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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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