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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Riding to Hinojales – María and José’s Stable.

Having never succeeded in finding the drove road from Valdelarco to Cumbres Mayores, Paul and I had always made the ride up to the north of the Sierra via Cumbres de San Bartolomé, which we have used as a base for riding to Encinasola and beyond to Portugal as well as up into Badajoz Province in Extremadura, to the towns Fregenal de la Sierra and Higuera La Real. From Cumbres Bajas, as Cumbres de San Bartolomé is also known, we’ve ridden east through Cumbres de Enmedio to Cumbres Mayores.

For a while I’d been thinking about riding to Hinojales in the North of the Sierra and exploring the paths around there. The key to planning long rides is having somewhere secure organised to rest the horses and, apart from finding a field or stable, it always good to make contact with folk via existing friends and friends of friends.

Who did we know in Hinojales? As it turns out about a year or so after I moved Chaparro from Cazalla de la Sierra to Galaroza, a chap called Pepe, originally from Hinojales, became a regular visitor to the picadero where Chaparro is stabled. He’d come to ride and to help out when the Tristanchos, the lovely family who run the stable, needed a hand. Pepe, who is about my age, never talked about personal stuff on our rides but I knew he had had a recent bereavement. Anyhow, when you are out riding you don’t need to talk about anything really unless you feel like it. And riding is good for the soul, especially when you are troubled.

Pepe from Hinojales

Pepe from Hinojales. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

Pepe is a “jamonero”, someone who prepares the jamón serrano and who works in the mataderos (pig slaughterhouses) of El Repilado near Jabugo. When I first knew Pepe he was living in Los Romeros and sometimes I’d ride there. On one very wet day he showed me the path to Los Molares… we got drenched and stopped by his house on the way home for a beer and some wild boar ham – the wild boar had lived a long and indulgent life with Pepe’s folks up in Hinojales.

When Paul and I were in the Sierra at Christmas time in 2010 we met up with Pepe to drive up to Hinojales to see if it was possible to leave the horses with his parents when we planned to ride up in the following spring.

José, Hinojales. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

José, Hinojales. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

We met Pepe’s parents, María and José, in their ancient house in Hinojales, said to be the second oldest in the village. We both loved the house, especially Paul, who enjoyed to chance to get behind the great door and facade of one of these old serrano houses. The stable is right at the back of the house to one side of a terrace which is populated by plants pots overflowing with vegetation. Behind the stable is a long, narrow corral which leads to the back gate that opens onto a back lane. That was to be where we were to come when we arrived with the horses.

Pepe, Paul and I set about clearing up the stable with its old wooden troughs, low ceilings and lime-washed walls so that it would be ready for our arrival in June 2011.

Chaparro and I in the Río Múrtigas, La Ribera.

Chaparro and I in the Río Múrtigas, La Ribera. Photo: Paul Barham ©

In June we rode the 7 hour trail to Cumbres de San Bartolomé, through La Nava, Las Lanchas, up to El Cuervo and the along the banks of the Río Múrtiga, where the horses filled up with water, blowing and slpashing to cool their bellies. It’s a deceptively long climb up to Cumbres de San Bartolomé so the horses, Nerón and Chaparro, and their exhausted riders were pleased to get there!

Paul and Nerón on the slow slop up to Cumbres de San Bartolomé

Paul and Nerón on the slow slop up to Cumbres de San Bartolomé. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

The horses spent the night in Gergorio’s field at the south end of the village, on the Calle Ave María, with views over to the Berrocales de Redina.

The next day, after faffing around, we set off for Hinojales (this is the GR 48 path from Portugal to Jaen). First we had to ride to Cumbres de Enmedio (Middle Cumbres). As we rode along towards the path that crosses the main road from Huelva to Badajoz we met a shepherd and his flock and then spotted a flock of roosting Griffon Vultures just sat there amongst the grass and boulders, waiting on the day to warm up and for the thermals to be just right to carry them on their reconnaissance of the Sierra. They are impressive big birds and rather lovely.

The camino between Cumbres Bajas and Cumbres de Enmedio: A Shepherd with his dog and flock.

The camino between Cumbres Bajas and Cumbres de Enmedio: A Shepherd with his dog and flock. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Griffon vultures pretending to be boulders

Griffon vultures pretending to be boulders. Photo: Paul Barham ©

We had a picnic lunch at the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de La Esperanza and rode through the deserted midday streets of Cumbres Mayores and down the ancient drove path that leaves the town to the south-west. It was sweltering by then and there wasn’t much conversation to be had out of me. The path winds between stone walls with dehesa of holm oak and cork oak. Chaparro was behaving impeccably, as he does on these longer trips, to new places. He always seems to enjoy the adventure and stimulus of unknown places and meeting new livestock along the way. It was late afternoon when we finally reached Hinojales – (literally place of the fennel). All four of us were thankful to finally reach the cool of Maria and José’s house and stable.

Chaparro riding into Hinojales

Chaparro and Jan riding into Hinojales. Photo: Paul Barham ©

Heading into the stable

Heading into the stable. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Hinojales, is on the northern limits of Andalusia, and with its 16th Century church, its great water troughs, ancient houses on cobbled streets, its burning sun, it is easy to be transported back in time to when everyone got about on two or four legs.. The bread for the villagers is made in a great wood-burning oven which was made in Catalonia. We felt very privileged to have such a safe place to leave the horses, to have an afternoon coffee in that cool, ancient, lime-washed house, with María and José, a “pareja sana”, so typical of serranos of that generation.

María, Hinojales. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

María, Hinojales. Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

As both María and José are in their 80s we didn’t want to bother them but José seemed to enjoy having livestock on the premises again and both of them kept checking on Chaparro and Nerón.

From Hinojales we did day long rides to both Canaveral de León, the Ribera de Hinojales and up into Extremadura, to Fuentes de León and back via the road to Cortelazor and through la Coronada and Valdelarco.

 

© Jan Nimmo  2014

Tobías: un pedazo de pan.

No series of portraits of the people I have met in the Sierra would be complete without a drawing of Tobias.

Tobias García López. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©

Tobias García López. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©

When I first brought Chaparro to Galaroza I used to stay in the Hostal Venecia on the Seville Portugal road. I managed to stay there for a few visits but when Javier and Dolores, who ran the place, decided they were closing I had to look for an alternative so I rented a house in the Calle San Sebastian. It was a house that belonged to Tobias’ daughter-in-law, who lives in Huelva, and Tobias was the person who I got the key from and to whom I paid the rent. The first couple of times I stayed there we didn’t have much contact. Tobias was always someone who minded his own business.

The third visit to the house was over Christmas and into January. On my birthday I decided to ride over to Castaño de Robledo, a three hour round trip. I stopped in the village for a celebratory Cruzcampo and rode back on the path that leaves Castaño from El Cristo and somehow, between there and Galaroza, I managed to lose the house keys. I sought out Tobias in the hope that he would have a spare set of keys and was hoping he wasn’t going to be annoyed with me. He wasn’t, he was very nice about it and was able to get me back into the house and got a spare set of keys for me the following day. I was really grateful so popped round with a bottle of Rioja to say thanks. From that day on we became friends.

Tobias, a native Cachonero (someone from Galaroza), had retired and returned from living in the provincial capital, Huelva, to his hometown. Tobias, like so many people of his generation had lived in the country and worked in agriculture and for a time he had lived with his family on a farm called Galindo, north of Cortelazor.

I became a regular visitor to Tobias’ house in the Calle Gloria. Paul also enjoyed getting to know Tobias. Tobias was a great source of knowledge about the paths of the Sierra.

I remember the first time I rode to La Coronada with Chaparro and could see the Cortelazor-Hinojales road and was interested in a round trip via Valdelama but didn’t fancy riding up the windy road to the hilltop village of Cortelazor. Tobias told us about a path called Los Callejones which zigzags up from the river at La Coronada to the cemetery on the outskirts of Cortelazor. It’s an ancient path, paved with old stones, crossing another burn halfway up. It is amongst my favourite paths and to us it has always been and always will be Tobias’ path…. It is the path he took with his parents when they walked up to the village to buy bread and I imagine him looking like his grandson, Miguel, climbing that beautiful path between the holm oaks covered in lichens.

La Ribera de La Coronada. Photo:Jan Nimmo ©

La Ribera de La Coronada. Photo:Jan Nimmo ©

Chaparro at La Ribera de La Coronada. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Chaparro at La Ribera de La Coronada. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Los Callejones - Tobias' Path. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Los Callejones – Tobias’ Path. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

My visits to the house were accompanied by beer, tapas and conversations about the farms in the area and who used to live in the now abandoned cortijos, the paths, the plants, their uses and popular names, stories of nocturnal encounters with eagle owls, of goatherds and the boys from Valdelarco killed and buried in a common grave during the Civil War. Listening to Tobias’ stories brought my rides to life and the cortijos became places where families had once lived and not just piles of old stones.

A "zahurda" at Galindo - traditional pig shelter. Photo: Jan Nimmo

A “zahurda” at Galindo – traditional pig shelter. Photo: Jan Nimmo

Tobias came to Cumbres de San Bartolomé with Paul and I when we drove there to look for somewhere to leave the horses on a long trip we were planning. We also went on La Coronada with Tobias and walked the single track road to Cañalengua. It was this evening stroll that inspired Paul and I to ride from La Coronada to Castañuelo via Tobias’ old stamping ground, Galindo.

Riding to Galindo with Chaparro, Paul and Gitanillo. Photo: Paul Barham ©

Riding to Galindo with Chaparro, Paul and Gitanillo. Photo: Paul Barham ©

Gateweay to Galindo. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Gateweay to Galindo. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Sometimes we’d go for a walk, and he’d show me the paths to the southern end of the village, La Mimbrera, El Maillar – Tobias walking briskly bashing back the brambles with walking sticks. I’d often meet Tobias at La Confesa, walking to his huerta (allotment), which he shared with his friend Rafael. I’d struggle to keep up with him walking up the Cuesta Palero in spite of his being 30-odd years my senior.

Latterly he was accompanied by Luna, his granddaughter Laura’s spaniel. At first he’d make out that he wasn’t that keen on having a dog around but they soon became inseparable companions.

There is a patio at the back of Tobias’ house with an orange tree; sometimes laden with oranges, sometimes heavy with the perfume of the azahar (orange blossom); the backdrop to meals shared with his son Miguel and daughter-in-law, Maricarmen and their children, Miguel and Laura. Happy times. Tobias would hang CDs from the tree to deter the sparrows roosting there but that never worked and come nightfall the leaves would be hiding a host of twittering life.

Tobias and his orange tree. Photos: Jan Nimmo ©

Tobias and his orange tree. Photos: Jan Nimmo ©

Tobias with Luna. Photos: Jan Nimmo ©

Tobias with Luna. Photos: Jan Nimmo ©

When Tobias became unwell, we’d visit him at Miguel’s house in Huelva. He recovered for a while and came back to Galaroza with Luna. I was glad he was back because I missed him. Paul and I both did.

His last project was to get a new roof on the house. It was September and the rains came and I remember Tobias philosophically opening the door to the street to let the water run out. He saw the project through. That was the last visit I saw him. He died the following December and Paul and I were glad to have been able to get to Huelva to say our last goodbyes.

We rode to La Coronada, toasted Tobia’s memory with Rioja and rode through Los Callejones, but not before having to clear a fallen tree from the path. Was Tobias letting us know he was still keeping an eye on us?

Tobias; kind, loyal, balanced, generous, wise. Or, as the Spanish would say, “Un pedazo de pan”.

Jan Nimmo © 2014

Arrieros: Manolo “Donato”

Manolo "Donato" with Curro, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Manolo “Donato” with Curro, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

I often meet Manolo when I’m either leaving or when I coming home to the village with Chaparro. There are two possible locations where our meetings might occur; at Manolo’s “huerta” or kitchen garden on the Las Chinas path, just at the entrance to the village or out at his son-in-law’s smallholding where the path forks for Valdelarco or El Roblecillo. Either way we usually stop for a chat and if I’m lucky then I may come home with a bag of chard or a watermelon hanging from the pommel of the saddle. Like all “Cachoneros” (the people of Galaroza) Manolo is generous to a fault. I have grown broad beans here at my allotment in Glasgow which were one of his presents to me. One day he shouted to me from his huerta and came down to give me a box with bags of seeds, all with beautifully handwritten descriptions of the contents; coriander, dried lime tree leaves, which are apparently good for calming the nerves, arnica for aches and pains… Manolo knows a lot about plants and herbal remedies and I often bump into him carrying a bunch of mint or oregano, depending on the time of year.

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Manolo gathering acelgas (chard). Photo Jan Nimmo ©

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Manolo and his broad beans. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

Manolo is retired now but worked as an “arriero” or muleteer. He’s travelled all over the Sierra with his mules, carrying cork, saplings and anything that needed moved across county and from one village to another. He would have done a lot of ploughing in his time too. He still has one mule, Curro, but his partner died a few years back. I remember leaving for a ride to Valderarco, one frosty morning, and seeing the cadaver of Curro’s companion lying at the gate of the holding, waiting for collection. The emotional part of a horse’s brain is the same as ours and so I wondered how Curro would feel about the absence of the other mule – after all those years spent working and grazing together with that spooky, nonverbal communication that they have with us and one another.

Often, in the early evening, I’ll go out for a stroll and if I pass by Manolo’s huerta we’ll stop for a chat. I’ll have a look at his produce and marvel, as I can’t match his success at the allotment in Glasgow. He grows all the usual vegetables and he has a particularly lovely pink rose bush as well as a few fig trees. Nearby, Manolo has a wee stone shed with a great big fireplace and this is where he makes miniature ploughs out of wood and which are exact working replicas of the real thing.

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Manolo “Donato” with a handmade miniature plough, Galaroza. Photo by Jan Nimmo ©

Curro has a corral and shelter just along from the huerta and he always has plenty to eat; lots of hay and holm oak acorns which Manolo gathers for him. In spite of being well fed, Curro is a bit skinny – it’s the leanness of old age. Each time I return to Galaroza I wonder if he will still be there. He can be a bit grumpy at times but he’s part of the furniture and Chaparro and I would miss him if he wasn’t there.

Curro. Galaroza. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

Curro. Galaroza. Photo Jan Nimmo ©

© Jan Nimmo 2014

Agricultural portraits from the Sierra de Huelva – Getting started.

I’ve started drawing again… it’s long overdue and whilst I feel a bit rusty I’m enjoying making portraits of some old friends from the Sierra de Huelva… For a long time now I have concentrated on film work but it’s such a slow process…. so it feels utterly brilliant to produce a portrait of someone in a morning or an afternoon… images of people who have worked the soil, pollarded chestnut trees, stripped cork oaks, milked goats and cows, herded pigs across the drove roads of the Sierra and hidden bags of contraband flour below their shawls in times of post-war hunger. These are portraits of people who have given me an insight into this part of Andalusia and who have helped bring to life that landscape of forests and abandoned “cortijos” that I pass through when I’m out riding with Chaparro. This collection of drawings will be my homage to them…

Felicita

Felicita, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Felicita, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Felicita is the mother of Iluminado, the lovely man who looks after my horse, Chaparro. Felicita is now 91 and has worked since she was a child. She and the family had a large herd of goats and cows which produced milk for the towns and villages. The family rented a beautiful farm called La Ribera near the road that winds to Encinasola. Paul and I have ridden through the farm a couple of times on our way to Cumbres or to Portugal and the horses have enjoyed the water from the river there… Felicita has beautiful hands which have must have milked thousands of udders… She now suffers the aches and pains of age but she has an incredible memory.

Obdulio

Obdulio, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Obdulio, Galaroza. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

I got to know Obdulio on the old path that crosses the hills between Galaroza and Valdelarco. He rides his donkey, Morena, to his farm on the Roblecillo path, everyday. He gets up at the crack of dawn so I usually meet him when I’m heading out for a ride and he’s coming home. He jokes all the time, “Hacemos una carrera!”, “Let’s have a race!”…

Obdulio and Morena - Let's have a race! Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

Obdulio and Morena – Let’s have a race! Drawing: © Jan Nimmo

It would be easy to think that at 84, Obdulio has always worked on the land but on my visits to the farm he tells me about how, for four years, he worked down a German coal mine (so a shared heritage!) and learned to speak a bit of German. He worked as a miner for twenty odd years in La Mina María Luisa, an iron pyrites and copper mine, just near La Nava, a village to the west of Galaroza.

Obdulio still ploughs his land with two, snowy powed, elderly mules, Castaño and Gitano (Chestnut, who is no longer chestnut but grey and Gypsy). He grows all the usual local crops; tomatoes, lettuce, onion, green peppers for frying, cabbage and impressive squashes and pumpkins to feed his black Iberian pigs. His orchard is populated by the old varieties of apples that were once so typical of Galaroza; Reyneta, Rufino, Belleza de Roma (Chaparro always enjoys autumn visits there)… and there is also a great big caqui tree (persimmon), a glorious sight when in fruit in the dead of winter.

Obdulio ploughing with Castaño and Gitano. Drawing:  Jan Nimmo ©

Obdulio ploughing with Castaño and Gitano. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©

Manuel

Manuel, Cumbres de San Bartolome. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Manuel, Cumbres de San Bartolome. Drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

Paul and I met Manuel when we were searching for somewhere to leave our horses in Cumbres de San Bartolomé. We drove up to Cumbres with our late friend, Tobias, and asked in the bar if there was anyone who could lend us a field for a couple of nights. A slightly inebriated chap there said we should look for someone called Gregorio so we did. Gregorio is Manuel’s son, a genial man of few words, who is habitually shadowed by his marly, brown and white mastín (sheepdog). In contrast Manuel is someone who likes to converse and whose voice, when necessary, can carry right a cross the valleys, which can be an advantage in the Sierra, especially when Maunel was organising people further down the valley, to show us the path to Higuera La Real. Like most people of his generation he knows all about the “Serrano” paths. Before he retired he worked inspecting pig herds. He still keeps livestock; sheep, goats and a donkey. He and Gregorio have been kind to us when we’ve passed through with the horses and Manuel has kept an eye on Chaparro, Gitanillo and Nerón, slipping them extra hay, when they’ve had overnighters in Cumbres Bajas.

María and Emilio

Maria and Emilio, Galaroza. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©

Maria and Emilio, Galaroza. Drawing: Jan Nimmo ©

I was interested in filming the chestnut pollarding, which takes place over the winter months, so Iluminado suggested I talk to Emilio “de La Huerta Grande” (everyone has family nicknames in the Sierra). Emilio had worked with Iluminado’s late father, pollarding chestnuts and stripping cork oaks. I went with Chaparro to meet him, and Paul, my husband came too. We arranged to film him and the family. He was 74 at the time. It really was quite a magical sight to see three generations at work; Emilio 40 feet up a chestnut tree with his axe, then his son, José and his grandson, Isaac, working on the lower branches, whilst Emilio’s daughter, Emilia, was gathering up the branches and burning them on the bonfire. A couple of years later Emilio fell from a high branch of a chestnut tree and injured his arm and whist he doesn’t pollard chestnut anymore he still cultivates both his farm, La Viriñuela, and a substantial kitchen garden.

Over time I have gotten to know Emilio and his wife María. María is originally from a village to the east of Galaroza, Fuenteheridos. When they were courting, Emilio was working in Cumbres Mayores, and on Sundays he walked all the way to Fuenteheridos to see her… Emilio knows all the paths and is my “go to” person when I want to know if a path is a legitimate “camino” or not.

Emilio, like his brother Obdulio, loves to joke, which threw me a bit a first as he can sound quite fierce but I quickly warmed to his earthy sense of humour. He loves trees and tells me of how his ancestors would throw their arms around the trees that provided them with a livelihood. Emilio says that if he wins the lottery he would buy an “encinar” (a holm oak grove) as he can’t imagine anything more beautiful.  But meantime Emilio has invested in a young donkey, Chica. I love the optimism of a 79 year old buying a beast that will last donkey’s years. Chaparro and I met Emilio and Chica when they made their first outing up to his farm so we rode along together. I’m thinking of asking if one day he and Chica will retrace his steps from his courting days and show me the path from Las Murtiguillas to Cumbres Mayores…

I enjoy visiting María and Emilio at their kitchen garden on the edge of the village. I learn so much from them. In a recent conversation with María she told to me that she loved her husband just as much as the day she married him, or maybe even more now as she knows him so well after all those years spent together.

© Jan Nimmo 2014

Travels with Chaparro – a letter from the Sierra de Huelva

The Sierra

An uncharacteristically green part of Andalusia, the Sierra de Huelva forms the western end of the Sierra Morena, the line of hills running from Portugal in the west through the northern provinces of Andalusia and marking the boundary between this region and the vast open landscapes of Extremadura. Most of the Sierra (apart from the areas still exploited for the region’s rich mineral wealth) now forms part of the Natural Park of the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche.

Jan with Chaparro, La Ribera (Cumbres)

Jan with Chaparro, La Ribera (Cumbres)

You can take a white horse anywhere…..

How I got there is a long story – let’s just say that after a close shave filming on the picket lines of Ecuador I decided life was too short, and when I got the chance to buy a beautiful Andalusian gelding there was no way I would say no – I’d waited 40 years to have horse of my own (after all, miner’s daughters didn’t have horses).

For the last ten years I’ve been lucky enough to spend chunks of time exploring the drove roads and bridle paths of the Sierra Morena on horseback. Rides can last anything from three hours to five days and the countless kilometres covered with Chaparro have given me the opportunity to meet and make friends with people who have shared with me something of their intimate understanding of the landscape and local history.

Cork oaks have been in the picture throughout our travels, from San Calixto in Cordoba to the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, into Extremadura and as far as Barrancos in Portugal. Cork is part of the culture – even in Chaparro’s name, which means wild cork oak.

On horseback you see things differently, and Chaparro has been instrumental to my meeting and getting to know the folk who live and work in the Sierra and who care about the country they live in. This is especially true of some of the older serranos whose recollections span three quarters of a century of changes.

I have found paths described to me by old men in bars who had not walked them for 50 years, paths open but now overgrown and neglected. And I am moved by the accuracy of the description, such recognisable detail after so many years absence. They tell me the paths are the veins of the Sierra – or used to be when transport was on foot or on hoof. Today these same paths are in danger of being closed, either through neglect or the willful self-interest of land-owners.

Rural economy

Emilio "de La Huerta Grande" Antunes Tristancho with Chica.

Emilio “de La Huerta Grande” Antunes Tristancho with Chica.

The beauty of this landscape had always struck me but what I did not understand was how it had come about. It is a partially abandoned landscape, part overgrown and tumbledown – romantic, but to the farmer, an abhorrence. This was not a wild forest but the result of generations of hard work, and a unique pattern of arboriculture suited to the climate, the terrain and the needs of its people.

However, the Sierra has been vulnerable to external pressures – in the past civil war and hunger, then migration to the cities and industrial centres of Europe, and now threatened by changes in land ownership, enclosure, commodity values and the present economic crisis.

As in many parts of southern and western Spain the traditional mode of agricultural practice has been that of the “Dehesa”, which has evolved to sustain a diverse mixed agriculture on poor soils in a climate of hot dry summers, and which has created an open, pastoral woodland which supports both cork oaks (Quercus Suber) and holm oaks (Quercus Ilex). Both trees are evergreens. The trees provide essential shade in summer and food in winter for livestock, and help to stabilise the soil while the livestock improve the fertility of the land.

La Ribera de Hinojales

La Ribera de Hinojales

Low intensity grasslands become wildflower meadows in spring, supporting a wealth of pollenating insects, birds and other fauna.

This is an open forest with a delicate balance between light and shade, plant and animal, and according to local cork expert Miguel Ángel Benítez Benítez this is the most bio-diverse region outside Amazonia. The Sierra is home to genets, otters, deer, wild boar, mongooses, and in the course of the year sees almost 200 bird species including imperial eagles, griffon and black vultures, eagle owls, black storks and bee-eaters. People younger than me remember hearing the wolves at night – the last one was shot in Valdelarco in the late-sixties.

These woodlands are grazed by a variety of livestock, including merino sheep, goats, handsome red retinta cattle, vacas bravas (breeding fighting bulls) and the black Iberian pigs.

The sweet, highly nutritious acorns of the alcornoque (cork oak) and the encina (holm oak) are valued as fodder for livestock, especially the Iberian pigs whose meat and cured ham (jamón serrano) is sold at a premium. The Sierra de Huelva boasts of arguably the best “pata negra de bellota” in the whole of Spain. This free range, slowly produced but luxury product is currently suffering from the effects of the economic downturn and many jobs have been lost locally.

Traditionally crops such as oats, barley, chick peas and broad beans were planted in areas of this open woodland which weren’t being grazed. This surprised me because none of these crops are grown any more.

According to local testimony there has been a long-term change in the climate and the rainfall in the past was much higher than today. My late friend, Tobías López García, described how sixty years ago his father could be rained off for weeks during spring. Ex-director of the Natural Park, Rafael Hernández Mancha believes it is too early to say whether this change is due to human impacts or is part of the natural Mediterranean climatic cycle.

The Antunez Tristancho family polllarding chestnut trees.

The Antunez Tristancho family polllarding chestnut trees.

Another of my friends, Emilio “de la Huerta Grande” Antunes Tristancho worked in the cork harvest and still manages and coppices his own chestnut trees. Emilio is 79 years old but still can be seen in winter time high up in a chestnut tree, axe in hand, no harness, delicately removing this branch or that. His son and grandson are working further down the same tree and his daughter, Emilia, is building a bonfire of the brash.

Sweet chestnut trees are found in ancient plantations, especially on the higher ground in the centre of the Natural Park, and give their name to the Park’s highest hill, Cerro del Castaño, (hill of the chestnut). Some of the trees have been coppiced for centuries for the wood, equalled only by oak in its durability for construction, fencing, gates etc.

Many of the chestnut trees have grafts of up to four different varieties growing on the one tree. This ensures the owners of the castañares that at least one of their varieties will bear fruit. Chestnuts provide food for livestock in autumn and in the past were dried and ground to make flour. Today the produce is marketed in Galaroza through one of only two chestnut co-operatives in Spain (the other one is in Ronda) although now both co-operatives face fierce undercutting from chestnuts from Turkey.

If the dehesa typifies the open landscapes then the outskirts of the towns and villages are marked by the huertas and orchards.

Iluminado and his homegrown organic tomatoes

Iluminado and his homegrown organic tomatoes

Huertas or kitchen gardens, although in decline and often showing signs of neglect or more permanent abandonment, are characteristic of the boundaries between the towns and villages of the Sierra and the surrounding countryside, stretching out into the fields along the ancient lanes. Nothing much happens in the huertas over the winter apart from sowing broad beans. They come to life in the spring with the sowing the typical crops – lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, beans, courgettes, aubergines, melons and pumpkins (used as feed for livestock in the winter). Growers used to cultivate chickpeas too but this is something that I haven’t seen in the ten years that I have known the Sierra.

Iluminado gathering peppers

Iluminado gathering peppers

Beyond the huertas lie the orchards. Many of these are also neglected, with apples left to rot in the autumn (although this may provide a bonus for the wildlife or the occasional passing horse).

The fruits grown in the orchards are often specific to a particular town or village – peaches in La Nava, apples in Galaroza – where differences in microclimate or the abundance or otherwise of water may favour one fruit or another. Other fruits seen in the summer are early figs (brevas) and cherries, in the autumn figs and walnuts, and in the winter, persimmons.

Settlement in the Sierra is marked by a concentration of large villages and smaller aldeas between the towns of Aracena and Cortegana. Folk are known by the produce that their village was famed for – Los Paperos (potato growers) from Fuenteheridos, Los Cebolleros (onion growers) from Aracena, Los Cachoneros (apple growers) from Galaroza and Los Colmeneros (bee keepers) from Valdelarco. These names show how local produce was integral to the communities’ identity and the importance of local trade between villages before the modern era.

Iluminado using the cantero style of irrigation for his potato crop

Iluminado using the cantero style of irrigation for his potato crop

Families also carry nicknames from generation to generation, often deriving from a particular skill or product (although sometimes the meaning has been lost in the course of time). The friend who looks after Chaparro, Iluminado Tristancho, carries the family nickname, Lechuguino, appropriately enough since he also grows very fine lettuces.

La Cuadrilla

Over the last three years I have been gathering still and moving images of cork and the people who are involved in the nine year cycle of the cork harvest. This is a slow burning project which I plan to make into a documentary and an exhibition. In the course of collecting this information I have got to know Francisco “Kiko” Muñiz and his cuadrilla or team.

Kiko and his team are young men, but they use the traditional tools of the cork forester, the short-handled, wide-bladed axe and long wooden pole for prizing off the cork, la burja. Cutting the cork is a delicate skill but one which still requires physical strength and stamina. You have to know where to cut and not cut too deeply – which could damage the tree and make it susceptible to the various diseases and parasites, which can take advantage of the freshly exposed, flesh-coloured wood below the cork.

Antonio "El Cordobés" stripping cork in Alajar

Antonio “El Cordobés” stripping cork in Alajar

The cork has to be cut in the heat of summer (with the first cut of young cork, the bornizo, being carried out in May). Many of the people who cut cork in summer also pollard chestnuts in winter.

An important member of the cuadrilla is the arriero (muleteer) Francisco. Mules and donkeys are a more effective means of removing the cork from the steep hillsides than any wheeled or tracked vehicle. However, hundreds of mules have disappeared from the Sierra in recent years so it is a happy sight to see these animals so well looked after and doing the work for which they have been trained. A working mule can command a higher price than a good-looking horse.

Francisco is an arriero or muleteer who works with his mules to remove stripped cork from inaccessible hillsides.

Francisco is an arriero or muleteer who works with his mules to remove stripped cork from otherwise inaccessible hillsides.

Much prized by the harvesters are the cucharos – the knobbly burrs measuring up to a metre across which can be cut from the tree in one piece, to serve as receptacles for a variety of uses, depending on their size. Cucharos have been used since time immemorial as drinking cups beside watering troughs and as mortars for making gazpacho. Emilio bathed all his children in a cucharo and Manuel Santos Carvajal, one of Kiko’s cuadrilla, also remembers being washed in a cucharo as an infant. Today the cuadrillas have to deal with the problem of illegal removal of the prized burrs, often before the nine years growth has developed and causing sometimes irreparable damage to the trees. This is of course also theft but in a remote region this is a crime which goes unpunished.

Samuel, Kiko’s son, enjoys being with the cuadrilla during school holidays and seems to be in his element learning the skills from the older men and enjoying the banter and singing of the cuadrilla.

Samuel, gathering up the cork

Samuel, gathering up the cork

While it is great to see this resurgence and the resilience of the cuadrilla, the underlying trend is towards decline and the overwhelming feeling is one of crisis – a crisis facing all of Spain, where no-one can afford rural tourism, jamón serrano or fine wine with corks.

The cork industry is under threat from screw-tops and plastic corks backed by petro-dollars and New World and European wine makers whose corporate lobbyists have even tried to discredit the cork industry on the false premise that it destroys forests.

The Natural Park has a defined role in the protection of the environment but from what I have seen in practice this is marred by ignorance and petty bureaucracy. Commercial developments and publicly funded enterprise initiatives appear out of nowhere in the park – dehesa ripped up to lay out an industrial estate with no industry while smallholders are fined for clearing brushwood and brambles from the paths that lead to their farms – when what they are doing is protecting the park from forest fires. The relationship between the Natural Park and small farmers is not helped by a set of park regulations based on a very different Mediterranean woodland, Los Alcornocales Natural Park, in the province of Cadiz.

Today I can ride for a whole day and hardly see a soul – a beautiful way to enjoy nature but not what the paths were made for. People only a generation older than me recall the paths as being sociable places, where people from different towns and villages greeted one another and exchanged local news and gossip passing through the farms along the way. Long hours talking to Tobías about the abandoned steadings along the paths has brought these places to life for me. Though sometimes now no more than a pile of stones these are places people lived in less than fifty years ago.

In some places the hillsides have been turned into eucalyptus plantations – economic monoculture which effectively closes off large areas of the land. Very recently I experienced a “Get off my land” incident in a eucalyptus plantation – on a path that I’ve ridden at least forty times… I have had to pass through there, as do local farmers, because the legitimate drove road has been padlocked.

Jan and Chaparro: riding from Andalusia to Extremadura

Jan and Chaparro: riding from Andalusia to Extremadura

A handful of people like me pass through the paths on horseback, on foot or on bicycle. Riding the paths keeps these rights of way open but it is an uphill struggle. Here there is no right of access as in Scotland but there are various classes of path and drove road whose statutory definition and protection dates from the days when these were the economic arteries of Spain. Despite such official protection some old paths remain padlocked or fenced across with barbed wire with no willingness from the authorities to put pressure on the land-owners to keep the paths open. There are legitimate arguments that the paths make livestock vulnerable to rustling and poaching now that so many people have quad bikes and 4×4 vehicles but these arguments only hold against a backdrop of an under-populated landscape with no-one employed to guard the livestock. And often the land is closed off purely for the interests of hunters. Does this sound familiar?

(First published in Reforesting Scotland and then published by The Ecologist).

© Jan Nimmo 2014