27 July 2011

How now, red cow?

Alcalá is surrounded by cattle, and not just the scary great black toros bravos - fighting bulls - bred around Medina Sidonia and destined to face Death in the Afternoon. This land produces some of Spain's finest beef. Drive out in any direction and you will see large herds of reddish-brown beasts with huge white horns, peacefully grazing or being rounded up by mounted vaqueros. There is usually a flock of cattle egrets in attendance, and occasionally a tiny calf just finding its feet. These are the raza retinta, our own native breed, and they are very special.

The word retinta refers to their colour, which can range from chestnut red to dark brown. The breed Bos taurus Turdetanus (I kid you not) probably originated in North Africa, but has been in the Iberian peninsular since ancient times and can be seen in cave drawings. Today it is found mainly in Andalucia and Extremadura, though there are small herds in other parts of Spain including the Balearics. Retinta cattle have recently been exported to Argentina, where they have adapted well and are being crossbred with local varieties.

Springtime in Cadiz
These animals have a number of characteristics enabling them to withstand conditions which our more wussy northern cows could not cope with. They shed their winter coat in spring and can tolerate bright sunlight and temperatures of up to 44ºC (111ºF).  They are highly resistant to disease and parasites, and surefooted on uneven rocky terrain. The bulls can be left in the meadows with the cows to do what comes naturally; the females calve easily and have great maternal instincts with adequate milk, so they can give birth in the field.

The dehesas or meadows around Alcalá are perfect for these beauties, although there are fears that they are being over-grazed. For six months of the year the grass is green and lush for grazing and provides enough hay to keep them going over the summer drought, while the groves of alcornoques and other oaks provide shade as well as tasty acorns to help flavour the meat.

So when looking for environmentally friendly sustainable industries to develop in the Alcornocales Natural Park, the Grupo de Desarollo Rural  (GDR) got together with local ganaderos  in 2004 to launch a project which would not only improve breeding techniques but also enable them to fatten and butcher the cattle locally, thereby enhancing profitability and providing more jobs in the area.

Unfortunately all has not gone smoothly. Resistance from the companies who previously profited from beef bred in Cádiz, and from some of the breeders themselves; a lack of slaughterhouses or cebaderos (fattening centres); a blue-tongue outbreak in the area, and the inevitable tangled web of Spanish bureaucracy have all contributed to the project not coming to fruition as quickly as it might have done. 

Cebadero Comunitario
Some Alcalá farmers are members of a co-operative, Los Remedios (based in Olvera), who have recently completed a cebadero just outside the town on the road to Benalup, financed by money from the Junta de Andalucia.   Not only will co-op members be able to fatten their cattle there, they will benefit from a vaccination programme and the monitoring of cross-breeding programmes with other varieties of cattle.

Spain has one of the lowest levels of beef consumption in Europe, preferring pork. Traditionally cattle were used as beasts of burden rather than as a source of food.  Beef became more popular in the 1960s but was generally of poor quality with most animals raised in sheds and unable to develop decent muscle fibre.  But thanks to the efforts of projects like the one described above, things are changing. In 2008 the local carne de retinto was awarded the quality mark Carne de Vacuno Extensivo de Cadiz to help market this excellent beef further afield.

It is already the steak of choice in most of the quality restaurants in the Province, but potential markets close by include Gibraltar, Seville, Málaga and the restaurants of the Costa del Sol, and the two Spanish communities on the Moroccan coast, Ceuta and Melilla (taking advantage of a halal slaughterhouse in La Linea).

At the moment it appears the only places in the province where you can buy the meat yourself are the Hipercor supermarkets in Cádiz and Jerez. Far easier to try a steak at La Cabaña or Casa Jiménez … and given the price of petrol it will end up costing about the same.

I once read somewhere that McDonalds Europe used to buy up most of the carne de retinto raised in Cádiz, but I can't find the source and I don't know if that is still the case. I'm not sure whether that would make me feel better about eating a Big Mac or not ...

Beef up your vocabulary:

This can be confusing as the same words are used to describe both the meat and the animal itself, and different sources supply different definitions.

  • Añojo/a (n.) – a weaned calf, or meat from an animal between 12 and 24 months.
  • Becerro/a (n.) – an animal between 12 and 24 months.
  • Buey (n.m.) – a castrated bull or ox. Commonly used in stews; rabo de buey or rabo de toro (oxtail) is very popular here.
  • Ganado (n.m.) – cattle, livestock.
  • Novillo/a (n.) – an animal between 18 and 36 months; a bullock or heifer.
  • Ternero/a –a calf less than 12 months old. Also used generically for meat from a youngish animal (carne de ternero). Veal in the English sense (i.e. white or pale pink meat)  is ternero lechal (milk calf).
  • Vaca (n.f.)– the generic word for cow (but the word ternera is often used for generically cattle bred for meat as opposed to dairy). Carne de vaca means beef from a a cow more than 36 months old.
  • Toro (n.m.) – bull. A toro bravo or toro de lidia is a fighting bull; often eaten after the bullfight but the meat can be tough. Eating bull's testicles (criadillas) reputed to make you more manly.
  • Vacuno/a (adj.) - bovine.   Carne de vacuno is beef in general; you will see this on packs of supermarket mince, sometimes mixed with cerdo (pork).  Be careful when ordering in a restaurant; vacuna (n.f.) means vaccine!

24 July 2011

The day they shot the Mayor

Seventy-five years ago this month, the Mayor of Alcalá de los Gazules was executed by a firing squad.  His crime was failing to support the military coup against the elected Republican government.

Antonio Gallego Visglerio was born in Alcalá in 1893.  He ran a bar, the Cafe los Serios, and also owned a lorry used to transport goods.  He was elected as a Councillor in July 1931, following the establishment of the 2nd Spanish Republic, and became Mayor in October 1933, remaining in office until the socialist administration was dismissed by the right-wing provincial governor Luis de Armiñán a year later.  Gallego was reinstated as Mayor, along with the rest of the elected council, following the Popular Front victory in the 1936 elections.

Gallego wrote a document outlining his hopes and plans on being elected to serve the newly formed Republic after many years of dictatorship and the collapse of the monarchy.  He describes the difficult and disagreeable task that lay ahead for all the elected representatives - having to instigate investigations into corruption and wrongdoings of their predecessors, many of whom might be old friends or even family members.  Not to do so, however, would be a betrayal of the people who had elected them of their own free will.   The full text of the document (in Spanish) can be found here.
"There is no man so free of commitments to friends and family that he would not feel the bitterness of having to start work on investigations and purges, without first sustaining an exhausting struggle between his civic conscience and the desire to conserve those friendships and those friendly family ties ... The people we represent have a desire for justice, and we will incur their disloyalty if, after having offered them that to which they have an indisputable right, we falter because we are afraid of what moral and material damages might result therefrom.

... The Spanish Republic cannot wipe the slate clean; we must sift through and reveal all that corrupted the displaced regime. Otherwise if we don't expose and punish the illegal and immoral actions committed by servants of the overthrown monarchy, it would be no surprise if after a short time they returned to take possession of power, in this town and many others, having been in charge for many years ..."

One of the projects undertaken by Gallego's administration was the supply of water for the town. In spite of the many springs in the area, Alcalá suffered from the lack of a reliable water supply, especially in the summer months. He organised a loan to start work on bringing piped water into the town, but unfortunately the work was abandoned when the Civil War began.

Gallego was known as an honest and peaceful man,. Although the political left at that time were fiercely anti-clerical,  we know that he supported the nuns who ran the charity school in Alcalá with his own money, because a letter exists from the Mother Superior thanking him for his donations. There is also a rumour that when men came from Cádiz to burn down the convent, he and some other local  Republicans stood guard to prevent this. He reassured the nuns: “Be calm, the people of Alcalá are good and nobody is going to burn down anything here. But if any of you are fearful, I offer you my house, which is big enough to accommodate you all.”

On 21 July 1936, a few days after the military coup led by Franco, the Guardia Civil and Falangist troops came to Alcalá from Jerez.   Gallego, his deputy and the treasurer were arrested and taken to the jail in Medina Sidonia, where they were executed three days later for “not supporting the Movement”. Gallego was just one of many thousands who lost their lives as a result of the coup and the subsequent repression. A hundred or so other Republican sympathisers in Alcalá were marched to town cemetery and executed by firing squad.

At 11 a.m. on 15 August a mass was celebrated at St George's Church honouring the the new regime.  The Falangists and their armed escorts then marched triumphantly through the streets, accompanied by a band, to the Town Hall where they ceremoniously replaced the tricolour Republican flag with the Nationalist one.

The flag of the Second Spanish Republic, 1931-39
Gallego's widow and five children could not endure having to live alongside those who had assassinated the head of their family, and they left Alcalá the following year. His body has never been recovered.

Apuntes Históricos y de Nuestro Patrimonio 2003. Don Antonio Gallego Visglerio, Alcalde Republicano de Alcalá de los Gazules. Fusilado en Julio de 1936. J. Carlos Perales Pizarro.
El golpe cívico militar en Alcalá de los Gazules del 18 de Julio de 1936, Agustín Coca Pérez et al.

19 July 2011

Things with wings

On the long summer evenings the skies above Alcalá come alive with an aerial ballet of swifts, swallows and house-martins.  We sit on our roof terrace and watch them swooping and soaring, hoovering up flies on the wing.  They are often chased by our resident lesser kestrels, but they rarely succeed in catching one.  White cattle egrets flap lazily along the river valley towards their nocturnal roosting tree, usually in V-shaped groups of a dozen or so, but with the occasional latecomer anxious to catch up with the flock.  Doves and pigeons are here in abundance, nesting in the special pigeon-holes made for them in the rocks of the Coracha above us.

Then just before dusk the bats appear, taking over the flycatching from the hirundines as they return to their nests.  After dark, the whoo-hoo of the tawny owl can often be heard, or the distant screech of a barn owl. Cicadas chirrup in the bushes, and some temporally challenged cockerel will usually sound his quiquiriquí alarm at around 2 am. 

At dawn the songbirds are at their busiest, darting in and out of the trees and bushes to feed themselves and their young before the heat of the day sets in.  By mid-morning most of the smaller birds have taken refuge from the sun, except for noisy bands of spotless starlings which sometimes descend on the big eucalyptus tree next to the house, and sparrows which hop along the electricity cables and occasionally take shelter on our windowsill.  In the distance, vultures and raptors take advantage of the hot air thermals, drifting across the sky with barely a flap of their wings. 

Apart from the birds, our roof garden is visited by a colourful variety of butterflies, beetles and crickets, even the odd praying mantis blown over from Africa on the Levante.  Possibly because it is almost always windy here, we are not unduly bothered by mosquitos or wasps, apart from the solitary mud-wasps with their dangly bits hanging behind them.  Great big navy-blue carpenter bees, whose wings appear too fragile to get them off the ground, often blunder into the wall and lie stunned upside-down on the ground until we flip them over. 

All the joys of nature - without even leaving the house. 

House martins (avión común in Spanish )

House martins nesting
The house-martins, Delichon urbica, build their nests in colonies under the eaves of houses and are regarded by many locals as a pest, because of their droppings and the noise they make; you will see plastic bags and other detritus tied on the walls to deter them.  However there are enough empty buildings and benevolent householders to ensure that they return each year in large numbers.  They arrive in early spring when there are still puddles of water on the ground, from which they collect mud for any repair work needed on their nests, which are closed apart from a tiny entrance hole.

Swallows (golandrinas )
Swallows (hirundo rustica) have much longer tails than house martins and are extremely agile on the wing.  We have seen them fly under the wheels of a moving vehicle and emerge unscathed!   Their nests are half-cup shaped and built in sheltered places.   Another variety, the red-rumped swallow (hirundo daurica) visits us from Africa during the summer, and builds its bottle-shaped nests in abandoned buildings and sheltered rocks.

Swifts (vencenjos)
Swifts (apus apus) are not related to swallows, although they are often confused with them.  They tend to fly higher, rarely coming down to land (they can sleep on the wing); they have longer wings and shorter tails.  They are around all summer but reach a peak in August and early May.  The pallid swift (apus pallidus) is another abundant summer visitor.  It looks very similar to the common swift but is paler in colour.

Lesser kestrels (cernicalo primilla)
 The lesser kestrel (falco naumanni) is a delightful small falcon which lives in Alcalá all year round, nesting and roosting in niches in old buildings and filling the skies with its raucous chirps.  It is smaller than the common kestrel and more playful and gregarious; in summer it is common to see large numbers of them swooping and diving around the church tower in the Plaza Alta, or hanging motionless above la Coracha looking for food. They feed mainly on crickets and other insects, but occasionally take mice or small birds.

Cattle egret befriending a vaca retinta

 Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) are found wherever there are cattle, and there are a lot of cattle round Alcalá.  They are a type of small, gregarious heron.  Their official name in Spanish is garzilla bueyera, but they have numerous local names such as espulgabuey.

Confusingly, the cattle egret is larger than a little egret (Egretta garzetta), and has an orange bill rather than black.

Spotless starlings (estornino negro)
Spotless starlings (sturnus unicolor) have similar habits to their more common relatives, the European starlings, but their plumage is darker and as the name implies, they don´t have the spots.  They go round in noisy groups and are good mimics.

A group of spotlesss starlings made a guest appearance at the Alcalá International Music festival a couple of years ago.  The Soloists of London were performing in the patio of the SAFA; confused by the spotlights, the roosting birds thought morning had come early and started to sing.  At one point they almost drowned out the music!

Other "things with wings" which have visited nuestra casa:

Green cricket in the lemon-grass plant

Praying mantis on the kitchen windowsill
Red Admiral on the lantana plant
Mud-wasps are not aggressive and prefer spiders to humans
Carpenter bee - the male has no sting, and the female prefers flowers

13 July 2011

Ten reasons to go to Alcalá de los Gazules

Diez Razones (Ten Reasons), a TV show made by Canal Sur, spotlights a different locality in Andalucia each week, and last night it was about Alcalá de los Gazules.  You can watch it online here.

Their ten reasons are:

EL MUSEO VIVIENTE - the "living museum" run by the Adult Education Centre.  A bit misleading this, as it's only open one week of the year! 

LOS MALETILLAS - tributes to famous bullfighters from Alcala.  A rare chance to see inside the town's old bullring, the outside of which was converted into flats years ago.

EL GAZPACHO CALIENTE - hot and thick, the traditional way to eat gazpacho in the winter.

LOS EXVOTOS - the enchanting and poignant drawings and paintings offered in thanks to Our Lady, lining the walls of the Sanctuary chapel.

LOS ARTISTAS INGLESES - the two English artists shown here are musician Matt Coman, who runs the annual classical music festival, and painter Andy Russell who gives art lessons to locals and visitors alike.

EL QUESO DE CABRA - our fabulous handmade goats' cheese, produced at La Queseria Gazul.

LOS ROMANCES - an oral tradition of songs and stories passed down through the generations, dating back to medieval times.

ALEJANDRO SANZ - well, as his uncle Paco Pizarro points out, the world-famous pop star never actually lived here, but he used to come for the school holodays!

LA VIRGEN DE LOS SANTOS - another trip to the Sanctuary, this time to see the beautiful embroidery on Our Lady's mantle and the chupa (dummy) used by Baby Jesus.

EL CORCHO - cork of course!  Alcalá is at the heart of one of Europe´s biggest cork oak forests.

Possible contenders for Part 2: la Parroquia de San Jorge with its wonderful old relics and statues, the view from our terrace, the resident colony of lesser kestrels, and La Sacristia - a tiny bar built into the side of a church.

01 July 2011

Let battle commence ...

Back in March I commented on the opening of a new nursery school in Alcala, with places for 120 children.  This has become the subject of the first public clash of swords between the former and current Mayors - and I suspect it won't be the last.

According to a press release on Wednesday, the nursery has had to be closed because it was in too dangerous a condition.  The new administration claims that it was opened before getting its official licence for first occupation, and hadn't been finished off properly; the air conditioning wasn't working, the kitchen wasn't finished, and most significantly, an electrical cable was suspended in the air and not buried underground, as required by a technical report that was discovered in the Town Hall on 7 June.

This has given the new regime a splendid opportunity to write to all the parents of the children informing them of the shortcomings of the old one. 

It is claimed that the former Mayor, Arsénio Cordero, opened the nursery on 28 March, with cynical disregard for the safety of the children and employees, in order to to give publicity to his party, the PSOE.  (This was apparently the last date on which public works could be opened before the start of the electoral campaign.) 

The PSOE have of course denied all the accusations.  They claim that nursery building was perfectly legal when it was opened, and met the technical requirements of the construction project (which did not include air conditoning or a kitchen).  The reason the cable had not been buried was because 6 metres of it would run through a cañada [canyon], which for environmental reasons requires a period of public consultation before permission can be granted by the Provincial Delegation.  This period expires on 10 July and the work can be completed on 11 July. 

I am really trying to be objective here. Although I support the PSOE locally, I am perfectly willing to accept that they might be guilty of all sorts of misdemeanours. But if there were any doubts at all about safety in a nursery school, of all places, why would they risk some dreadful accident in the in the period leading up to the election?   The new nursery is a great improvement on the old one, with much more space and better facilities. Given that no other school in Alcalá has air-conditioning either, why is it a problem that it isn't working yet? 

And looking at the state of the electrical wiring in the streets of Alcalá, is one more overhead cable that much of a threat?  Is the new regime going to put all of these underground too? That would be nice ... and would keep our local builders and electricians in work for decades!

Your average Alcalá street scene - cable knitting