26 January 2011

Doom, gloom and plenty of clichés

It is hard to find good news about Spain these days.  Unemployment is over 20% and still rising, a third of people who are in work are on temporary or part-time contracts, and public sector workers have had their pay cut by 5%.  Petrol, gas and electricity prices are rising way ahead of inflation.  Zapatero's PSOE government (Spanish Workers' Socialist Party) is moving inexorably to the right - albeit at a reluctant canter rather than a gallop - in an attempt to reduce the public debt and pacify the IMF:  freezing pensions, selling off public assets, making it easier to sack employees, cutting unemployment benefits and raising the retirement age.  The right-wing opposition party, the Partido Popular (PP) are well ahead in the opinion polls despite repeated revelations of corruption, a leader totally lacking in charisma, and a noticeable lack of policies.

Zapatero smiles disarmingly as he canters to the right, and Rajoy
gazes into space while trying to think up an economic policy.
Note the identical ties ...
Homelessness is on the increase, despite over a million new dwellings standing empty, and house prices are still falling. The Basque separatist group ETA's recent announcement of yet another ceasefire was greeted with almost universal scepticism.   Bar owners and disgruntled smokers are complaining bitterly about the new smoking ban, and the PP mayor of Madrid has promised public money to provide heated outdoor smoking areas in an attempt to harvest their votes.  A few days after Nissan announced they would be expanding their car plant in Barcelona (on condition that wages are frozen till 2014 and working conditions are worsened), Yamaha announced the closure of theirs.   Air pollution in Madrid and Barcelona is well above EU acceptable levels and nobody can agree what to do about it.

And to cap it all, we are experiencing one of the coldest, greyest, windiest, nastiest spells of weather I can remember since we moved here, with no sign of a let-up.

Nevertheless, a recent survey by the Centre for Sociological Research revealed that while 60% of respondents believe Spain's economic woes won't improve in the year ahead, this doesn't seem to affect them at a personal level as badly as you might think.   75% of those questioned said that they were very satisfied with their lives, and 55% said that things had gone well or very well for them in 2010.

Morale seems to be worse in Britain, whose economic optimism is apparently among the lowest in the world.  Every day the expat forums get new enquiries from people anxious to escape the horrendous implications of the public spending cuts (why do they call them a "review"?) and start a new life in the sun; postmen, window cleaners, air-conditioning salesmen, teachers, nurses, herbal therapists, musicians, and guys who had a great holiday here a couple of years ago and have done a bit of bar work.    It's hard to know what to say to people who think they can find a job here, or even just pick up enough casual work to get by.  You don't want to trample on their dreams too harshly, but the reality is that there are four and a half million people chasing very few jobs, and those people already speak fluent Spanish.

On the other hand, if you don't need to find work, there are still many good reasons for coming to live in Spain.  The bad weather won't last long - that's guaranteed! - and the wonderful things that attracted us here in the first place, like the view over the mountains from our terrace, are not affected by the economy.  So let's batten down the hatches, tighten our belts and weather the storm, things can only get better ...

And apologies for all the clichés, but at times like this they come in handy!

The best things in life are free.  And who knows, there might be a pot of gold
at the end of that rainbow ...

19 January 2011

Alcalá de los Gazules collage

A collage painting of some of my favourite places in the town.  Not to scale, and definitely not in the right places!  If you would like a copy of this in poster format (30 x 45 cm)  please email me.

18 January 2011

Día de San Antonio - Patron Saint of Pets

We were watching the news last night when we saw a very strange thing.  Hundreds of people had dressed up their pooches and pussycats in fancy costumes and were lining up to get a priest to sprinkle holy water over them.  Then in today's paper I saw an alarming photo of someone riding a horse into a bonfire.


It turns out that 17 January is the Feast Day for San Antonio Abate, the patron saint of domestic pets.  People throughout Spain take their pampered pets to church for "The Blessing of the Animals" - cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, pigs, ferrets, donkeys, even goldfish.   Following a ritual sprinkling, the faithful are given panecillos del Santo, lucky buns made from a secret recipe which is supposed to keep them fresh for a year.

Like most Catholic ceremonies this has pre-Christian roots; it dates back to an ancient Roman fertility rite to honour the gods Cerere Terra, when a pregnant animal would be sacrificed, and beasts of burden wore garlands and were given a day off work.  St Anthony the Great, a.k.a. Anthony the Abbot, was an Egyptian Christian monk who spent most of his life fasting in the desert and being tempted by the Devil.  He apparently had a soft spot for pigs, and is often depicted with one on a lead, as in the statue in Alcalá's Parroquia de San Jorge (see picture).   He was appointed Patron Saint of domestic animals in the Middle Ages.

Many Spanish cities have special events on this day.  In Barcelona there is the Cabalgata dels Tres Tombs, a grand procession of decorated animals and carriages through the town.   In Castellar del Santiago (Ciudad Real) there is a cockerel auction, while in Trigueros (Huelva) legs of ham, bread, money and other objects are thrown at a statue of the Saint as he is paraded through the streets.  In some places the celebrations involve bonfires, and in the Luminarias de San Bartolomé de Pinares (Ávila) riders force their horses into the flames in the belief that this will cleanse the village of disease and ensure its prosperity in the year ahead.

The reason I hadn't been aware of it before, I suspect, is that in Alcalá de los Gazules there are very few pampered pets; here, animals have to earn their keep. Dogs are for hunting or guarding property, cats are for catching mice, and the chicas who carry Yorkies or chihuahuas round in their handbags probably aren't the town's most dedicated churchgoers.  Our own extremely pampered pet can think herself lucky she lives in an atheist household.

14 January 2011

Orange time!

There is no shortage of colour in an Alcalá winter.  And right now, the colour is largely orange.  The naranjos (orange trees) in the Playa are laden with fruit, squashed oranges lie rotting on the the pavement, the greengrocers counters are piled high with five or six different varieties, and people are selling the produce from their huertas on street corners and door-to-door.

The fruit we love today is an ancient hybrid originating in Southeast Asia.  Both the bitter orange, Citrus aurantium, and the sweet one, Citrus sinensis, were being cultivated  in China by 2500 BC.  The Romans first brought them to Europe, but their cultivation died out here after the fall of the Roman Empire.  However they were planted across North Africa,  the Moors introduced them to Spain, and by the 12th century they covered an area from Sevilla to Granada.  The Spanish in turn took them to Florida, and the Portuguese created vast plantations in Brazil, which is now the world's leading producer of orange juice.

All six hundred kinds of orange found today were bred from those original two varieties.  The sweet ones include blood, navel and Valencia oranges, used for juice and for the table.  The bitter ones, also known as Seville or bergamot oranges, are used for marmalade, pickles, fragrant oils and some herbal medicines.  The mandarin cultivar (Citrus reticulata) has many loose-skinned varieties such as satsuma, clementines and tangerines.  They are all part of the citrus genus, along with lemons, limes and grapefruit.

Unfortunately the oranges littering the streets of most Andalucian towns right now are the sour variety, and you can only make so much marmalade.  Incidentally the Spanish don't make or eat marmalade - most Seville oranges are exported to Britain for this purpose.  One story goes that a thrifty Scot named James Keiller  started the whole thing in 1700, not wanting to waste the oranges used as ballast in the empty holds of cargo ships returning from Spain after delivering Scottish wool.  Another variant is that the Scotch whisky industry imported Spanish oak barrels, which were filled with oranges to stop them rolling round in the hold.

In a couple of months the orange blossom will start to appear, even while the old fruit are still on the tree.  The wonderful scent from these waxy white blooms fills the streets on a warm evening, and is a sure sign that spring has arrived.  The Spanish word for orange, naranja, comes from the Sanskrit narangah, meaning fragrant.

05 January 2011

La Cabalgata de los Reyes

Tonight Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar will parade through the streets of Alcalá dispensing sweets by the sack-load to the children.  The Three Wise Men, los Reyes Magos, come here not on camels but on the backs of elaborately decorated lorries, preceded by the gloriously raucous Alcalá silver band.  Having filled their pockets (and occasionally carrier bags) with sticky caramelos the children, who have already written out their requirements and posted them by special delivery, will go to bed early.  They will leave their shoes out by the door, often accompanied by some carrots for Balthazar´s donkey, and await the return of the Magi during the night (without the band this time).  Good children will find their shoes full of presents next morning; bad ones will find a piece of coal.

Tomorrow, 6 January, is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men supposedly discovered Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  In Spain it is traditionally celebrated with a large round cake known as a Roscón de Reyes, containing a small figurine of the baby Jesus, and a dried bean. The person who gets the figurine is crowned, but whoever gets the bean has to pay the value of the cake to the person who originally bought it.

And that brings the seasonal festivities to a close.  Normally the kids would go back to school on the 7th, but this year it falls on a Friday so they won´t go back till Monday.  Time to eat a few more kilos of cake, sweets and pastries ....

03 January 2011

The Mediterranean Diet - our edible cultural heritage

Last year the Mediterranean Diet was designated by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Spain, Greece, Italy and Morocco.  It is characterised by a daily intake of olive oil, cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetables, with a moderate amount of fish, dairy produce, eggs and meat, accompanied by wine or infusions.  The Cultural Heritage bit also applies to the skills and traditions associated with the production, preparation and consumption of these foods:
... the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek work diaita (δίαιτα), or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity. It ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming in the Mediterranean communities ... Women particularly play a vital role in the transmission of expertise, as well as knowledge of rituals, traditional gestures, celebrations and the safeguarding of techniques.
(Inscribed in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity)
The health benefits of this way of eating were first confirmed by Ancel Keys, director of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota, in the 1940s.  He noticed that well-fed American businessmen had high rates of heart disease, whereas in postwar Europe rates fell sharply in the wake of reduced food supplies.  This prompted him to launch the Seven Countries Study.  For more than ten years  his team studied the diet, lifestyle and incidence of  heart disease among 12,763 randomly selected middle-aged men in the United States, Japan, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Finland and Yugoslavia.

The research revealed that in Greece, Japan and southern Italy, where vegetables, grains, fruits, beans and fish formed the main part of their diet, heart disease was rare. But in those countries where people ate large amounts of red meat, cheese and other foods high in saturated fat, such as in the US and Finland, the rates were much higher.  In Crete, where subjects consumed up to 40% of their calorie intake as unsaturated fats - mainly from olive oil and fish - they found the lowest rate of heart disease and the highest average life expectancy (along with Japan).  This led to the distinction between saturated and unsaturated fats that we are all familiar with today.

Keys also observed that Mediterranean and Asian peoples were physically active, family ties were strong, and the pace of life was leisurely. He concluded that although diet was the single most important factor, it was a combination of dietary and lifestyle factors that were responsible for the remarkably low rates of heart disease in Mediterranean and Asian regions.  In 1975 he retired to a fishing village in Southern Italy, where he continued to study the link between diet and health in the local population - and lived to be 100.

In the mid-1990s the concept of the "Mediterranean Diet Pyramid" was popularised by Walter Willett of Harvard University School of Public Health, in conjunction with the World Health Organization and the Oldways Trust.  (Interestingly, the International Olive Oil Council, a Madrid-based trade association of countries that produce olive oil, was a major sponsor of Oldways conferences.) They recommended that up to 40% of calories should come from unsaturated fat (mainly olive oil), going against US government dietary advice which recommended no more than 30% of calories should come from fats of any kind.  Unfortunately most consumers just took this as a licence to eat more fat, drowning their salads with olive-oil dressings or eating more fried food, without making all the other recommended dietary changes.

By the turn of the millennium however, with obesity levels soaring, we were being told that eating fat was bad. Low-fat or fat-free products flooded the supermarket shelves and olive oil became a naughty treat. Then in 2006 the results of an eight-year study of nearly 50,0000 women found that low-fat diets did not protect against heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer or colon cancer, as had previously been claimed.  Subsequent research has shown that a low-carbohydrate, Atkins-style diet is more effective for weight loss and has more health benefits than a low-fat diet.

So the olive oil is back on the table, the fruit bowl and vegetable rack are full and the wine is flowing.  In our household we have been following the Mediterranean diet pretty faithfully ever since moving here - without even thinking about it.  With all that lovely fresh produce, who would want to eat any other way?