at the pump house where the public can collect drinking water, pure unchlorinated “fossil” water. One day I was there with my collection of five-litre plastic bottles when four cars pulled up, each driven by a man of my age and, of course, we struck up conversation.


The pump house at Pozo de los Padrones. The relic on the
left painted white was the scoop at the head of excavations
when the gallery was being dug. The rubble was taken out
in gondolas like the one just behind it. The excavation must
have been backbreaking work for the men aided only by
dinamite and this minature machinery. A gallery is a very
confined space, perhaps little higher than a man and not
much wider than the skips on rails, the air stifling, damp
and hot.
While we waited our turns, the banter went something like this:

- “When I was a young man I used to go to the spring every day. Not to get water, mind you! But to chat up a certain young lady. Now she sends me here to get me out of her sight!”
- “That’s it! Things have changed. No girls here today, eh? All up at the tables in the Avenue. Showing themselves off. Drinking gin-tonics!”
- “Yep! All we’re good for is to fetch water, take the rubbish down, walk the bloody dog and mind the grandson when his parents are out!”
- "When I was young, old men were looked up to, respected. Now you’d think we’re in the way! And that's if they see you!”
- “Nonsense! We old men are the greatest.”
- “How come?”
- “The greatest. The biggest thing today. We don’t fit in anywhere!”