Serrano portraits from the cork harvest of 2013

KIKO

Kiko, Cork Harvester, Galaroza. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Kiko, Cork Harvester, Galaroza. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Francisco “Kiko” Muñiz is a cork harvester who lives in Galaroza. Like others working in this field, he does all sorts of other agricultural work. I spent a couple of days with his cuadrilla last year on farms near Jabugo and Alájar. Here Kiko sits with his axes and various “cucharos” which are prized amongst the cork harvesters. Traditionally these could be used for anything from drinking cups at wells, to bowls for making gazpacho, or if big enough, for bathing a baby. Nowadays they mostly decorate the local bars.

MAUNEL AND ANTONIO

Manuel Santos and Antonio "El Cordobés" working as a team. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Manuel Santos and Antonio “El Cordobés” working as a team. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Manuel Santos Carvajal is from a new generation of cork harvesters from the Sierra. He lives in Galaroza. He does all kinds of forestry work. Maunel likes to sing and joke while he works which makes being with the caudrilla enjoyable. Here he is working with Antonio “El Cordobés” from the village of Alájar. Antonio also keeps 50 or more goats so I think there is a visit in the offing for Chaparro, the camera and me…

FRANCISCO

Francisco, an arriero from Aracena, with Marquesa and Rodolfo. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Francisco, an arriero from Aracena, with Marquesa and Rodolfo. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Francisco is a rare breed: a young arriero or muleteer. There used to be hundreds of arrieros travelling across the Sierra but now there are very few so I felt really lucky to catch a rare glimpse of an arriero at work during the cork harvest; tractors are the norm nowadays. The days I was with the cuadrilla, Franciso was working with his two mules. Rodolfo and Marquesa, who know their work and who are extremely well cared for.

Francisco "Juntando". Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Francisco “Juntando”. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

ARRIEROS FROM CAÑAVERAL DE LEÓN

One of the many lovely things about riding the paths of the Sierra is the probability of chance encounters with farmers, goatherds, walkers and in some instances, cork harvesters. On a ride through Valdelama, Paul and I came across these arrieros or muleteers from Cañaveral de León, a village situated in the far north of the Sierra, They were loading up cork near the village of Navahermosa and had brought their mules and donkeys down to help with the work.

Arrieros from Cañaveral de León. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Arrieros from Cañaveral de León. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

There are some photos from the 2013 cork harvest here.

Jan Nimmo ©2014

The Naked Oak: This Year’s Cork Harvest in the Sierra.

An Alcornoque or Cork oak (Quercas Suber) in the Northern Sierra. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

An alcornoque or cork oak (Quercas Suber) in the Northern Sierra. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

In the ten years that I have been riding the bridle paths and drove roads of the Sierra de Huelva with my horse, Chaparro, I have become fascinated by cork oaks/alcornoques (Quercus Suber) and cork. It’s no surprise really as the alcornoques populate the landscape we ride through, whether it is the lush green central valley of the Sierra or the dry hills to the north and south.

Chaparro and I take a break in the winter sun to take photos of cork oaks in Navahermosa. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Chaparro and Jan take a break in the winter sun to take photos of cork oaks in Navahermosa. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Cork appears everywhere, being used variously as guards to protect the front doors of houses in the villages to repel the teeming rain, as insulation (as in the roof of the 16th Century church, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, in Navahermosa), as receptacles for drinking water- cucharos, as low squat stools held together by nails made from Jara/ Rock rose (Cister Landafer), as protective sheaths for axes, as primitive beehives and for all sorts of other improvised DIY uses…

Emilio Antunez Tristancho sits on a typical cork stool and holds a cucharo. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Emilio Antunez Tristancho sits on a typical cork stool and holds a cucharo. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

P1080199Serrano style cork stools - these were made by Emilio and are held together with Jara or Rock Rose wood nails. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Serrano style cork stools – these were made by Emilio and are held together with Jara or Rock Rose wood nails. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

The alcornocque gives it’s name to a person with specific characteristics – clumsy and not very bright – I suppose we would say “thick”.

The acorns or bellotas from the cork oaks fall on our paths in winter and nourish the black Iberian pigs, cattle and other livestock we meet along the way. Horses are also partial to acorns. In February when you gather the acorns up in your hands you can see them starting to form shoots. These then become chaparros – wee cork oak seedlings. So my horse has a good Serrano name…

A chance encounter with men from Cádiz Province loading cork destined for a closure factory in Algeciras. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

A chance encounter with men from Cádiz Province loading cork destined for a closure factory in Algeciras. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Over the last three years I’ve been documenting what I can of the local cork harvest. My idea is to do this through film (a slow burning project), drawings and photography. During the many conversations I’ve had with older, local people, like Emilio de La Huerta Grande, I’ve become acutely aware of how much this skilled work is in decline and how the men who know how to harvest cork are scarce now compared with 50 years or so ago…. Before, in towns like Galaroza, there were many cuadrillas of cork harvesters working but now there are just a handful. The cork can only be harvested every nine years and it takes a mixture of skilled sensitivity and brute force to handle the axes used strip the cork, leaving the tree unscathed. No machine can do this and there is no way to hurry the time it takes for the tree to produce more cork (the harvests are also strictly controlled by the Parque Natural and the Environmental Agency). That said, no good cork harvester worth their salt would try to strip a cork oak before it was time. To them the paperwork and permission required is secondary to the well-being of the tree, and often there is friction between “Park” officials and men who have a daily working knowledge of the job. Every tree is different and requires special handling. The axes have a slightly curved blade, a wooden shaft made from chestnut, and this is tipped with a metal edge for prizing off the cork once it is cut with the axe blade.

"Cano" - Manolo Valle, Galaroza, holds holds a piece of cork which shows the number of times that the oak has been stripped. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

“Cano” – Manolo Valle, Galaroza, holds holds a piece of cork which shows the number of times that the oak has been stripped. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

"Cano" and Manuel Santos working as a team. Photo:©  Jan Nimmo

“Cano” and Manuel Santos working as a team. Photo:© Jan Nimmo

Luis, Fuenteheridos, from Emilio's cuadrilla, examines his axe. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Luis, Fuenteheridos, from Emilio’s cuadrilla, examines his axe. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

The harvest starts in June when the weather heats up… to safely strip a cork of its bark and not damage the tree it has to be hot. Traditionally the “bornizo” (the tree’s first harvest, when the bark is still not yet cork) was harvested in May; now it is harvested at the same time as the cork – a change that happened with the advent of Natural Park status. The Agencia de Medioambiente controls what happens agriculturally speaking in the Parque Natural and permission has to be sought before harvesting cork, pollarding chestnuts, felling trees or clearing scrub.

This year I worked with two cuadrillas.

Emilio Antunez Tristancho peeling garlic: Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Emilio Antunez Tristancho peeling garlic: Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

My friend Emilio “de La Huerta Grande” Antunez Tristancho, is almost 80 years old and has been, amongst others of his generation, my teacher with regards to the popular history of the area. He has worked all his life in agriculture and loves trees. He is still tough, extremely fit, he walks for miles although a few years back he fell out of a chestnut tree whist pollarding it and broke his arm. I was lucky enough to see him pollard chestnuts one winter, alongside his son, José, and grandson, Isaac, at his smallholding, La Viriñuela. Now his family makes sure that his presence at the cork harvest is in a “supervisory” role. When I learned that Emilio’s cork harvest at his farm, La Caseta, near Jabugo was to be this year I was really keen not to miss it and to see three generations at work. La Caseta is now mainly worked by Emilio’s son, José, who lives there with his partner, Mayte. Emilio still works a smallholding at La Viriñuela and also has a sensational vegetable plot just on the edge of Galaroza.

I visited La Caseta on the second day of the harvest there and enjoyed a traditional serrano breakfast of toast with cured ham, olive oil and tomato, with Maria, Emilio’s wife and Mayte, before following the sound of axes down into a hollow to where the men were harvesting the cork.

Caremelo at La Caseta: Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Caremelo at La Caseta: Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Juan "Gitano" at La Caseta. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Juan “Gitano” at La Caseta. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

The cuadrilla was made up from men from various villages… Emilio, his son José, his grandson Isaac, Juan “El Gitano” and his son, Moises, all from Galaroza, Luis, Carmelo and Juan Antonio from Fuenteheridos and Manolo from Aracena. Lorena, Emilio’s granddaughter, the only woman on the team, was helping her dad load up the cork onto the trailer.

Lorena and Jose finish loading the cork: Drawing © Jan Nimmo

Lorena and Jose finish loading the cork: Drawing © Jan Nimmo

María, Emilio's wife, observing the cork harvest at La Caseta. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

María, Emilio’s wife, observing the cork harvest at La Caseta. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Emilio’s wife, Maria came with us too. It was touching to see that at 82 she still marvels at the beauty of the cork oaks and the skill involved in the harvest. Emilio talks about trees as if they were people, friends or family, and he treats them with the utmost respect. Since he fell from the chestnut tree he has been forbidden from climbing up trees or wielding a cork cutting axe but the minute he spotted anyone who was struggling to work out how approach a tree he would explain what to do and I could see he was just itching to get his hands on the axe. It’s an intuitive job that requires brawn, sensitivity and the ability to judge each cut.

Isaac and Manolo working as a team. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Isaac and Manolo working as a team. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Emilio "rajando" or trimming cork. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Emilio “rajando” or trimming cork. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Manolo and Juan Antonio working at La Caseta. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Manolo and Juan Antonio working at La Caseta. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Juan Antonio working at La Caseta. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Juan Antonio working at La Caseta. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

The alcornoque has a distinct and subtle smell when the bark has been stripped and the pale flesh feels cool and damp to the touch. You can see the sap trickle down the limbs of the tree.

Emilio is a larger than life character so he booms out instructions to the cork harvesters in the cuadrilla. It’s all good-humoured banter – cachondeo. It’s what I love about being with the cuadrillas.

José and Mayte keep black Iberian pigs on the farm – these are guarded by their very lovely mastín, Titán.

Titán and his herd of pigs. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Titán and his herd of pigs. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

At La Caseta there is a mixture of ages and it was especially impressive to see the likes of Juan or Luis shin up the mature trees and start cutting the cork from 25 feet up, in the fork of the cork oak’s trunk – la trepa.

Luis starting to cut cork at the "trepa". Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Luis starting to cut cork at the “trepa”. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Portrait of Carmelo, whose axe has a homemade cork sheath. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Portrait of Carmelo, whose axe has a homemade cork sheath. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

The harvesters had a break, down next to the camino real that passes through the farm. It is the path that would originally have gone from the south of Jabugo, famed for its Iberian ham, to Cortegana, once an important cork town. Now there is a big main road that crosses it and many parts of the path have become overgrown or are simply fenced off. Emilio is a staunch defender of the right to use these ancient public paths that criss-cross the Sierra and he knows them intimately because he has walked them all.

Work resumes until lunchtime when we all gather in the hilltop cortijo for a beer and a tapa of home produced cured ham and lomo.

Jan with the cuadrilla at La Caseta (Minus Lorena). Photo: © Lorena Antunes Martín

Jan with the cuadrilla at La Caseta (Minus Lorena) Top left to right: Jan, Mayte, Juan, Manolo, Luis, Juan Antonio, María and Jose. Bottom left to Right: Moises and Emilio. Photo: © Lorena Antunes Martín

Portrait of "Cano", Manuel Valle, cork harvester from Galaroza. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Portrait of “Cano”, Manuel Valle, cork harvester from Galaroza. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

My second block of work was with Manuel Valle’s cuadrilla. Manuel is known locally as “Cano” because of his fair hair and white skin; all of his family are fair. Cano is one of the few younger men (he’s 47) who make a living exclusively from farming – this is only possible because he is extremely hard working and juggles various farms and does all kinds of agricultural jobs.

When I worked with his cuadrilla they were harvesting cork at a farm called Buen Vino, near Los Marines. There were three on cork stripping duties, Cano, his friend Rafael, “El Pindo”, and Manuel Santos Carvajal. Ángel and Salvador were on rajando (trimming) and juntando (gathering) duties. The entire team was from Galaroza. Danielillo, Cano’s elderly uncle, was also present and sat quietly in the shade beside the mountain of cork that was being accumulated.

Portrait of Danielillo, Galaroza. Drawing © Jan Nimmo

Portrait of Danielillo, Galaroza. Drawing © Jan Nimmo

I was spared the 5 am start thanks to my friend, Iluminado, who gave me a lift to the farm and although I was there by about 8.30 the morning was already starting to feel very hot. Cork harvesters start at 7.00 am as soon as it’s light and generally work through till 2.30pm. By the time we finished that day it was almost 40 degrees!

I headed down the hill towards where the main Seville/ Portugal road passes the northern marches of the farm, following the sound of axes and followed by a herd of grunting, snuffling pigs who clearly thought I had come to feed them. The men were working close to the road and I was greeted by the barking of “Body”, Cano’s dog, which looked like a bodeguero; a bit like a large long legged Jack Russell. Once the men had sat down for a cigarette break, Body settled down and seemed to get used to me. I was reminded not to leave my rucksack with the sound kit on the ground, as the pigs would carry it off to investigate, after all I might have brought sandwiches.

Echando un cigarro (a fag break): Rafael. Manuel, Cano and Body.  Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Echando un cigarro (a fag break): Rafael. Manuel, Cano and Body. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

About 11 am the descorchadores break for their “piece” as we’d say in Scotland: bread, cheese, chorizo, salchichón, tinned fish, oranges and apples, which are peeled with the wooden handled knives that all county folks carry in the Sierra. The men carry green, insulated 5 litre water containers and drink the whole lot in the course of their shift and there is much conversation about the prospect of cold beer.

Piece break; Angel, Manuel and Rafael. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Piece break; Angel, Manuel and Rafael. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Afterwards the men started work at the top of the hill and the heat was beginning to intensify. The cork oaks on this part of the farm had been affected by “Culebra”, which is the larva of a beetle, and the beetle itself (Coroebus Undatus) which get under the bark and cause the tree damage. Culebra literally means snake but it is in fact a small white worm – but it does leave dark, squiggly lines, which stand out from the tan background on the freshly stripped trunks. When Cano spotted the larvae he shouted to me to come over to have a look. Some of the men form the Sierra have worked harvesting cork in Catalunia and talked about how in the North they spray the trees as soon as the cork is harvested – so there there is someone in the cuadrilla solely dedicated to doing this. This doesn’t happen in the Sierra, it’s expensive and most farms with cork oak are far from being big commercial concerns, far from the centres of wine making.

A threat to the cork oaks: Culebra (Coroebus Undatus). Photo: © Jan Nimmo

A threat to the cork oaks: Culebra (Coroebus Undatus). Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Portrat of Rafael "El Pindo" with the tools of the trade. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Portrat of Rafael “El Pindo” with the tools of the trade. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

All the alcornoques are stripped, no matter the size of tree, or the quality of it’s cork. This means that some are harder work than others to strip… the men look forward to and enjoy the satisfaction of harvesting of good quality cork, as it comes away easily in large sections, cut first with the axe and then eased of by the jurga, a long wooden pole made from Eucalyptus. This is team work. On the other hand the men dread a bad oak and the difficulty entailed in removing the bark safely. The jurgas have blunt points and in the case of the one used by Cano’s cuadrilla, it also has a forked end, which is both unusual and useful.

Manuel working in temperatures of almost 40 degrees. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Manuel working in temperatures of almost 40 degrees. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Manuel and Cano working with jurga and axe. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Manuel and Cano working with jurga and axe. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Cano and Rafael. Pohto: © JanNimmo

Cano and Rafael. Pohto: © JanNimmo

Manuel stripping one of the more difficult oaks. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Manuel stripping one of the more difficult oaks. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Rafael, Cork harvester from Galaroza. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Rafael, Cork harvester from Galaroza. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Since I’ve come back to Scotland I have been editing the photos I took and reviewing the footage I filmed; thinking about what the narration might be for a short film. I have been making drawings too, portraits of the cork harvesters and as I draw the details of each face, I ponder the world of cork and cork oaks and how different the landscape and vegetation is from where I was brought up on Kintyre. But I am also struck by something intensely familiar; some of the harvesters remind me of my father; wiry, skinny but incredibly strong, accustomed to hard, physical work in all weathers with their “farmers arms” and a tan that stops at the neck – and when I see Emilio’s muckle hands I am reminded of my father’s. A strange connection across climes and landscapes, so not really that odd for me to have become so interested in these wonderful trees and the work of those who care for them.

More photos of the harvest on Flickr

Jan Nimmo © 2014

Emilio. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Emilio. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

 

 

Leona of Navalonguilla

Jan and Leona. Photo: © Paul Barham

Jan and Leona. Photo: © Paul Barham

It must be ten years since I first rode through Navalonguilla with Chaparro. I had tagged onto a circular ride that Iluminado, from the Picadero, was taking, with some clients: Galaroza – Fuenteheridos – Valdelama – Valdelarco – Galaroza. Chaparro and I hadn’t long since moved to Galaroza, so although we did a lot of exploring on our own it was also nice to take advantage of Iluminado’s local knowledge.

It became a well-frequented path for Chaparro and me. Situated on the camino that connects the two roads which lead to the appropriately named village of Navahermosa (Beautiful Plain), Navalonguilla’s cortijo sits on a lovely vega (a fertile plain). In the Sierra there is very little flat land so it is sometimes a relief to ride on flat ground instead of always climbing and descending. Riding the path from east to west you have a hill wooded with sweet Chestnut trees to the south, grazed by black Iberian pigs; to the north are two fields with apple and quince trees and in the field nearest the road there is a small disused marble quarry whose white rocks contrast with the greenness of the field.

La hiel de la tierra (Centaurium erythraea). Photo: © Jan Nimmo

La hiel de la tierra (Centaurium erythraea). Photo: © Jan Nimmo

The path that passes through Navalonguilla - Early spring. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

The path that passes through Navalonguilla – Early spring. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

There is always the sound of goat bells clanking here – sometimes distant, sometimes close by, depending on where the grazing is best.

The farmyard has two traditional white lime-washed stone buildings with a huerta or kitchen garden to the north. Until last year there was a wee three legged dog, Chispa (Sparky), that used to squeeze under the gate to bark at the horses… Paul and I used to call her the “Ken Loach dog”. The dog seemed to coexist happily with the collection of cats there. Beyond the farmhouse to the north-west is an olive grove. The path continues west towards La Quinta and El Talenque, past an ancient bebedero with primitive cattle troughs hewn from marble and other local stone.

The ancient marble bebedero at Navalonguilla. Photo: © Paul Barham

The ancient marble bebedero at Navalonguilla. Photo: © Paul Barham

The farm extends over to the bend in the road to Navahermosa, where there is a noria or water wheel which was once powered by a mule. For years Paul and I had ridden by and wondered what the structure was – until one day Francisco, the owner, gave us an old hand-forged key and we went through the ancient chestnut door in the adobe wall to have a closer look.

The noria at Navalonguilla. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

The noria at Navalonguilla. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

What has always struck me about the farm is how it is so well maintained and cared for. In spring and summer the sides of the path are alive with flowers; wild peonies, vetch, la hiel de la tierra, baba de oveja, oregano. Clearly no chemicals are used here as the bees, dragonflies and other insects go from flower to flower… It is truly a blissful place, buzzing with life.

Navalonguilla in spring, with the late Chispa lying on the path. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Navalonguilla in spring, with the late Chispa lying on the path. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Our first brush with livestock was when Chaparro decided to have a flakey when he met the donkey. At that time my horse was new to the place so was doing his best to show off, dance some flamenco and generally put on a show for any donkeys, horses or mules he came a across on our rides. The same happened when we met the plump, chestnut mare, Maria, at Navalonguilla. Happily since then the situation has calmed and now we can look forward to visits, as we are all good friends now.

Love triangle: María, Margarita and Chaparro. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Love triangle; María, Margarita and Chaparro. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

A few years back, I can’t remember exactly when, 2010 maybe, Paul and I were riding past the cortijo when we saw a mastín puppy peering out from the gate opposite. She was very pretty so we couldn’t resist dismounting to make a fuss of her. She has never forgotten this and there is rarely a time now that she doesn’t come running across the field to greet us; squeaking, singing, and her big tail wagging. She jumps up on the stone wall and it has now become the norm for me to dismount and give here a wee clap until she decides to hop back over the wall to rejoin the goats that she guards. Leona is beautiful; her grey back and white chest, and yellowy brown eyes that squint slightly when you press your face close to hers.

Leona as a large puppy. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Leona as a large puppy. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

One time I rode there with my friend, Sue Reid Sexton, who said she had never heard a dog sing before… Leona was very excited that day!

Leona giving us a song. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Leona giving us a song. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

I later found out that the dog had two names. Her master, Francisco, calls her Leona (Lioness) but his wife Josefina calls her Triana, after the barrio in Seville. Either way Chaparro and I don’t mind. Chaparro likes dogs and was brought up with mastíns so he’s always pleased to see Leona.

I find myself looking for excuses for riding through just to see Leona, the mare and the donkey. The mare always snickers when she sees Chaparro and does a waddling trot over to the wall to say hello, while meantime her companion, the wee dark donkey Margarita, canters along, bucking with her head down, something which always makes me smile…

Margarita and Maria at Navalonguilla. Photo:© Jan Nimmo

Margarita and Maria at Navalonguilla. Photo:© Jan Nimmo

It was a while before I got to know the people at Navalonguilla. I would of course always say hello whenever I met anyone there, but one day when I had stopped on the Navahermosa road to talk to the mare and the donkey, who were on the wooded hill south of the farm, Francisco and Josefina came along to feed them. Then, when I was at the Wednesday market in Galaroza, I saw Virtudes from the stables buying a cheese from Josefina. The cheese was made from milk from the goats that Leona looks after. From then on Josefina and I became friends.

Francisco and his other dog, Nico. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Francisco and his other dog, Nico. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Josefina is diminutive, warm and bubbly and she and Francisco live in a beautiful house in the nearby village, Navahermosa. One day Josefina agreed to let me watch her making goats cheese. That morning Chaparro and I left Galaroza early (it’s about an hour’s ride) and we rode over Los Altos de la Dehesa to watch Francisco milking the goats at the farm. He brings the goats in from the field and milks them at 9am every morning. Francisco is a quiet, polite and practical man who cherishes the local traditions and customs. Afterwards I took some photos of Francisco with his goats, his wee ginger dog, Nico – and Leona, who didn’t stop for long before bouncing back through the spring grass to her herd.

Francisco milking one of the goats at Navalonguilla. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Francisco milking one of the goats at Navalonguilla. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Leona and her goats. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Leona and her goats. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Josefina doesn’t start making the cheese till about 12.30, so to pass the time Chaparro and I rode along the path that leaves from the church at Navahermosa before coming back to the village where Chaparro got tethered to a trailer in Francisco and Josefina’s lettuce garden, just a couple of hundred yards from their house.

She explains to me that she needs about 5 litres of goat’s milk to make one kilo of cheese. She tells me that traditionally, instead of rennet, the local people used cardoon thistle stamens to make the curds and whey.

The milk is passed through a sieve and brought to the boil three times to pasteurise it. When it cools to about 30 degrees the rennet is added. Josefina uses only a coffee spoonful of the powdered rennet, which she buys at the chemists.

The long, narrow kitchen at the house in Navahermosa is lovely, spotlessly clean, and has a window with views out over the southern Sierra. On the narrow wall opposite the window stands an old, pale coloured, painted dresser. The tiled walls are adorned with all sorts of artisan kitchen tools and nick-knacks.

Josefina leaves the milk to stand for 30-40 minutes by which time there is a yellowish semi-transparent liquid forming on the top. From underneath she lifts up the whey, separating it from the liquid or suero and deposits it into a circular metal frame which sits on a purpose made wooden draining board next to the sink. She works the cheese expertly, squeezing out the suero and turning the mould upside down from time to time. I had seen Virtudes make cheese at the picadero and although her cheeses are smaller, the technique is the same. It takes time and skill and when she finishes she sprinkles coarse sea salt onto the cheese and refrigerates it. Luckily I was able to sample some of the cheese she had made the day before… with a bottle of Cruzcampo beer. The cheese’s flavour is delicate with a soft jellylike texture… this queso fresco is very different to the queso sudao (mature or “sweated” cheese), from neighbouring Extremadura. That said, the serranos love a good stinky goat’s cheese and while everyone complains about the smell, the cheese gets wolfed down on chunks of wood-fired-oven-baked bread.

Josefina making goats cheese in her kitchen in Navahermosa. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Josefina making goats cheese in her kitchen in Navahermosa. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

I asked Josefina if she made queso sudao. She says she used to but she sticks to fresh cheese as there’s a lot of work involved and it’s a trifle whiffy. As I ate my cheese and drank my beer we chatted in the small parlour with a door and window leading onto the terraza with its potted geraniums and its wonderful views south to El Talenque and the Cerro de Castaño.

Josefina with a freshly made cheese. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Josefina with a freshly made cheese. Photo: © Jan Nimmo

Over the last couple of years Chaparro and I have been doing nocturnal rides in springtime when there is a full moon. We both need to stay safe, so I plan the first part of the circular ride to Fuenteheridos before nightfall because there are two crossings of the main road and there are still sometimes vehicles on the path that goes north to Valdelama. This is a good nighttime ride as there isn’t too much vegetation – so no branches in the face or bramble scratches on my neck! The paths aren’t too rough under hoof, although this is is more for my sense of well-being than Chaparro’s because his night vision is so much better than mine – although I know he will shy at his own shadow when we return to the streetlights of Galaroza because as a horse, he takes longer to adapt to the change from darkness to light.

One evening riding back with the moonrise behind me at Valedecarrera/ Valle la Carrera, a lush hollow where a stream flows past a small cortijo overshadowed by poplars, I heard barking. It was about a kilometre away from Navalonguilla. Leona had heard us and was calling to us! When we finally reached the farm, all bathed in moonlight, there she was standing on top of the dry stone dyke waiting for us. Needless to say I felt obliged to dismount and say goodnight, before continuing on our way, as did she, back to her goats.

In all these years Leona has never tried to follow me or leave the farm in spite of her obvious excitement when she approaches us yelping out her musical greetings. In January this year, I rode through the farm a couple of days without seeing her. I was sick with worry, like missing an old friend and fearing for them. I rode by Josefina’s house but got no answer, two days in a row. Finally, riding down the Navahermosa road I met Francisco in his wee green car – “And Leona? Where is she? Has something happened to her?” – I asked. Francisco replied – “She’s fine, she’s in season so we’ve shut her in”.

Simultaneous sigh of relief and lump in my throat.

Nerón, Paul and Leona at Navalonguilla. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Nerón, Paul and Leona at Navalonguilla. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Chaparro and I spend long hours alone out on the paths of the Sierra. It’s not like the old days, before enclosure, when the countryside was populated, with every cortijo inhabited by people who looked after the land and cared for the livestock; so now it’s always nice to meet other living things; pigs, goats, sheep, mongooses, deer, foxes, wild boar, vultures, other horses, donkeys, black and red kites… it even seems that the cork and holm oaks are part of my serrano family. But Leona, well, she has a special status amongst them all. She is, as the Spanish would say, noble – a faithful friend. And, while we are all spared and well, Chaparro and I will continue to find excuses to ride by Navalonguilla to pay Leona a visit.

Jan Nimmo © 2014

Leona, Jan and Chaparro. Photo: © Paul Braham

Leona, Jan and Chaparro. Photo: © Paul Braham