14 January 2014

Stork Talk

One of the most impressive large birds seen regularly around Alcalá is the white stork, Ciconia ciconia. The other day we witnessed about two hundred of them flying overhead, on their way from wintering in Africa to their breeding grounds in Europe. They take the shortest route across the Mediterranean, because the thermals which lift them high into the air during their migration don't form over water. An estimated eighty thousand of them come our way, across the Strait of Gibraltar, though many more cross at the other end of the Med, across the Bosphorus and up through Turkey.

White storks grazing in the spring meadows
Alcalá now has three resident pairs, whose nests can be seen on pylons to the left of the A375 as you come into town from junction 42 on the A381.  You can often see them grazing in the fields nearby, or wheeling overhead.  Further south on the A381 towards Los Barrios there are nests on every pylon, and the derelict sugar factory at El Portal is a veritable housing estate.  The nests are huge and straggly, often home to many smaller birds, and somehow manage to survive the fiercest of winds.

"Stork City" - the old sugar factory at El Portal near Jerez
Each year storks head in their thousands to the former lagoon known as La Janda, southwest of Alcalá, where they enjoy snacking on the freshwater crayfish found its drainage ditches.  It is thought to be the pigment from these which gives the stork's legs and beak their bright red colour.

La Janda suchi bar
Stork facts:

  • Storks communicate by clattering their beaks rather than calling. The sound is amplified by the throat pouch, which acts as a resonator. They also use an up-down display which involves throwing the head backwards and bringing it slowly forwards again; this display serves various purposes, including greetings and threats.
  • They measure over a metre from beak-tip to tail, and their wingspan can be as much as 2 metres (6'6").  Males are slightly larger than females, but their plumage is identical.
  • They are carnivorous, and eat insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and even small birds. They feed mainly on the ground, among low vegetation, and from shallow water.
  • They they don't mate for life, but they do practice 'serial monogamy'. The male usually comes back to the nest to do a bit of repair work before his partner arrives.  Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the chicks.
  • Juveniles follow their parents on their first migration south, but if they get blown off course they may end up with a different winter location.  However, they manage to find their way back to the same nesting sites.
  • Storks use the minimum of energy while flying, preferring to glide on thermals with just the occasional wingflap.  They can get as high as 1500m and travel as much as 500 km in a day.
  • Black storks, Ciconia nigra, also use the Strait of Gibraltar during migration but they are much rarer and very few pairs stay to breed in Spain.  They are slightly smaller than white storks, and much more wary of humans.
  • Black stork
  • Storks have been known to squeeze moss in their beak to drip water into their chicks' mouths.
  • They are social birds and bond with each other by mutual grooming, usually with a standing bird grooming the head of a seated one.  This serves the additional purpose of helping to keep down the large number of parasites that live in their feathers.
  • Storks can live for over 30 years, and don't usually breed until their fourth year.
  • Although traditionally migratory, an increasing number of white storks now stay in Spain all year round. This is thought to be because they have learned to find food on rubbish tips, rather than the result of climate change.
  • Storks are traditionally associated with fertility, probably because they arrive in the spring.  The legend that storks bring babies probably originated in central Europe.  It was popularised in a 19th century fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen and is now found all over the world.  In Spain, they believe the storks bring the babies from Paris.

09 January 2014

Restaurante El Campanero is back in business

Alcalá's 'Mesón Asador el Campanero' closed its doors a few years ago, leaving a gap at the top end of the food chain in the town centre. The restaurant was a carnivore's paradise, with the heads of beasts looking down on you as you tucked into their relatives.  We ate there a couple of times when we first came to Alcalá, but high prices and highly uncomfortable chairs (the traditional ones with lumpy wicker seats) put us off going there once we retired and moved here permanently.

Following a total makeover, El Campanero recently re-opened under the management of Andalucía and Manuel Jímenez Jímenez, whose parents first opened the establishment in 1999. Andalucía and Manuel also run the popular "Gin Club" bar, Copas Campanero, opposite the restaurant.  I'm not sure when they find time to sleep.

El Campanero is located  near the BP garage, opposite the Día supermarket.  It is open every day except Tuesdays from 8 a.m. till late, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and tapas.  There is a large dining room (with comfy chairs!), or you can just sit on the sunny terrace or at the bar inside and enjoy a beer or a coffee. The atmosphere is informal and if there is a group of you where not everyone wants a full meal, nobody minds if they just have a snack or a drink.  On Friday nights over the recent Christmas period they had live flamenco music and a toasty log fire.

The name means the bell-ringer and there is a bell-tower on the roof.  (NB It is not pronounced "campanyero".  That word doesn't exist, though foreigners sometimes confuse it with compañero, which means companion.). There is also a wooden fishing boat mounted in concrete next door.  One day I'll remember to ask why ...

Andalucía and Manuel are passionate about using the best produce from this area, and they offer the full range of cheeses from the award-winning Quesería Gazul.  These go extremely well with a red wine from the Sierra de Cádiz, Barbazul, from the Huerta de Albalá near Arcos de la Frontera.

There are three menus;  one for main meals, one for tapas and snacks, and one for sweets.  The prices are very reasonable, especially important in the current economic climate.  El Campanero has quickly become a favourite meeting and eating venue for local people.

Venison, wild boar and partridge feature on the menu along with more familiar meats, chorizos, jamón, and delicious cholesterol-laden chicharrones (lumps of roast pork with the crackling still attached), made by Embutidos Gazules.  However, unlike many restaurants round here they do actually understand the concept of vegetarianism, and there are various meat-free options such as pastel de berenjenas (aubergine pie) made in the wood-fired oven.

One of the best features of the new Campanero is the enormous charcoal grill, la parrilla de carbón, great for cooking steaks of local retinto beef, Iberian pork or lamb cutlets.   Top of the menu pricewise is melt-in-the-mouth solomillo de retinto - sirloin steak - at €17.50.  I can honestly say it's one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.

Restaurante El Campanero
Avenida Puerto Levante s/n
Alcalá de los Gazules
Reservations: 956 420 640

Photos by Chemary Gómez Reyes, reproduced with permission.