31 July 2010

"¡Toros No!"

I was overjoyed when the Catalan regional parliament voted to ban bullfighting in Cataluña this week.  Although it is widely reported as a being nationalist gesture of anti-Spanish defiance rather than a success for animal rights (see Colm Tóibín´s interesting and informative article in today´s Guardian), there is no doubt that the tide of public opinion is turning, not only in Europe-facing Cataluña but in "Spanish" Spain as well.  (NB: Cataluña was not the first Spanish autonomous region to ban bullfighting; the Canary Islands did so in 1991.)

Polls indicate that 72% of Spaniards express no interest in bullfighting.  More significantly, while half of the over-65s express interest, less than a quarter of 25-34 year-olds do so.    Attendances are falling and some say it is only kept alive by a small but powerful group of interested parties - not least the breeders of the toros bravos who received vast amounts of state subsidy.

The subsidies started under Franco, who promoted bullfighting as a symbol of Spanish nationalism.  In March 2010 the Mayor of Madrid Esperanza Aguirre's attempt to protect it by requesting UNESCO to award it artistic-cultural status was seen as an attempt to recapture the support of right-wing voters, following a series of corruption scandals in the Partido Popular (PP).  King Juan Carlos supports it, but his wife Sofia, considerably more popular - especially since she burst into the Spanish dressing room after the World Cup Final to shake hands with the team - openly expresses her dislike.  The centre-left PSOE, who form the current government, are officially impartial but continue to subsidise it to the tune of  564 million euros a year. However they did ban live broadcasts of bullfights on State-run Spanish TV in 2007, to protect children from the more violent images, and under-14s are no longer allowed to attend bullfights.

There is a feeling among some ex-pats living in Spain that, although they deplore this barbaric practice, they should not speak out publicly against it because it is part of traditional Spanish culture and as foreigners they have no right to criticise it.  I felt this way myself a couple of years ago.  But I have now come to the conclusion that such respectful silence, however well-meaning, is misplaced and we have a moral responsibility to condemn cruelty wherever it occurs.  Catalan philosopher Jesus Mosterin compared bullfighting to female circumcision in its level of abomination.  I wouldn't go quite that far, but there is no doubt in my mind that  the home-grown protest groups like Antitauromaquia and StopOurShame need all the support they can get, and evidence of international concern gives them a stronger bargaining tool.


29 July 2010

Pavements, Politics and Plan E

Over the last few weeks our customary dawn chorus of crowing cockerels, barking dogs, croaking frogs and bleating goats has been replaced by the sound of stone-cutters, jackhammers and dumper trucks.  They are doing the road up.  The quaintly undulating cobbles, spattered with random blobs of tarmac put down over the years to fill in holes, are being replaced with nice neat grey stones all laid by hand by a fleet of workmen.  They have also replaced the storm-drains, so it's just possible that next time we have torrential we won't get a brown river streaming past the house (we live halfway up a very steep hill).

Best of all, they are rebuilding the pavement.  If its treacherous predecessor had been in England, some local authority would have been sued by now.  I might actually be able to get my faithful shopping trolley back from town without the wheels falling off!  Unfortunately our neighbour, who had built a concrete ramp over the old pavement into his splendid double garage, now can't get his car in because the angle on the new pavement is too steep.  He is insisting they rebuild it again - and again -  third time lucky?  (The same thing happened to us four years ago when they did the lower part of the hill, but as we weren't living here then, by the time we found out it was too late.  Eventually we stopped worrying about what to do about it, and turned the garage into a workshop-cum-toolshed.)

It's not just our road that's being restored.  All round Alcalá there are new pavements, pedestrian crossings and speed-bumps by the dozen, shiny new rubbish chutes, and even designated parking bays (which, needless to say, are almost completely ignored).

The money for this refurbishment has come from the government, under a scheme called Plan E.  When effects of the global financial crisis hit Spain in 2008, it suffered more than many countries in Europe because for the previous ten years it had experienced an orgy of property speculation and construction.  Most of the private sector loan-financed building ground to a halt, leaving two million houses half-built or unsold, and millions of unemployed workers.

The Socialist government responded in 2009 by injecting around 33 billion euros into public spending: increases in social welfare benefits; a two-year suspension of mortgage repayments for families hit by unemployment; easier credit for small businesses; and job creation schemes like the ones in Alcalá, aimed at improving local infrastructure while keeping 300,000 people off the dole.  Rather than pay for this via taxation, they used the budget surpluses built up over the previous three years and borrowed the rest.

This is why I get just a bit pissed off when people accuse President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of doing nothing while Spain fell into deeper and deeper economic decline.  It was a brave attempt to apply Keynesian economic principles, to protect the ordinary working people who had nothing to do with the causes of the crisis, and to avoid burdening the taxpayer. Naive, possibly. Pissing against the wind, certainly.   No other EU country did this.

Now the baying hounds of global capitalism, from Angela Merkel to the IMF, have ordered him to stop spending and start saving, and this is being achieved by massive spending cuts, a freeze on pensions from 2011 and a 5% reduction in public sector salaries.  This will almost certainly result in him losing the next election and letting the odious and corrupt Partido Popular back in.

But at least we´ve got our new pavements ...

27 July 2010

Mumbo Chumbo

The prickly-pear cactus, or chumbera, grows profusely in and around Alcalá.  It is used for hedges, being fast-growing, hardy and totally livestock-proof, and sprouts along the side of the roads like piles of disorganised green plates growing randomly out of each other.  We have a big tangle of it on the hill behind our house, where it provides refuge and food for countless small birds. The fruits are known as higos chumbos, or more commonly, just chumbos.  Higo means fig, as when they were first bought to Spain from  the Americas - possibly by Columbus himself - people confused them with the Indian fig.  They rapidly spread across southern Europe and North Africa and were later introduced to Australia and South Africa.

In the Americas and in the Canary Islands, the red dye cochineal is made from a scale insect that is a parasite of the prickly pear.  In its native Mexico the fruit has been used for thousands of years to make an alcoholic drink called colonche, and in Malta it is used to make a pink herbal liqueur called Bajtra.  On St Helena, they distil it to make Tungi Spirit.  In Alcalá, however, they just eat it.

"Now when you pick a pawpaw, Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw, next time beware
Don't pick the prickly pear by the paw
When you pick a pear, try to use the claw!"

Good advice there from Balou the Bear in the Jungle Book movie. They can attack in two ways; the long sharp smooth spikes, and small hairlike spines called glochids which can penetrate skin and cause sores round the mouth if the fruit is eaten without being cleaned properly. One way of getting rid of the glochids is to rotate the fruit in a flame.

The fruits can be green, yellow, orange or purply-red.  In Alcalá they are pale green, but this doesn´t mean they aren´t ripe.  They ripen in late July, when people harvest them using long poles with clips on the end to avoid the lethal thorns.  They are then peeled and cleaned, and sold in the local shops or on the street.  They are pleasant enough to eat but nothing to get excited about.  Their main attraction for the locals is their supposed medicinal qualities; legend has it they can cure anything from diabetes to hangovers, but there is no reliable evidence for this.

A possibly apocryphal story of which the chumbo is a key protagonist concerns a family who moved from Alcalá to Hawaii in 1911 to work in the sugar cane plantations.  Although they were relatively well paid, the father, José Soto, eventually became homesick for his native town.  They couldn´t afford the passage, but one day he noticed that his daughter had dyed her lips red with chumbo juice.  He started surreptitiously eating large quantities of them until his urine had turned bright red. After a few weeks with no change in his condition his employers feared that he was suffering from an incurable and possibly contagious illness, and agreed to release him from his contract and repatriate his family.  Miraculously, as soon as he had the travel papers in his pocket, his urine returned to normal ...

25 July 2010

Cardos, corzos and caracoles – Food for free

Alcalá's location as the gateway to the Alcornocales Natural Park is one of its greatest assets for visitors and residents alike. But this vast area of cork-oak groves, shady gorges and sun-baked crags has provided a natural larder for Alcalainos for centuries. In the postwar era it kept many people from starving. Even today you see men returning from foraging trips with the panniers of their mopeds overflowing with wild asparagus, and sacks of tiny juicy snails are sold by the roadside the way strawberries are in England.

Wild asparagus
Espárrago (Asparagus acutifolius) is harvested in springtime, when the young shoots appear. It is thinner and darker than cultivated asparagus, and tends to grow under thorny bushes. Because of its rather bitter taste it is usually cooked with other ingredients rather than eaten on its own; stewed with chickpeas and other vegetables to make berza, or fried with garlic and beaten eggs to make revueltos.

Edible thistles
Alcalá is famous for its tagarninas – Spanish oyster or golden thistles (Scolymus hispanicus). Their spiky flowerheads are seen all over the meadows and roadsides in early summer. The stems are stripped and the tender inner parts are used in the same ways as asparagus.  At the Festival of St George festival (yes, he´s our patron saint too!) they are cooked in a giant pot for the revellers.
The cardo - cardoon or artichoke thistle (Cynara cardunculus) - is a relative of the globe artichoke but with a smaller head. It also produces a coagulant that can be used instead of rennet for to make cheese suitable for vegetarians.  The cardo borriquero or alcachofilla (Cynara humilis) appears at the same time as the targarnina and adds spashes of purple to the landscape. Its leaves are eaten while still tender and it also produces a small artichoke, used in stews or fried.

Fruits and berries
Juan Leiva, a writer who grew up in Alcalá in the 1940s, describes how wild fruits took the place of sweets for children in those austere postwar years. The fruits of the palmito, Europe's only native palm, were eaten when they turn red and sweet. The stems and hearts of the palms were apparently a great delicacy once, but the plant is now protected. The berries of the myrtle dyed children's mouths blue, and white hawthorn berries were particularly sweet and sticky. But the children's favourites were blackberries and madroños, the fruit of the arbutus or strawberry tree.found in abundance in the Alcornocales.

Wild mushrooms
Wild mushrooms, both edible and toxic, are referred to as setas: the word champiñon, from the French champignon, is generally used for cultivated button mushrooms. The most popular edible variety here is the cep or porcini mushroom. They are gathered in the autumn after the first rains, hopefully by people who know what they are doing.

Caracoles are served in pretty well every bar and restaurant from late May until the end of June and are incredibly popular. On one of our early trips to Alcalá before we lived here, I remember seeing dozens of people sitting out on the Alameda - old folk, young folk, nuns, lycra-clad cyclists - all tucking into glasses of what looked like chickpeas. Then I saw the telltale sign chalked on a blackboard outside the bar: “Hay caracoles”.

They are generally stewed in stock containing herbs such as mint or pennyroyal, and served in a glass topped up with the stock. You can spoon them out and suck the tiny molluscs directly from their shells, or delicately remove them with a cocktail stick. You can also get them in a tomato-based sauce. They don't actually taste of anything, but the stock is delicious! A larger form of edible snail, known as cabrillas, can sometimes be found in restaurants; these are more like the French escargots.

Game, large and small
Hunting is big, big, big round here. But pretty well everything that gets shot gets eaten (with the exception of foxes), either sold to restaurants or shared amongst friends and family. It is heavily regulated but a considerable amount of poaching goes on. Rabbits, hares, partridges, pigeons and pheasants are known as caza menor (minor prey). The caza mayor targets are the roe deer (corzo), red deer (ciervo) and the wild boar (jabalí). You won't find the meat in the local butchers, but you can eat it and sometimes buy it frozen at ventas (lunchtime eating places out in the countryside) for just a few euros.

Songbirds, I am glad to say, no longer form part of the diet of the Alcalainos - at least, not officially!


23 July 2010

Gazpacho, paella and sangria - “traditional” Spanish fare?

Every year millions of tourists go into restaurants on the Spanish costas and eat chilled tomato soup followed by fried rice with prawns washed down with a glass of fruit punch. They believe they have experienced authentic Spanish cuisine. But just how authentic are these universal clichés of Spanishness?

Gazpacho has been eaten in Spain for hundreds of years – the jury is out on whether it originated with the Romans or the Moors. It became a staple in Andalusia, particularly in the region around Seville. It consisted of bread, olive oil, garlic, vinegar and water. Legend has it that Columbus took barrels of the stuff on his journeys across the Atlantic. Tomatoes weren't added till the 18th century; although Cortez brought tomatoes back from the Americas in 1519 they were originally thought to be poisonous, because the plant is part of the Nightshade family, and they were used only for decoration. A famine in Italy 200 years later saw starving peasants eat the fruit with no ill effect, and tomatoes started to be enjoyed across Europe.

Gazpacho was prepared and eaten by labourers in the fields, olive groves and vineyards until well into the 20th century. They would soak stale bread in large wooden bowls, add the salt,oil, vinegar and garlic and whatever fresh vegetables they had to hand, previously pounded with a pestle and mortar, and eat it for lunch straight from the communal bowl. It was not cooked, so it would have been eaten cold, but not chilled. However, hot gazpacho was and still is eaten in winter especially in Cádiz province.

Traditional variations include white gazpacho or ajo blanco, made with ground almonds and popular in Málaga and Granada, and salmorejo cordobés, where no water is added and chopped hardboiled eggs and ham are used a garnish.

Today gazpacho has become a generic term for cold soup and there are endless variations all round the world. It is easy to make, especially with a stick-blender and sieve attachment that traps all the seeds and skin. I did try some ready-made supermarket gazpacho once but it was so vinegary I poured it down the sink!


Paella actually means pan, and comes from the Latin word patella. In most of Spain, the more usual term for the big flat pan used to make the rice dish is paellera. Rice was introduced by the Moors, and cultivated in the Valencia region in Eastern Spain since the 8th Century. Workers in the paddy-fields would cook an early version of paella in the field for their midday meal, often using snails, eel or even marsh-rat to add protein. by the time of the Christian reconquest rice had become a staple in much of Spain, often combined with vegetables, beans and dried cod to produce an acceptable meal for Lent. In 18th Century Valencia, the traditional home of paella, rice was (and still is) cooked outdoors in the paellera for special occasions. Rabbit and chicken had replaced rats, and by the coast, seafood was used instead of meat. The mixed version is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Paella should be cooked over an open fire, and has a layer of crispy toasted rice at the bottom. This is considered by some to be the best bit. Oven-cooked paella or the microwaved stuff you get in tourist restaurants won't achieve this. The yellow colouring and flavour is achieved by the use of saffron, which is incredibly expensive, so food-colouring is widely used instead. If you are lucky enough to spot a restaurant or fiesta where a paella is being cooked in the traditional way, go for it; if you see a sun-faded board outside a restaurant depicting ten different varieties of paella, you might be better off ordering a sandwich.

Sangria literally means “bloodletting”. It is a served in a jug, comprising wine (usually red), lemonade and chopped fruit, with brandy and cinnamon as optional extras. There is no reference to it being drunk in Spain before the 19th Century, but some say it originated in the Antilles Islands in the Caribbean.  It is essentially a party drink designed to get people lubricated as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Its virtue lies in its freshness; if you order a glass of sangria in a bar in a tourist area you will get some chemical-tasting concoction from a bottle or carton, and almost certainly pay through the nose. I personally have never come across Spanish people drinking it in bars - instead they order tinto de verano, one-third cheap red wine with two-thirds lemonade or soda, on ice, with a slice of lemon if you're lucky. It's a very pleasant and refreshing low-alcohol drink, and at home I often make it with rosé instead.

At fairs and festivals in Cádiz province, people drink vast quantities of rebujito – one-third dry sherry (Fino or Manzanilla) and two-thirds gaseosa (7-Up or Sprite) with loads of ice. It is mainly served in jarras (jugs) and shared between friends, although you can get individual servings. Other parts of Andalucía use white wine instead of dry sherry, and sometimes mint leaves are added. Apparently the custom of drinking rebujito at festivals dates back no further than the 1990s, and is due to an advertising campaign by a local sherry producer trying to target the younger generation.

22 July 2010

Lies, damned lies and stereotypes

If you know me, you will know that I dislike national or racial stereotypes. Comments like "all Scotsmen are mean" or "the Spanish are a lazy lot" make my hackles rise. So here are some of the generalisations commonly made about the Spanish, harvested mainly from expat blogs, with an attempt to challenge the prejudice with hard facts.

The Spanish are always having public holidays - they are hardly ever at work! No wonder the economy is in such a mess.
There are 14 statutory public holidays in Spain compared to 8 in the UK. But they get a smaller annual leave allowance here. If you add them together, it works out the same in both countries:

"Overall, including the statutory minimum and public holidays, employees in Lithuania are potentially entitled to the greatest amount of paid leave in Europe with 41 days’ holiday per year. France, Finland and Russia rank second with 40 days, followed by Austria and Malta (38), Greece (37) and Sweden, Spain and the UK (36). Employees in Italy have 31 while those in Germany, Romania and Belgium have 30. Employees in Ireland and the Netherlands have the least amount of holiday at 29 and 28 days, respectively."
Employee statutory and public holiday entitlements – global comparisons

When a public holiday occurs on a Thursday or Tuesday, a lot small businesses and shops take the intervening day off to form a "puente" (bridge) between the holiday and the weekend.  This practice is declining however. Many Spanish people spend their time off visiting their families rather than going abroad, so more frequent short breaks probably suits them better.

Spanish shops don't open on Sunday because the Church won't allow it
This was certainly the case under Franco's Catholic Nationalism regime, but commercial liberalisation in the 1980s allowed unrestricted Sunday shopping. It was pressure from independent family-run shops, who couldn't afford to pay staff on Sundays, that restrictions were reintroduced.  Each autonomous community makes its own rules: in Andalusia the big chain-stores are allowed to open eight Sundays a year; bakers and bookshops (!) can open on Sundays if they want to.
Wikipedia: Sunday opening hours

Personally I love the fact that shops don't open on Sundays. In the UK Sunday is just like any other day now, and people go shopping because they are bored rather than because they need something, spending money they don't have. Sunday is definitely a family day in Spain.

The Spanish siesta involves going to bed and sleeping for a few hours in the afternoons
I haven't met anyone who does this. However lunch is the main meal of the day and is taken around 2 pm, following which some people may take a 20-minute cat-nap in an armchair if they have time.  Agricultural and construction workers often start work at daybreak, around 7 a.m. in summer. and work until 2, so it wouldn´t be surprising if they had a kip after lunch - some of them go back to work in the evening for another two or three hours. The practice of closing shops and offices for three or four hours in the afternoon is due to the heat, especially in the southern half of the country where it can reach 40 degrees C in the summer and 35 is normal in July and August.  Air conditioning is a fairly recent phenomenon and still considered a luxury in rural areas. In Northern Spain, particularly Catalonia, more and more companies are adopting the European business hours.
Spanish life - the siesta

The Spanish are terrible drivers and have one of the worst accident rates in Europe.
I never fail to be impressed by how my neighbours manage to manoeuvre in impossibly small places and reverse into garages opening onto streets just a few feet wide and on a 25% hill.  They are not terrible drivers, but there is no doubt many of them do drive erratically. However in 2006 the fatality rate on Spain's roads was slightly lower than the European average and with the introduction of a demerit points system in that year it has since fallen by nearly 40%.
European Road Safety stats
Dirección General de Trafico statistics

There are various suggestions for the erratic driving style of many Spaniards and I guess the real truth is a mixture of all these. Machismo certainly plays a part; men don't appear to enjoy being overtaken (especially by blondes in right-hand-drive cars). Many older drivers never learnt how to handle roundabouts or dual carriageway slip roads because they simply didn't exist in rural Spain until the EU roadbuilding programme started in the late 1980s. Then there is what seems to be a general tendency to react rather than to anticipate - this has been observed in many areas of the Spanish psyche, from the government's failure to plan ahead in the economic crisis, to pedestrians not getting out of the road until your car is a few feet from them.

This is fun, I'll do some more tomorrow!

21 July 2010

Chacina, queso de cabra, nisperos and other gastronomic delights

When we first moved here in May 2008 I lost half a stone over the summer months. I felt very pleased with myself and believed it was due to a healthier diet and more exercise. The following winter it all piled back on, and then some. Not to worry, I thought, it will go again over the summer. But it didn't. Winter 2009 brought another inch or two of “padding”. This summer I have made a conscious effort to lose weight, if only to get back into clothes that I can't afford to replace. But my michelin, as the Spanish delightfully call their middle-age spread, stubbornly refuses to budge.

The problem is that the food here is just too scrumptious. The fruit, especially in summer, is so yummy that it is almost impossible not to meet the five-a-day target. Cherries the size of walnuts – I can eat half a kilo in a day. Paraguayos, or doughnut peaches, figs, nectarines, apricots, creamy custard-apples or chirimoyas, great juicy plums in a choice of colours - purple, red or yellow. Little orange fruit called nisperos, that taste like a slightly orange-flavoured peach, and which I have never found an English name for though I think they are related to medlars. Tiny bite-sized pears, sweet and firm, which the greengrocer hands round to the customers like sweets. Giant watermelons, fruity little bananas from the Canaries - totally different from the big woolly Caribbean ones we get in the UK, apples the size of grapefruit.


And winter brings the oranges – I had no idea there were so many different kinds – plus strawberries, grown in Huelva, which reach perfection in March.

All of this is grown in Spain so there is absolutely no food-mile guilt to spoil the flavour. All sun-ripened and bursting with sugar. No chemically-induced delays to the ripening process. You buy it ripe and you eat it straight away – three days later it goes mouldy. That takes some getting used to. Or you can just zap it all into a giant Smoothie.

Then there is the chacina. This is a generic term for all food made from the pig that is not actually pork. In the not too distant past it was common for people here to keep a pig, fatten it on leftovers and then have all their friends round for the matanza or slaughter, after which it was all hands on deck to turn every single bit of the animal into food to keep the family going over the following year. A lot of it was minced and stuffed into sausages.

Chorizo, which everybody has heard of (it's pronounced “choreetho” by the way, despite Delia Smith's insistence in calling it “choritzo”), is given its distinctive colour from pimentón, or dried smoked red pepper. Chorizo comes in many forms: thick or thin, lean or fatty, spicy or mild, long or short. They are strung up and left to mature, and are eaten in many different ways: added to stews, sliced thinly and eaten in bocadillos or chunky sandwiches, fried with scrambled egg, or braised in red wine to make the world's most delicious tapas. Other forms of sausage include salchichón, seasoned with black pepper instead of pimentón; morcilla or black pudding; salchichas, similar to English bangers but not padded out with cereal; lomo embuchado or smoked loin, eaten thinly sliced. All of this is still produced in Alcalá, though these days it is made in Embutidos Gazules, a little factory on the industrial estate rather than in people's back yards. Strings of chorizos hang in loops in every butcher's shop and general store, and many bars too.

Then of course there is the famous jamón serrano, cured ham made from the black Iberian pigs that graze on acorns in the dehesas.  You could not imagine anything more different than those appalling pork-factories where sows are too fat to stand and the animals never see the light of day. I have a vegetarian friend who breaks her own rules for jamón serrano.  Every family buys a pata negra, an entire leg, for Christmas, despite them costing upwards of 80 euros each.

We can't move on from the pig without mentioning chicharrones. If you like pork scratchings these are to die for. They are basically deep-fried chunks of pig skin but with some of the meat still attached. A hundred calories a bite!

Alcalá is famous for its goat's cheese. There are huge herds of goats all round the edge of the town, which makes me wonder what they do with all the little boy goats – presumably they are sold to restaurants in the big cities, as you don't see them in the butchers' shops here. Quesos el Gazul, next to the sausage factory, produces 5,000 kg of certified organic cheese a year – cured, semi-cured or “fresco”- creamy and mild and delicious sliced with quince jam, or cubed and tossed into a salad.

I recently discovered a sealed queso fresco in the back of the fridge, way beyond its sell-by date. The plastic wrapper had inflated like a balloon and I was about to throw it out but my natural curiosity (which gets me into trouble at times) forced me to open it. Once I had rinsed off the smell of old socks I tried a slice and it was sublime – very strong and tangy, just how I like it. It is hard to get strong cheese here, so this was quite a find. And no, I didn't get food-poisoning.

Being married to a diabetic I have no problem resisting all the delicious cakes and pastries that the Alcalainos adore, especially the churros – strings of fried dough dipped into thick drinking chocolate. Just as well, or I would be even more “well-padded”. But the bread is another matter. We eat three types of bread at home, again all produced in the town: barras gallegas, or Galician baguettes, shorter and stubbier than conventional baguettes and with more flavour; pan de campo, or pan moreno, traditional country bread, chewy with a hard crust – I call it “the bread that fights back”; and molletes, big soft floury baps flavoured with fennel seed made at the splendid Horno de Luna bakery. They are usually toasted and coated with olive oil and chopped tomato, but they also make great mini-pizza bases.

I'll save the 'food for free' – snails, thistles, wild asparagus etc - for another post, as I must admit it has not contributed to my present cuddly state. Food that provided nourishment during periods of famine isn't necessarily good to eat, although harvesting it it still provides seasonal income for some people here. And I haven't even mentioned vegetables, or tomatoes or home-made gazpacho. But my stomach is rumbling, it must be nearly lunchtime!

18 July 2010

Not so much a retail opportunity, more a way of life

A few years ago, while still a wage-slave in the UK, I made a list of all the reasons why I didn’t want to live there any more. Near the top of the list was Big Bad Supermarkets: their crimes included driving small shops and farmers out of business, seducing us into buying microwave ready-meals packed with additives, selling tasteless meat alongside jars of goo that supposedly turn it into something a celebrity chef would be proud to serve, wrapping fruit and veg in umpteen layers of plastic and then charging us for carrier bags “to help protect the environment” ... you know what I’m on about. And as for 24-hour opening, I’m not even going to go there, it’s the road to madness.

To cut a long story short, I now live in Alcalá de los Gazules in the province of Cádiz. Shopping for food here is not like it was in England. Oh no. Not one bit. I love it.

Alcalá has around 5,600 inhabitants and at least 40 food shops, including five butchers, three greengrocers, two fishmongers and six confectioners/bakers. There may be more, lurking in backstreets I haven’t ventured into yet. This works out at one shop per 140 people; in the UK, the ratio is one per 1700 people (www.euromonitor.com). Then we have four bazaars (including the awesome Bazaar Chino), three ironmongers, two saddlers, two chemists, half a dozen shops selling clothes and shoes, a fabric shop, a haberdashery that also sells ladies' underwear, two gunsmiths and an amazing agricultural emporium which sells everything from flea powder to live partridges.

Many of these shops are just a room in a someone’s house, with goods spilling out onto the pavement. Sure, we have supermarkets too, the largest being Día; I go there occasionally to buy butter, as it seems to be the only place in town that sells it; others innocently offer you Tulipan margarine when you ask for mantequilla, which just doesn’t do it for me on a nice crusty baguette. There are rarely more than a dozen people in Día. Conversely, Jacinta's shop at the top of our street measures approximately 8 square metres and is almost always overflowing with customers. It sells pretty well everything Día does (except butter, and the Wines & Spirits selection is somewhat limited). The shelves are stacked up to the ceiling, the chiller cabinet is bursting at the seams, hams and chorizos hang round your ears, a tray of free-range eggs balances precariously on a shelf, fruit spills out of wicker baskets that you trip over blindly as you go in out of the bright sunlight. Fresh bread is delivered twice a day. Pictures of Nuestra Señora and her son are bluetacked to the walls wherever there´s a gap.

These little shops can be daunting at first. At 5’6” I tower over the rest of the clientele, which makes me feel like a large clumsy hippo. Then there is the queuing system; at first sight it looks totally random, but the trick is to ask “¿Quién es la última?” (“who came in last?”) and then dive in as soon they’ve been served. Or you can stand there for 20 minutes clutching a couple of lemons and pretending to be fascinated by the fourteen different types of lentil on the shelves until the shopkeeper takes pity on you, or everyone else has gone home.

Twice a week we have a fruit and veg market in the street, which is amazingly cheap. I can fill a shopping trolley (yes, I have a shopping trolley, lugging it up the hill is cheaper than joining a gym and just as effective) with top-quality seasonal produce for less than €10.   Competition for service at the market is fierce and the “¿Quién es la última?” stunt doesn’t always work. The senior alcalainas, despite their lack of stature, have sharp elbows and the strength and agility of Jack Russell terriers. They also know all the stall-holders by name and can spend five or ten minutes asking the price of everything before they start actually buying things. On my first few visits, I still had a residual aversion to wasting time and after being ignored for ten minutes I would slip off to the little supermarket over the road, ending up with a few ageing bananas and wrinkled nectarines. Now I elbow my way in shamelessly with the rest of them. Trolleys at noon!

A lot of people have huertos or produce gardens and bring their fruit and vegetables in to town to sell them on the street. Others gather edible plants such as wild asparagus from the countryside.  It is not unusual to be sitting outside the pub on a Friday night and be offered a sack of ripe figs.

The Spanish seem to be obsessed with plastic bags. Left to their own devices they will put bananas, oranges and apples each in separate bags and then put them all into a larger bag. When I ask them to put everything straight into my trolley they look at me as if I had ordered them to strip naked. I try to explain the ecological drawbacks of a world full of plastic, but this concept hasn’t quite reached Alcalá yet, at least not the older generation. And I must admit the bags are useful when cleaning out the cat-litter tray.

The butchers’ shops are a carnivore’s heaven. Pigs’ ears, bulls’ testicles? No problem. Pork dripping for your morning tostada? Three different flavours. In the UK I used to read recipe books that said things like “Ask your butcher to ...” Ever try that in Tesco’s? Here, it’s the norm. The butchers will lovingly fillet a chicken breast into eight slices, so thin they are almost transparent. They don’t sell prepared mince; choose your meat and they will mince it to the consistency you need. This all takes time of course; I soon learned not to go on Saturday mornings, when the amas de casa are shopping to feed for a family of twelve over the weekend. Hours can pass.

These corner shops are more than just for buying things; they are little community centres in their own right. Listening to the locals gossiping gives you good opportunity to improve your Spanish and to tune in to the daunting local accent. Of course they assume you don’t understand a word (they are usually right) so they often talk about you. My husband was collecting his prescriptions in the Farmacia once and heard a couple of old dears ask the pharmacist what pills he was getting. Astonishingly, the pharmacist told them; they then discussed his various ailments, right there in front of him! Being a decent sort of chap he didn’t embarrass them by letting them know he knew.

Walking to the local shops and buying fresh food on a daily basis gives me so much more pleasure than driving to an out-of-town hypermarket once a week. It’s cheaper, it’s good exercise, it helps you get to know your neighbours, the fresh produce is tastier, and I’d rather hand over my meagre pension to local businesses than to some multinational corporation. Notwithstanding I must confess to the occasional trip to Mercadona to stock up on cat litter and beer, friends who shop at Morrisons in Gibraltar bring back decent teabags for us.

Of course things are changing. Rural Spain is edging inexorably towards larger retail outlets and processed food (“comida basura” as they so elegantly put it). But I have my fingers crossed that the tide of change will take a long while to sweep away the little front-room shops in the pueblos. Not so much a retail opportunity, more a way of life ...

How I discovered my Inner Artist

Learning to draw and paint had always been high on my Things-to-do-when-I-retire list. I'd done a few watercolours years ago and enjoyed art at school, but never managed to find the time to fit it into a busy working life. You need time and you need space: time to think, doodle, touch and retouch; space to get all the gear out, make a mess and leave it overnight without it getting in other people's way. Those were my excuses, anyway. When we retired and moved to Alcalá in 2008, I had all the time and space I needed and - I could hardly believe my luck!! - an English couple, Andy and Helen, had just opened an art school about two hundred yards from our house.

I signed up for a weekly 2-hour class which Andy runs for people who live locally. There were five of us, a nice sociable number but small enough to enable plenty of one-to-one attention. We started off with a still-life, then a couple of life drawings, some lessons on perspective (drawing the interlocking white boxes of an Andalucian hill-town has to be a challenge for anybody!) and a few sessions on specific topics like skies, trees and water. In one lesson we were given photos ripped from magazines to copy, and I still have a rather curious drawing of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall holding a chicken (free-range of course).

We used a mixture of pencil, charcoal and acrylic paints; I had never used the latter before, and needed a bit of help to abandon the water-colour techniques I had tried so hard to master in my youth. But after a couple of sessions, and after seeing Andy's own works in acrylics, I realised that this was the ideal medium for me. They are very forgiving so you can paint over your mistakes, they are much cheaper than oils (and don't take days to dry), and you can paint on anything from MDF to wallpaper.

Once we had learned basic drawing techniques, we were asked to bring in examples of paintings we liked. We were then given objects to paint in that style. For “homework” over Christmas I was given a bunch of red carnations and roses to paint in a bold style against a black background. God, how I sweated over those carnations! But going back next term, Andy showed me how to look at a small area through a cardboard rectangle and just paint the coloured shapes I could see in the rectangle. Stop thinking carnation, start thinking crimson triangles! Once I got the hang of actually painting what I could see, and not what I thought it ought to look like, it all began to fall into place. All through the winter I was spending entire days in my room painting - birds, animals and my favourite subject, Alcalá itself. I feel very privileged to live in such a picturesque place.

So, if you're looking for an activity holiday you could do worse than consider a week at the Painting in Spain Art Centre. You really don't have to worry about whether you're “good” enough. Like any skill, painting and drawing can be taught and learned. Andy's relaxed and constructive teaching method is perfect for bringing out the best in people and helping them develop confidence in their own style, whatever that is; there is no good and bad. It's all about learning how to look and then copy what you see; this is a technique you can learn, not a genetic attribute.

The Centre is just a minute's walk from the Plaza Alameda, where the Alcalainos sit out on a summer evening eating caracoles and playing dominoes while house-martins swoop overhead. In the other direction, the roof terrace offers an unbroken view of El Picacho and the Parque Nacional de los Alcornocales. The ever-changing colours and textures of the forests and mountains are inspirational for both artists and photographers.

Take a look at my paintings on Flickr


Extract from a superb flamenco concert in the patio of the Sagrada Familia school, August 2009, featuring singer Argentina and dancer El Junco.

Horse-riding Andalucian style


Random shots of Alcalá, with backing track by local-boy-made-good Alejandro Sanz, one of Spain´s leading pop stars.