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Our Andalucian paradise

My husband and I had lived in Mexico City, LA, Paris, Guadalajara, Oslo, Montreal, and Vancouver. On a rainy night in November 2012 we moved to a small town an hour inland from Malaga. 'Our Andalucian paradise' is about the historical town of Ronda, the mountains that surrounds it, the white villages dotted amongst them, of hikes, donkey trails and excursions around Andalucía and journeys further afield.

The olive tree – a pictorial guide to its many split personalities and idiosyncrasies
01 August 2019

Olive trees in archaeological dig in Mérida, Spain. Photo ©


We Norwegians see trolls behind every rock, so it is no surprise that I also attribute olive trees with certain human characteristics. I mean, just look at them – bent and gnarly and simply exuding personality. I cannot go for a walk in the campo without noticing another dancing olive tree. My husband knows better than to reason with me, in spite of being fully aware that the tree in question is deeply rooted and won’t do a jig anytime soon.

Tango for two. Photo ©


I will often name the trees we pass on our walks. Not a human or a pet name, of course. An olive cannot be Juan Carlos or Pongo. Yet these venerable old trees deserve a name. Like any other sculpture, an olive tree can merit a title like The Thinker or Madonna and Child. The olive develops distinct characteristics and even idiosyncrasies with age. Like people, they also tend to get more hard-headed. Despite draughts, floods, urban development and other calamities, the olive trees will hang on, more often than not outliving the people who planted them.

As I walked in Eden... Photo ©


The age rings of a felled olive tree do not have to be counted to know how it lived. Its history can be read directly upon its scarred being. The trunk will show where the wind bent it, an axe trimmed off limbs, or how a ray of lightning split it apart.

Read my trunk. Photo ©


One of the many amazing things about the Olea Europaea is its stamina. One can cut it to the ground, leaving only a dead stump. Still new branches will emerge and before one knows it, the olive tree is back producing fruit.

Reincarnation. Photo ©


This hardy stock will grow on the steepest of inclines in the poorest of soils, living through both the scalding Andalusian summers and our near freezing winters.

Fields of gold. Photo ©


Keeping this in mind, is it any wonder that olive trees develop what appear to be mental ailments in their later years? Although I am no expert in the field of psychological afflictions, most mature olive trees exhibit distinct signs of past trauma. But it is in fact these emotional scars that give them character and make them so beautiful.

Olive sky. Photo ©


The following pictorial guide shows some of the great olive tree personalities I have encountered on the Iberian Peninsula. They make me question whether we may have more in common genetically with the flora around us than we are ready to admit.




Like other creatures, young olive trees usually begin life with smooth skin and a relatively straight spine. Though I shall try to refrain from judgement, some olives, like this teen stuck in a rusted barrel, may have overprotective parents. I hope it will be allowed to spread its roots in the open soon.

Growing up in a bucket. Photo ©


Olive trees usually have numerous siblings. Twins are also quite common. Some will try to grow their separate ways, like these gemelos growing up among the sheep outside Ronda.

Twins. Photo ©


Later on, as the trees become young adults, life may throw them a curve ball and give them their first bend.

The toro and olive with a slight bend. Photo ©




Isn't that what we all want? Finding love. Of course, olive trees also long for someone to be close to, as seen in these two fine specimens. One leans East and one leans West and together they have become part of the same.  

Opposites attract. Photo ©


When love strikes, some enamoured trees will entangle themselves, never letting go.

Entangled. Photo ©


Not all relationships are healthy. There are a lot of needy olive trees out there, leaning on their partners. (I had to hide in the grass as I photographed this intimate family scene.)

Hold me! Photo ©


Then of course, there is the inevitable lovers quarrel. Some split-ups can be painful, causing scars, or even resulting in permanent or temporary split personalities.

Falling out. Photo ©


When the time is right, the olive tree might also become a parent, like this olive tree mother (still breastfeeding, as we can see). Her youngster seems to yearn for independence. Do helicopter mums also exist in the tree population, I wonder?

Mother with child. Photo ©


Not all love stories have happy endings, but I have noticed quote a few re-united olive tree couples out there, so they must be more forgiving than us humans…

Reunited.Photo ©



The mighty olive they call them, and there is no hiding that some olive trees can be decidedly macho. The most common afflictions among these hormone-driven olive trees are Exhibitionism and Narcissism. You see them in the fields, boldly limbed and posing in manly stances to get attention.


Like any group of males, there will always be one who boasts of his erectile function. This Delusion of Grandeur may in fact cause olive limbs to grow in odd ways.

The stag. Photo ©


Though most olive trees prefer a regular trim, the short and hairy type can often be seen in rural areas.  

Short and hairy type. Photo ©


Macho or not, this guy, living in a friend’s field (but planning to run away soon), is particularly striking.

Standing tall. Photo ©




An ageing olive tree is sometimes a study in pain, as many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress or Anxiety Disorder in later life.

Being encapsulated by a concrete fence,

Rooted in concrete. Photo ©


living without a core, 

Hollow. Photo ©


loosing another limb,

Decapitated again. Photo ©


showing signs of early childhood trauma,

What I have lived. Photo ©


or experiencing Amnesia or holes in the memory.

Patchwork. Photo ©


Some are left with only skin and bones.

Sinewy. Photo ©


But there are also signs of hope, as olive trees have a rare ability to adjust themselves to changes and virtually be reborn.   

New elbow. Photo ©




Believe it or not, there are trolls out there.

Two-fingered troll. Photo ©


Olive trees personify legends of the past and incorporate mythical figures, telling us stories from the time when nobody questioned the paranormal.

When stout town’s folk looked like Hobbits,

The Hobbits. Photo ©


and a tree could become an elephant’s head,

Elephant trunk. Photo ©


or a double eyed giant.

Double eyed giant. Photo ©




For the artistically minded, an ageing olive tree can be a sculptural beauty or a musical symphony,

The symphony. Photo ©


with flowing Flamenco skirts,

Flamenco dancer. Photo ©


and a peacock crown.

The peacock. Photo ©


sometimes growing in the air,

Roots. Photo ©


always magical.

Ageing beauty. Photo ©




In their golden years, some olive trees finally find peace,


rambling in the green,

Centenarians in the green. Photo ©


or finding love at long last.

Love at last. Photo ©


DISCLAIMER: Please note that this article is a piece of fiction and does in not in any way judge or comment on people with mental challenges. Any resemblance between the trees and actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


The wall. Photo ©



Like 5        Published at 11:53   Comments (5)

Women of rural Andalucía - From illiterate to university graduate in three generations
26 July 2019

Daughter, mother and grandmother.  Photo ©


When we bought the ruin that eventually became our Spanish home, the former owner did not know how to write her name on the sales contract. Granted she was over 90, but I had not expected to find illiteracy amongst the older populations in southern Europe. Was this still a common phenomenon in these parts, I wondered?


The old priest with smart phone.  Photo ©

We live in Ronda, a small town in rural Andalucía. The local community was primarily agrarian just a couple of generations back, but after the building boom of the late 20th Century most rondeños today work in the service industry.


Rural Andalusa. Photo © snobb.netMan on donkey.  Photo ©


Our part of town, the Barrio San Francisco is a typical multi-generational neighbourhood with nearly as many nonagenarians as new-borns. While 99% of the children growing up here today start school at 3 years old, some of the older generation, particularly the women, were never taught how to read or write.


Two for one. Photo ©


Wanting to know more about the history of rural education and the changing role of Andalusian women over the past decades, I decided to have a chat with a family on our street where three generations live under the same roof.

My interviewees were the 83 year-old grandmother, her 50 year-old daughter and her almost 18 year-old granddaughter.


3 generations of Andalusians. Photo ©


The Grandmother

Name: Antonia

Age: 83

Occupation: Dressmaker

Level of education: Illiterate

Antonia today.  Photo ©


Antonia was born in Alpandeire (current population 252) in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

My father died when I was three months old, leaving my mother alone with my brother and myself”, she tells me. Her mother gave birth to five children, though the first three didn’t survive. As a widow with two youngsters, she had to do whatever she could to make ends meet. She would walk nearly 19 km to Ronda to be a farm labourer for a few days, after which she would walk back again in her Alpargatas, the typical Spanish rope and cloth sandals. “We walked everywhere, says Antonia. There was no other way.”


Antonia as young  girl ca 1938


Though there were schools in most villages and travelling teachers visiting larger rural farms, her mother had to move around so much that the children never attended school. When Antonia was four years old, they moved into a cave called la Cueva del Albanico located on the trail from Alpandeire to Ronda. Her mother had by this point met a widower, whom she later married. Antonia remember her stepfather as un buen hombre (a good man), even building a bread oven for their cave house. He worked for a landowner, receiving part of the crop as his only renumeration. Life was not easy by our standards, but at least they had food. “The four of us would walk to the farm where we would work all day. There were no machines, so everything had to be done by hand.

Some years later the family moved to Ronda where Antonia became apprenticed to a dressmaker. From the age of 12 until she became widowed at 62, Antonia sewed clothes for the families in our neighbourhood, most of whom paid her only when the completed outfits were delivered. Some didn’t pay at all. Although she was illiterate, Antonia learned how to write basic numbers and letters and developed her own code to jot down her client’s measurements. She would bring her old sewing machine under her arm if the clients couldn’t lend her theirs. Antonia clearly remembers the day when she finally had money to buy a sewing machine with a manual foot pedal – a great improvement. Only decades later would her daughter buy her an electric sewing machine.


Antonia posing for painting at 14, ca 1950


Antonia married a football player and carpenter in 1961 and they had three children. “I would have liked to have more, but there was no space”, she says. The whole family, 12 people - her mother (again widowed), her brother with his wife and four children, as well as herself with her husband and their children lived in a small two-story home. Her brother’s family had the only bathroom, so her lot had to make do with a honey-house in the courtyard, with a curtain serving as door.


Antonia's 3 children ca 1970


Since her husband’s income mostly disappeared in cigarettes and alcohol, Antonia was the main breadwinner. Like her mother before her, she was tough as nails. She fed her family and bought a house through her own labour. When she became a widow in 1996, Antonia finally stopped sewing and moved in with her daughter and her family. I ask her what she likes to do now. “Nothing. Watch TV…  I sewed a lot, and I am tired”, says Antonia.  At 83 she can finally allow herself to rest a bit.

Talking of resting, Antonia’s mother died at 93, never having had any serious illnesses in her long and hard life.


The Mother

Name: María del Mar

Age: 50

Occupation: Self employed jeweller

Level of education: Primary


María del Mar. today.  Photo ©


Like mother like daughter they say, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Antonia and her daughter.

María del Mar was born in 1969, when Spain was still under Franco’s autocratic rule. Though tourism had started on the coast, life in rural inland Andalucía was still quite harsh. “There was no social security then,” she tells me. “We had no money to pay for doctors and medicine, so we simply couldn’t get sick.” María del Mar had to leave school after her primary education and start work to help support the family, while her brothers helped their father in his carpentry business. “I would have liked to study and become a secretary, but it wasn’t possible,” she says.


María del Mar ca 1973


At 13, she got a job in a shop in our neighbourhood - one of those tiny corner stores that had everything from fresh food to house paint. She worked from 9 in the morning until 11 at night tending the shop, with only a short lunch break in the afternoon. Although they were long days, she loved dealing with the public. Luckily, her boss was a fair man, even paying for half her wedding dress when she got married. In the morning before work, María del Mar had to pick up a pail of milk for the family, and to get a few extra pesetas she also prepared a doctor’s young son for school. Every cent she earned went to her family. “We bought only what we needed for each day, if there was money. We ate what we had and NOTHING was ever thrown out.


María del Mar at 14, 1983


Life was very different in Andalucía then.

 “I picked up the milk every morning until I was 21, and even then it came straight from the cow.”

” What”, I ask?

“I mean that the man milked the cow into a bucket straight in front of my eyes”, she explains.

Different indeed. This was just back in the 1980s, when we, the kids up in Scandinavia, were worried about learning the latest Disco moves…

María del Mar married in 1992 and had two children, but she never stopped working. She would take any job she could find, sewing toys by the unit after work at night and going to nearby villages to sell jewellery. Through her and her husband’s thriftiness, they managed to save up enough to buy a home and a property in the country. “People do not buy as much jewellery as in the past”, she tells me, but she still makes, repairs and sells jewellery 23 years later. As her husband José lost his job recently and needs to retrain for a new profession, at 50, María del Mar is back being the main breadwinner. Nothing seems to stop the women of this family!



The Daughter

Name: María del Mar

Age: Soon 18

Occupation: Student

Level of education: Completed Sr. High school. Entering University


 María del Mar Jr. today. Photo ©


María del Mar Jr. was born in 2001, a whole new era in rural Andalucía. Primary and lower secondary school has become compulsory in Spain. Boys and girls receive the same education and have equal chances at attending university.


 María del Mar Jr. ca 2003. Photo ©


Like her fellow classmates, she began school when she was 3 and has never had to help support her family.  With only one parent working now, she must look to scholarships to pay for her university degree. “I would like to find a job besides university,” she says, “but it depends on the obligations of my degree.”


School children in uniforms. Photo ©

I do not worry about our young neighbour. She is as hardworking as her mother and grandmother, the only difference being that she is dedicating her time to her studies. She completed her Bachillerato with top marks. At soon 18, she speaks English and French, in addition to having learned ancient Greek and Latin. “I have offered to teach my grandma how to read and write, but she says it is too late. More than anything I believe she enjoys eating, because she experienced so much hardship in her childhood.“

With an illiterate (but very capable) grandmother, and an equally well-versed mother with only basic primary education, María del Mar Jr. will be the first person in her immediate family to get a university degree.


The whole family. Antonia, María del Mar Jr and Sr, Daniel the son and José the father, ca 2015


She is not alone: 45% of young Spaniards today have attained a higher educational level than their parents. Spain is today amongst those countries with the highest levels of upward intergenerational mobility in education, particularly for young women. María del Mar tells me that about 2/3 of her classmates plan to attend university, of which most are female. According to her, it is rare to have stay-at-home mothers nowadays in Ronda. Most of her friends’ mothers work outside the home, but the gender roles are still quite traditional. Whereas the fathers tend to be employed in retail, auto industries or restaurants, the mothers work in health services, house cleaning, secretarial jobs or education.


School children in Ronda. Photo ©


María del Mar wants to be a teacher. I ask her whether the fact that she grew up with a grandparent who could not read or write affected her career choice.

“Maybe…” she smiles shyly. After all, she is not even 18.



Like 4        Published at 16:56   Comments (10)

Does anybody sleep on Andalusian summer nights?
18 July 2019

La Alameda 1. Photo ©

Norwegians sing about not wasting precious time sleeping during their luminous summer nights. And with those long and dark winters, who can blame them?

I have noted however, a similar nocturnal awakeness phenomenon here in the Spanish south. In our hometown of Ronda people also choose to stay awake longer and later, or seemingly not sleep at all in summer. This is not due to the midnight sun of course. The reason is simply that at this time of the year the nights are ironically the best part of the ‘day’.

Plaza San Fransisco. Photo ©

When daytime temperatures exceed 30 degrees Centigrade in the shade and eggs can fry upon any sunny ledge, it is wise to seek shelter. Unless you must go out, the safest alternative is to stay indoors and only cautiously emerge from hiding in the late evening. Ronda is not as hot as Córdoba, otherwise known as Spain’s frying pan, whose temperatures can get near 50 degrees. Our town’s saving grace is its altitude and the mountains that surround us, which brings overnight temperatures down into the mid-teens. This dip provides a welcome break from the sizzling rays and a much needed cooling down of all systems.

Ronda by night. Photo ©

As soon as darkness falls the people of Ronda flock out on the street, young and old, to seize the day by night. Actually, we do not have to leave our home to observe part of this summer night tradition. While our street is almost eerily quiet during summer days, when we head to bed around 11 pm it seems that all the three-year-olds in the neighbourhood have suddenly been let out to play, not to be called home until the wee hours of the morning.

Bedtime. Photo ©

For once, my husband and I decide to stay up and join the locals in a nocturnal summer stroll to see what happens in Ronda in midsummer after dark.

The restaurants in our local square are popular all year around, but on summer evenings there can be dozens of groups waiting for tables. Whether the guests get seated at 10 pm or at midnight, never mind, appetites are only sharpened. Families, including frail grandparents and toddlers way past recommended bedtimes, order drinks and food enough for a small army, while the barrio’s stray cats lurks about, waiting for a spare morsel.

Three generations waiting for restaurant table. Photo ©

The playground swings are in demand long after midnight. Children run around on permanent sugar highs, only coming back to their parent’s table to hurl down a last sip of Coca Cola or to get maternal comfort over a scraped knee. While elderly residents occupy the surrounding benches, youngsters on bikes and scooters zoom around the plaza in semi darkness. Older boys play a game of football, booting the ball onto the street or under restaurant tables without anybody taking much notice.  

Swings. Photo ©

The local teenage girls have other games on their mind. With almost three months of holiday and generally no obligations other than rolling out of bed in time to be served lunch, their main occupation is parading about. The girls gather in large groups, generally scantily dressed in identical far-too-brief (practically cheeky) shorts, crop tops, sockless white sneakers, long ironed hair and the latest in dental-brace technology. They head downtown where similar groups of the opposite sex are waiting. Later, we see the girls again, one dragging along a pimply boyfriend, whose squeaky voice doesn’t seem to take away from his many charms. Like the tomcats in the barrio, the teenage lads circle around the females, ready to pounce, hoping to end the night with a hand snuck into bodily crevices that daylight hours would not permit. Such is teenage love and young lust readily on display on hot summer nights.

Girls. Photo ©

In the Alameda park, proud parents promenade with strollers, dogs chase balls and couples watch as the sky goes from pink to purple to deep cobalt blue.

La Alameda 2. Photo ©

Ronda isn’t yet offering midnight shopping to jetlagged travellers, so the street-long pedestrian mall turns into a bar hopping exploit. There are no lack of patrons in any of the town’s restorantes, courtyard cafés, rooftop bars and street-side eating establishments.

Square inside city wall. Photo ©

Waves of loud conversation and happy cheers are only interrupted by an occasional late night lover’s quarrel. Inevitably, a woman will be seen weeping into her cell phone, later to be reunited with her betrothed, proving that hot nights may lead to happy endings.

Bar hopping. Photo ©

We notice a lot of parents with young children hurrying across the Puente Nuevo into the historic quarter of town. Are they finally recognizing that the witching hour has long passed and are going home to put their kids to bed? Following the crowd, we come to an impromptu outside cinema, set up against the old city wall. Several hundred popcorn-fuelled children with parental guides stare wide-eyed at the screen. The town is offering free movie Wednesdays with today’s feature being the latest animated version of Ferdinand. All the bulls are speaking Spanish, as they should, of course.

Movie night. Photo ©

Ferdinand. Photo ©

The church bells of Santa María la Mayor strike twelve, but nobody budges.

Santa María la Mayor and Ronda town hall. Photo ©

Like some other churches in the south, Santa María has opened their roof for visitations. We decide to end our night by climbing onto the catwalk leading around the church towers. We soon realize that we are not the only ones with this idea, as moon gazers and hobby astronomers naming star constellations join us in enjoying Ronda’s best night views.

Walkway around Santa María la Mayor. Photo ©

Feeling content with our expedition, we head home through the old town, careful not to be flattened by nocturnal speeding bikers, pizza delivery mopeds or a lonesome brave runner. For night owls who have had enough of street roaming, there is always an until-sunrise concert on offer, or if less festively inclined, night walks with head lanterns.

View from Santa María la Mayor. Photo ©

Even the animals in town seem to keep summer hours. A canine choir competes with a lame 1980’s remix band playing at a wedding somewhere up on the cliff.

Ronda's cliff restaurants. Photo ©

The town does eventually quiet down, except for the occasional braying sheep, love struck cats or partying neighbours, but by this time we are in bed with our windows open, letting in the cool night breeze and the scent of night blooming jasmine. 

Night sky. Photo ©

Like 2        Published at 16:17   Comments (4)

When given two buckets of plums, tis’ time to make another Spanish liqueur!
11 July 2019

Cheers. Photo ©

The other day a neighbour asked if we wanted to come over to her house and pick some plums. Not being able to resist an offer of organic fruit, we happily agreed. Subjected to the customary Andalucian generosity, we returned home with two heaping bags of organic plums, one bag of organic almonds, three humongous branches of their spectacular flowering bougainvillea and a potted seedling of a most rare type of cactus.

Cactus in bloom. Photo ©

In addition, as if that weren’t enough, they waved us off with the carte blanche invitation to come back for more any time. They also extended a personal invitation for me to raid their bitter almond tree in the fall, as few people share my love of this unappreciated delicacy.   

Plum picker. Photo ©

That was last night, so when we woke up this morning with plums galore and still only two mouths to feed, my first question was how to utilize them. I have never made plum liqueur before, but since I have made quaffable liqueurs from cherries, pears, lemons, oranges, almonds, walnuts, quince and god knows what else, plums were next in line.




Plum bath. Photo ©


Ca. 1.5 kilo plums

1 large or 2 small organic lemons (only the peel is used, so choose accordingly)

100-ish grams of sugar (I haven’t yet succeeded with stevia, so I use the smallest amount of sugar possible)

750 ml vodka, or 500 ml vodka and a generous glass of brandy


Condiments (feel free to add/subtract)

A few pods of green cardamom

A drizzle of whole coriander seeds

A slug of Mexican vanilla extract (genuine or nada!)

And a shake of Sichuan peppercorns



* Peel the lemons.

* Add lemon rind, sugar, spices, vanilla and vodka to a 2-litre sealable glass jar.

* Fill with whole clean plums until the fruit reach the top of the liquid.

* Store out of sight and mind for 4-6 months.

* Remove the plums. Most recipes will tell you to discard the liqueur-infused fruit, but I do nothing of the kind. I usually boil them to get rid of some of the alcohol, which also makes them easier to pit. Then I chop them and use them in baking with very tasty results.

* Decanter into a bottle and enjoy.

Plum Liqueur in the making . Photo ©

Before you get brewing, I want to make it clear that this is not an official recipe. It is more of a loose suggestion to encourage other plum lovers to get creative.  No measurements are accurate and all may be altered according to taste. Furthermore, I cannot guarantee the result, as it really shouldn’t be opened until near Christmastime. What I can promise is that nobody has died of drinking my liqueurs yet, none of my liqueurs-in-progress has ever exploded, and all who have partaken in my happy hooch experiments have rather enjoyed them.

As far as the inherited bag of organic almonds is concerned, it almost forces me to revamp our supply of homemade Amaretto, but I will leave that project for the fall.

Almonds, not yet ready to pick. Photo ©

Like 1        Published at 16:09   Comments (2)

What do Philippe Starck, olives and Ronda have in common? LA Organic Experience
04 July 2019

Starck designed parking lot with photographic art. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Ronda in southern Andalucía is world-renown for its stunning views, fascinating past, and for the famous artists who have come here to write and paint throughout history. What Ronda is not known for is cutting-edge architecture, innovative global marketing, forward thinking ecological production, and least of all, world famous designers. It might therefore come as a surprise to some that merely a couple of kilometres outside our town-centre lies Spain’s most progressive and unique olive oil production and Oleo Tourism facility - LA Organic Experience.

Entrance gate LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Imagine the chatter in our little town some years back when a local company engaged none other than Philippe Starck to design their olive oil bottles! At that point, the words ‘organic’ and ‘cutting edge’ were rarely seen together, certainly not here in rural Andalucía. Yet LA Organic went against the current, creating a line of organic olive oils using Starck’s vanguard product designs. I have been an admirer of his ever since I got his space age lemon press thirty years ago. For those do not know of him, Philippe Starck is a French designer, inventor and architect with 10,000 creations to his name, ranging from cooking tools to wind turbines. For some rondeños, many of whom make their own oil or buy magnum bottles directly from the mill, hiring a celebrity designer for such a ‘basic’ task must have been seen as extremely extravagant or even foolish. However, for the creators of LA Organic Experience, it was time to give the national industry of Spain the attention it deserves.

Reception LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Olives have grown on the Iberian Peninsula for millennia. The Romans started mass-producing and exporting millions of litres of Spanish olive oil. Later, the Arabs improved on the production process and expanded its uses, and while they were exiled from Spain 5 centuries ago, the Arab name for oil, aceite, still remains.

Tour of olive trees at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Spain is by far the world’s largest producer of olive oil accounting for more than 50% of the current global production, and most is produced right here in Andalucía. It is therefore vital for the economy to scrutinize and at times rethink its production and marketing process. In contrast to Italy which has a reputation for supreme quality and design, made in Spain is still often regarded as ‘cheap and cheery’ by international consumers. LA Organic Experience aims to change this perception.

The Starck signature parking lot at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

To know more about the Company, I made an appointment with the General Director, Santiago Muguiro. Coming to meet me straight from the olive fields, it immediately became clear that running this Oleo Tourism facility is no desk job. Santiago is young, passionate and full of ideas. “I come from a wine background” he tells me, adding that his family are the proprietors of the venerable Marqués de Riscal winery. “Like some Rioja vineyards have done with wine, we want to educate the public and become pioneers of olive oil tourism in Spain,” he says. Whereas Marqués de Riscal engaged architect Frank Gehry to create a luxury hotel for wine lovers, LA Organics partnered up with Starck to create the branding, packaging and the landscape of LA Organic Experience.

The original olive oil bottle by Philippe Starck. © LA Organic

LA Oro olive oil with design by Philippe Starck. © LA Organic

Just to clarify, the name has nothing to do with Los Angeles. It refers to La Amarilla, a Ronda farm owned by the Gómez de Baeza family, located in an area where nuns produced olive oil for centuries. In 1990 the family decided to re-establish the Sisters’ tradition and founded LA Organic. The Company expanded to their present location due to increasing demand for their premium oil. With investments from six international visionaries like Starch and wine expert Michel Rolland, LA Organic Experience now covers 25 hectares with 9000 olive trees of 20 varieties. The fully organic crop is planted with variable spacing to demonstrate the difference between traditional and new intensive farming methods. The latter area is composed of the fast-growing Oliana olive, which future visitors will be able to harvest and bottle themselves as part of the Experience.

Vista with young olive trees at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

But LA Organic Experience goes far beyond oil. It is a journey that combines culture, nature and gastronomy. The Experience starts immediately as one enters the property through industrial design gates. The iconic symbol of Mediterranean gastronomy is everywhere, including the window in the guard booth in the shape of an olive.

Olive shape window in guard booth at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

The parking lot also has a Starck signature - a vast terra-cotta-coloured plaza framed by rust and stone walls with massive artistic photographs. In fact, everything including a bespoke adjacent hotel has a touch of the master, whose designs tend to be subversive, ethical, ecological, political, and last but not least, humorous.

Olive eyes. Artwork from parking lot LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Santiago offers to bring me on their guided tour, which starts and ends in a brightly painted warehouse where olive tasting and mill demonstration take place. From here we begin a one-kilometre route lined by newly planted poplars and fragrant lavender bushes. Our first stop is an Arab-inspired organic vegetable and herb garden designed by Navarra horticulturist Floren Domezáin.

Organic vegetable garden. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

The tour continues past fields of olives, a shallow resting pool surrounded by orange trees, an austere 19th Century chapel, as well as a stunning plaza of century old olive trees framing the footprint of where once an old farmhouse stood.

Ancient olive trees at La Plaza de la Carlota. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Since olives and wine go hand in hand, the property also includes a sloped hill of a thousand grapevines of the Pinot Noir variety, perfectly suited for growing at these altitudes (approx. 800 meters over sea level). The vines are planted in terraces, thus recapturing a tradition the Romans established here 2000 years ago. With internationally acclaimed oenologist Michel Rolland at the forefront of this particular project, visitors should be able to enjoy world class LA Organic wine in a couple of years’ time.

Vista with grape vines. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

En route, we pass several architectonic elements called the Six Surprises by Starck. For me however, the surprise of LA Organic Experience is the overall effect. With outmost attention to detail and deep respect for the natural surroundings, the Company has managed to create an unforgettable living tour – a visual, sensory and olfactory experience where something as small as an olive is the grand protagonist.

Road sign leading to LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

What we see today is only the tip of the innovative iceberg. Future plans include a sustainable bottling and labelling plant and the first-ever designer organic olive mill. Another Starck invention, La Almazara olive press and museum will be a high quality production facility with cutting edge technology dedicated to ecological agriculture and organic olive oil production. Wherever the future takes them, the LA Organic team is on the right track with their oil already available in 25 countries.

Santiago Muguiro, General Manager and CEO of LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

In the meantime, I wonder if the creator of the emblematic Alessi lemon press will become the inventor of an avant-garde design home olive press? What do you say, Philippe?

For more information, please go to

Starck point of view at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©


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When your new neighbours move in with a crowbar – Squatters in Spain
21 June 2019

Front door ajar, Ronda. Photo ©

We came to our small town in rural Andalucía to escape the rat race, consciously abandoning North American city life in favour of Spanish village living. We were used to sirens 24/7, rush-hour traffic and panic buttons on alarm fobs and were looking for a slower and more forgiving pace. We found a perfect little casita on a narrow dead-end street in a charming barrio where everybody knew each other. We could leave doors and windows open and had a friendly repartee with all the neighbours. Then one night everything changed…

Just a small opening. Photo ©

We were woken by unfamiliar noises - the familiar ones being barking dogs, braying sheep and donkeys and distant flamenco parties. Two police cars were parked right in front of our house. The vehicles remained there for a couple of hours, while uniformed men moved about with flashlights. The next morning we discovered the reason for the disturbance. Someone had tried to force apart the window bars on the house opposite ours without total success, and proceeded to rip open the front door, or Breaking and Entering - usually a punishable offence. Word on the street travelled quickly, confirming that there were at least two squatters inside. So, what had the police done with the unlawful intruders we asked our better-informed neighbours? “Nada..” (nothing) was the answer. And what could the law do according to the same information source? “Nada…”

Intruders disguised as Holy Three Kings. Photo ©

Squatting refers to unlawful occupancy of uninhabited buildings or unused land - an increasingly common problem here in Spain. Whenever we speak to locals about squatters everybody has a horror story to tell, often involving their families. A friend had squatters move into her flat. As the invaders had barricaded themselves inside she couldn’t evict them, even if it was legally her home, for which she had always paid her taxes and bills. In the end, after having to sponsor the intruders’ steep electricity bill and a 700-euro water bill, she became furious (and one should never make an andalusa angry). Though barely 4 feet tall, this brave little lady went to her home and told the squatters that she would personally throw them off the balcony if they didn’t leave immediately. Somehow they moved on.

Lonesome door. Photo ©

People in Spain have been known to go on holiday and return to find somebody else living in their home. The owners then have to find another place to live, paying double expenses, while proceeding with legal action against the unlawful occupiers. In a famous media story, a woman whose home was occupied heard that the squatters had the audacity to sublet her rooms. She rented one of these, moved in and waited until a day when both squatters were out. Then she hurriedly changed the locks and was thereby finally able to reoccupy her own home.

Are you shaking your head yet?

Peaking in. Photo ©

Spain has literally millions of empty properties all over the country. Most are for sale, many are used as secondary holiday homes, while others are repossessed by the bank because the owners have failed to pay their mortgage. The latter was unfortunately the case with the house opposite ours. Bank-owned buildings are perfect for what one can describe as organized squatters, because the laws are more lenient to the felons when no individual suffers personal loss or depreciation of property value. Spanish banks possess thousands of buildings and are known not to care, so removing squatters from a bank-owned property take considerably longer than evictions from privately owned homes.

Chained entrance. Photo ©

Organized squatters usually work in teams, identifying empty properties, assessing security measures and weaknesses, verifying if water and power are connected and moving in quickly under the disguise of darkness. These types of professional home invaders do not represent the poor, desperate homeless or bankrupt families in dire need of a roof over their heads. The pros make it their business to invade homes. Like our new ‘neighbours’, they own vehicles, wear new clothes, and have cell phones of the latest make and model.  They tend to be repeat offenders with previous charges against them for former unlawful entries. Pro squatters are the hardest to get rid of, as they know every loophole in the Spanish legal system. They will always leave one person back at base so re-occupation cannot take place. The others may be seen skulking about the neighbourhood, their eyes always scanning around 360-degrees, as if they are expecting to be attacked from behind.

Door knocker, Galicia. Photo ©

While two individuals broke in initially on our street, other family members usually follow. The squatters were overheard to have said that they would leave the premises if the police paid their rent elsewhere. In broad daylight the next day the intruders changed the locks. After two more nights of police visits, the cops packed up their non-threatening flashlights and drove away, leaving the intruders to take up residence for an undetermined length of time. The squatters are currently launching about and airing out ‘their’ new home, while the remaining neighbours keep kids inside, and windows and doors secured out of fear of the intruders’ next move. Every night, the squatters seem to bring in more furniture. And though the house has neither water nor electricity, it can easily be ‘borrowed’ from adjoining buildings. After all, they are pros.

Window Marbella. Photo ©

The Spanish law on squatting has changed in the past few years, allegedly making it easier for owners to get rid of unlawful occupants. Yet, this law only refers to privately owned properties, not those owned by banks or real estate companies. There is no great legal deterrent for squatters, as home invasion of uninhabited properties usually only entails a fine and a slap on the hand. Whether one denounces the culprit/s or not, the average time to fully evict unlawful occupants is more than a year. There are still too many legal loopholes. Squatters can in principle be removed within 48 hours, unless they change the locks, which is the first thing the pros will do. If they additionally register themselves as residents of the specific address with the Town Hall, it is even harder to get them out. And if they bring children under ten years of age into the premises, don’t even start…

Over the fence. Photo ©

So, what can be done if ones’ home has been invaded? From what I have read on the subject, it is vital to act swiftly. Report it and seek immediate legal advice to get the squatters out as soon as possible. There are private now companies who promise to remove unwanted intruders within a couple of days, but I cannot say how reputable or efficient these are. Neighbours can also present civil action against the squatters, or report them to the police when they engage in what one deems to be illegal, dangerous or harmful activities. Official complaints and requests for action can be made to whoever owns the property, or their security company. Joining neighbourhood associations and creating formal or informal Neighbourhood Watch groups can be helpful, and may give the affected residents a greater sense of solidarity and security. Though some affected owners try to break in and re-change the locks when the occupants are out, this seems risky at best, as one never knows what the occupants are capable of. It can also backfire, as squatters can actually denounce the legal owners for illegal trespassing. So much for the sanctity of ones home!

Doorway in Andalusian country estate Photo ©

For those who own a Spanish holiday home that is left empty most of the year, how can one prevent unlawful occupants? There are of course no guarantees, as criminals who want to break in will usually find a way. However, there are some simple things one can do to deter unwanted intruders. First of all, one should assure that the property is checked routinely. Next is installing indoor lights on timers and sensor lights outside, and keeping a clean entrance without heaps of mail to advertise that no-one is home. As we discovered, it does not always help to have a silent alarm with direct connection to the police station. By the time the officers arrived on our street, the intruders had already bolted themselves inside. A less sophisticated alarm system that omits a loud sound when someone breaks in might be better, certainly in a residential area.

Entrance, Granada. Photo ©

The problem of squatters is much bigger than our little street drama. It is something that every city, town and municipality in Spain have to deal with. Authorities who do nothing send a wrong message to the public. People will question why they should rent or buy a home and pay fees and taxes, if others can just come and invade them at their leisure. In some countries this type of problem is ‘solved’ by hiring a few thugs with baseball bats to scare off the squatters, but I am glad to say that Spain does not follow the law of the jungle. This is the land of the law of mañana

In the meantime, the legitimate residents of our street wonder when we can return to our peaceful life and open our windows again.   

(To protect the innocent home owners, none of the photos used in this article are from an occupied house)

Open window Casco Histórico, Ronda. Photo ©

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Visiting Setenil de las Bodegas - where the Heavens are made of rock
05 June 2019

Magical street. Photo ©

Envisage a town concealed in a gorge with houses dug into a mountainside.  A place virtually unknown to tourists a few years back, yet where history goes back millennia. Now this has to be an interesting town to visit…

Sign. Photo © snobb.netMeet Setenil de las Bodegas - a tiny municipality in the province of Cádiz with a mere 3000 inhabitants. In 2018, Setenil was included in the Association of Spain’s Most Beautiful Villages. Only last month it was also chosen as the Best Secret Destination in Europe, ahead of Malcine in Italy, Renania in Germany, Agos Nikolaos in Greece and other lesser known European jewels.

Open courtyard. Photo ©

Setenil forms part of the route of Andalucía’s White Villages, yet the town has something which none of the other Pueblos Blancos possess. Whereas most white villages are situated on high ground, Setenil is embedded into a narrow river gorge. Approaching from the mountain plateau that surrounds it, you cannot see any sign of an upcoming town. Like Alberta’s Badlands, the road suddenly dips into a crevice, in Setenil’s case created by the Río Trejo and Río Guadalporcún.

River's edge. Photo ©

Setenil’s most distinctive feature however, is the town’s large number of cave dwellings. The white washed buildings literally seem to grow out of the mountain or to be physically embedded in the rockface. Many homes have a single external wall. The rest of the living quarters will expand underneath the protruding overhang, dug out of the porous sand stone by enlarging the natural caves that the river created millions of years ago. This innovative design makes Setenil one of the most original villages not only in Spain, but in all of Europe.

Walking under the rock. Photo ©

Troglodyte living is not a new thing in Setenil. Caves in nearby regions were occupied in both Paleolithic and Neolithic times. It is likely that Setenil also was home to our Neanderthal ancestors, but evidence of Stone Age residents may have been lost in the spring-cleanings of newer inhabitants during the last couple of millennia.

Setenil de las Bodegas, 1907 photographed at art exhibit in old tower

The town’s name is said to have come from the Latin words septem nihil (seven times nothing), referring to how this Moorish town resisted the Catholic Reconquista army, only falling after seven long sieges in 1484. In my opinion there has to be another explanation. Firstly, how would the Latin speaking Romans have known about a conquest that happened several centuries into the future, after they left the Iberian continent? Secondly, would a Latin town name have been used through 700 years of Moorish rule? And finally, would the Catholic Monarchs want to name the town in memory of their six unsuccessful attempts of taking over the town, even if they finally succeeded on the seventh attempt? To me, it is a mystery indeed.

Historical brotherhood. Photo ©

The addition to the name, de las Bodegas, dates from the 15th Century, and refers to the once thriving local wineries. After expelling the Muslims, Setenil’s new Christian settlers introduced grapevines, while continuing the Arab olive and almond production. The vineyards were wiped out by an insect infestation that killed virtually all of Europe’s grape stock in the 1880’s, but recent replanting has once again filled up Setenil’s bodegas for us to enjoy their bounty. 

Cave house street and campo vista. Photo ©

While Setenil is a mere pueblo today, it was once an important town. In fact it received a Letter of Privilege from the Catholic Monarchs in 1501, giving it trade benefits on level with Sevilla. Yet the true sign of the town’s past importance comes in the form of an engraving from 1564, when Joris Hoefnagel drew an atlas of Europe’s most important towns, one of which was Setenil! His Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published in Cologne in 1572, was one of Europe’s first map books.

Setieil a la 1564 by Joris Hoefnagel. Photo from art exhibit in the Torreón del Homenaje tower

Living merely 30 minutes drive away, Setenil is a favourite place for my husband and I to take visitors. You can see the entire town in a morning, though I believe one should never miss the chance of having lunch under a suspended rock! If you come on a Friday, you get the added bonus of seeing the villagers descend upon the weekly mercadillo (8 - 14ish) It is great for people watching and a must if you are in the market for flowers, fruit, spices, synthetic dresses or granny style underwear.

Friday market. Photo ©

We prefer less busy days, when we can spend an hour or two doing the natural circuit, strolling along one side of the river and returning on the other. Wandering the streets of Setenil, or callejear as they call it is simply a joy. Everywhere you look there are magical corners, narrow alleys and picturesque balconies bursting with flowers.

Kissing corner. Photo ©

Our walk usually starts in Calle Cuevas de la Sombra (loosely translated as ‘the shady cave street’), one of the most astonishing rock-ceilinged streets in the known universe. In spite of the limited headroom, locals blast through in their mini-trucks not paying the slightest attention to the tight clearance on either side.

Calle del la sombra. bnw. Photo ©

There seem to have been a recent revival of the town, with an increasing number of stores and delis. We stop in one of these to have a chat with the owner about village life. La Cueva del Ibérico, like many shops in town, is really a cave. There is no ceiling as such, just the bare rock overhead extending onto the back wall. Not only is the atmosphere of the store fabulous, but Daniel the proprietor knows his trade. He can tell you where every cheese is produced and why one wine differs from another, and those who are lucky to spend the night or not driving can always ask for taste.

Calle de la sombra. Photo ©

Daniel was brought up in Setenil, but like many young, left town to study and make a career in the big city. As a husband and recent father, he has returned. He likes the slow pace of Setenil, but also the year-round visitors from all over the world. He tells us that five years back there were only a handful of guesthouses in town, while today there are more than 30 casas rurales, including half a dozen within spitting distance of his shop.

We emerge from Daniel’s cave with a litre of sherry after having tried the whole range - from the driest Fino and the floral Amontillado to the sweetest Pedro Ximénez grapes. At the end of the street, after a short but steep climb (not recommended in the hot midday sun), we stop at a local chapel to light a candle by one of the many statues of the Virgin Mary.

Chapel. Photo ©

Continuing uphill we come to Plaza de Andalucía. It is a little early to begin to tapear, so we indulge in our first iced coffee instead. The square has a couple of tapas bars, as well as possibly the world’s only cave bank!

Troglodite banking. Photo ©

Meandering our way up past the tourist office we arrive at the top of the bluff, which offers an excellent vantage point of the town. The Torreón del Homenaje tower is the only remains of the original alcázar castle from the 12. Century. Occasionally used for art exhibits, it is also well worth the climb to the top for an undisturbed birds’ eye view of the surrounding countryside.

Setenil from above. Photo ©

Descending through narrow alleys with kissing-distance from the buildings on one side to the other, we return to river level. We are ready to explore the town’s less frequented roads, where some of the most charming and authentic cave homes in Setenil can be found.

Narrow street, Setenil. Photo ©

The sandstone overhangs make natural turbans for the cave dwellings, which merge perfectly with the overgrown terracotta roof tiles.

Roofline detail. Photo ©

These traditional rural homes have few and small windows, to keep the heat out in summer and the cold out in winter. One has to ask oneself how living in such enclosed stone quarters must be in the rainy season, as even on the sunniest of days the buildings feel humid and cool. Not sure if I would like to try, but I can see it being perfect for curing chorizos…

Roof detail. Photo ©

Not all the caves are homes though. Some are converted into unsightly garages, while others look more like squat barns and donkey shacks. The majority of these cave dwellings were probably shared by people and their domestic animals way back when. Maybe some still are?

Cave houses Setenil de las Bodegas. Photo ©

We return on the opposite side of the river, walking along Calle Cuevas del Sol (sunny cave street), which is without doubt the most frequently photographed street in town.

Calle cueva del sol. Photo ©

The market stalls are being disassembled into vans, and we find a table at Bar Frasquito where Pedro and his family serve to-die-for tapas. My weakness is their fried slices of eggplant with melted goat cheese topped with a Pedro Ximenez reduction - a true hedonistic treat. As an aside, the English translations of Spanish menus can be quite amusing, often spelled phonetically, translated literally, or just plain wrong. My eggplant with goat cheese for instance, is written up as Eggpland wiht good chesse

Menu, Setenil style. Photo ©

Setenil has managed to reinvent itself in the 21st Century, while retaining its charming village feel. People still practice traditional agriculture, combined with a growing but limited tourist trade. Add to this a unique setting and beautiful surroundings and you get a rural community with an authentic Andalusian flavour.

One thing is for certain. Setenil is truly unforgettable, and if you ever doubt it, all you have to do is look up…

The 'ceiling' of our restaurant. Photo ©

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Ronda’s annual National Ham-Cutting Championship – Maybe soon a new Olympic sport?
24 May 2019

Championship Ronda 2019. Photo ©

I would never have thought that ham cutting could be a competitive sport, until we paid our first visit to our Andalusian town several years back.

At the end of a European holiday, a sudden shower forced us to seek shelter in Ronda’s Convento de Santo Domingo. We stumbled into a courtyard full of locals, staring intently at the sharp knives of half a dozen men dressed in head-to-toe black including long aprons. Each man was allocated a table where a leg of Iberian ham was fastened with screws and clamps into a torturous stand. Each had his battery of knives and sharpeners upon which his logo or initials were engraved. Unbeknownst to us, we had come upon our first national ham-cutting competition, an event the Spanish and the competitors evidently took very seriously.

Jamón cutter at work. Photo ©

Every year in the month of May, competitors from all over Spain meet in our town for El Concurso Nacional de Cortadores de Jamón, the national Iberian ham cutting championships. This year marked the 17th edition, still taking place in the same courtyard we inadvertently stumbled into way back when. The event was created and is still organized by Ronda’s Casa del Jamón, a local family business with no less than four national champion ham cutters.

The Corbacha family in Casa del Jamón, Ronda. Lourdes, Antonio and Leocadio. Photo ©

The patriarch, Leocadio Corbacho, began cutting ham as a teenager, long before it became a profession, let alone a nation-wide competitive event. In those days, the quality and control of the Iberian ham production was poor compared to today.

La matanza, traditionally in October. Photo © Casa del Jamón.

When he was contracted to supply the local military with ham, he began to cut the slices finer - not because it was the going trend, but so that more sandwiches could be made with less ham, hence feeding more soldiers. Recognizing the Spanish love of talking, he began to cut the slices fine enough that the consumer could continue a conversation while eating it. He discovered that this was a far more comfortable way of eating what eventually became a real delicacy. Only in the past couple of decades has the Iberian ham industry achieved the international fame it now enjoys. Jamón Ibérico, which is unique to Spain, is now part of the national patrimony on line with bull fighting.

Jamón cutter from an earlier championship. Photo © snobb.met

Eight professionals from Madrid to Huelva were selected from hundreds of applicants to participate in this year’s championship. Thought all were male, women have begun to enter the testosterone-driven ham-cutting scene. In fact, the winner of the 2018 Ronda championship was a cortadora from Salamanca and Leocadio’s daughter Lourdes is not only the first but the only female to have won first prize at the national ham cutting championships, not once, but twice!

Lourdes Corbacho, two time national champion cutting jamón Ibérico. Photo ©

Alberto Corbacho, another champion cutter in the family, explains that the competitors must be professionals and good standing members of the Asociación Nacional de Cortadores de Jamón. According to the rules, each participant is presented with a leg of Premium Iberian Bellota ham, allocated by lotto prior to the competition. The legs must have similar physical characteristics and weigh approx. 8 kilos - the optimal size for an Iberian ham. Otherwise, the contestants are responsible for their own tools and aids, such as knives, tweezers, ham stand etc.

Platters in progress. Photo ©

I noted that the latter had changed in the past decade. All the stands are now stainless steel, whereas in the past some would have been made of wood, bone and more traditional materials. Alberto tells me that the space age looking stainless tabla is the Ferrari of all ham stands with ability to twist, tilt and swivel almost 360 degrees in all directions.

CU of stainless jamonera. Photo ©

As in any competitive event, there is tension before the games begin. One participant carefully sharpens an already razor-sharp knife, while another re-tightens the screws of his ham stand.

Tension. Photo ©

Like before a ski race, one of the contestants sends a look towards the heavens and crosses himself. We are in Spain, after all.

Sending prayers to the one above. Photo ©

Next comes the count down and they are off! Knifes twinkle as the men in black begin to shear off long pieces of fat that protects the precious meat. The competitors are deadly serious about their craft. Each contestant appears to have his own style of handling the leg, holding the knife and building the plates. Ages vary from mid thirties to early sixties, with looks from classic 50’s Pompadour and wiry bullfighter-ish Brylcreme comb-over, to hairless minimalism.

Jamon cutter 1. (Madrid) Photo ©

During the course of the two-hour showdown, they must cut the leg clean, while producing plate after plate of impeccably presented and carefully cut slices or lonchas of ham. To add to the pressure, each plate should contain 100 grams of ham, on the nose. The slices need to be so thin that you can see the blade of the knife through the ham. As they say in the jamón industry, the slices must be fino como papel de fumar (fine like cigarette paper).

Ham cutting cu. (Thanks to hand model Lourdes Corbacho) Photo ©

Half a dozen professionals from the industry (including two females) judge the event, wandering about watching the competitors’ every move.

Judge, and last years winner prepares her notes. Photo ©

Not only is the end product important for the awards. The discarded fatty cut-offs are also carefully inspected to verify that not a morsel of edible ham is wasted. It is the judges’ job to determine the most original plate presentations and to announce the winner – the one who demonstrates superior dexterity with the knife, as well as the utmost style and creativity when it comes to the platter presentations.You cannot be any old chopper. A jamón master must have confidence, rhythm, elegance and panache. “There is an art to ham cutting. It is all in the wrist,” says Leocadio.

All in the wrist. Photo ©

I am not much of a ham person myself, but there is ham and then there is Iberian ham, particularly when speaking about Premium Bellota ham, which can cost more than 500 euros for a mere hairy leg. A certified Bellota ham comes with its own personal id, specifying place of birth and the age of the animal. Iberian Bellota ham is often said to come from pigs that have had an exclusive life-long diet of acorns, but this is not the case. Acorns are only in season from September to March, and the free roaming Iberian pigs only eat the bellota superfood during the last six months of their lives.

Premios. Photo ©

The Serranía around Ronda has always had the perfect climate for the rearing of the slim bluish black Iberian pigs. It also holds near optimal conditions for curing the Iberian ham. In contrast to regular Serrano ham, an Iberian ham will be immersed in salt (one day per kg) and then spend a minimum of two years curing in a humid place. Finally, the leg is hung to air, traditionally in a farm loft, to get that perfect Iberian flavour. The special Mediterranean mountain climate is likely the reason why the Asians haven’t managed to reproduce the quality of the Spanish ham yet, in spite of their effort and keen taste for jamón Ibérico.

Jamón Ibérico. Photo ©

The fat of the ham is part of the morphology of the leg muscle. The more marbling, the ‘sweeter’ the meat, the experts say. It is fundamental, not only for the richness of the taste, but also for aesthetical reasons, as proven when the competitors present their free-style creative platters.

Creative ham platter presentation, the free-style event. Photo © snobb.netThe popularity of the championships might be partly due to the fact that during the course of the cutting, spectators are able to purchase a plate of the very ham that has been cut in front of them. Add to this the sale of tinto (red wine) from the Tempranillo grape produced by the local Chinchilla vineyard, and one is bound to have a successful event!

Cheers. Photo ©

So, lovers of Jamón Ibérico out there, be sure to be in Ronda next May for the 18th edition of the concurso. And if you cannot wait that long or are looking for more of a challenge, there is apparently an upcoming course in jamón cutting including 10 hours of knife practice in Malaga in June. 

(For more information, contact Alberto at Casa del Jamón)

Cortador Logo. Photo ©




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Making an Andalucian wall fountain and still having ten fingers to type the tale…
10 May 2019

Stone work 2. Photo ©

There is nothing more peaceful than a trickling fountain. We always wanted one in our backyard, but living in rainy Vancouver it was a mute idea. Then, after moving to Andalucía, long before we bought our reform-needy ruin, I began plotting our future terrace water feature.

Lovely stone wall fountain in Ronda garden. Photo ©

The first summer came and then another one, and we still hadn’t find our fountain. Nor did we have a home to put it in for that matter, as our Casita 26 was awaiting a building permit. Meanwhile the search continued. We saw some lovely colourful tile fountains in Morocco, but like any good design, they were copied in infinite reincarnations. We weren’t looking for a-dime-a-dozen fountain, we wanted something unique that reflected our new home turf.

Water feature in Arab garden at Palacio Montdragon. Photo ©

A fountain (from Latin fons - source of a spring) is a water supply regulated into a man-made construction, whose function is to send water by gravity into a basin, or propel it skywards by jets. In the past it would usually serve a dual function, both supplying drinking water and being a decorative feature. In other cultures it also had a religious significance.

Dragon fountain detail from Palacio Mondragon, Ronda. Photo ©

The earliest fountain builders were possibly the Mesopotamians, who made a series of stone basins connected by a natural water source in about 3000 BC. Greeks and Romans employed similar systems, while mechanical fountains appeared in the Italian Renaissance.  

Generalife, Alhambra. Photo ©

Here in rural Andalucía, where most residents were dependent upon livestock, fountains began as water troughs for animals. The base of the fountain would be a long pileta (pond) carved of a single stone, while a backing would contain spouts and at times decorative carvings. Some of these fountains were made in the Visigoth era (after the Romans and before the Berber invasion). An example of this is a water trough in the village of Grazalema, which is still in use today.

Visegoth fountain in Grazalema. Photo ©

People will still bring their horses to drink at the trough built by the old town gate in our neighbourhood. Farmers will also come and fill up jerrycans of water for their olive trees, as it is said to come from a special spring. Every farm we have visited here in Andalucía will have at least one of these piletas. With such an intriguing past, we agreed that our fountain needed to somehow reflect this part of our local history.

The Ocho caños wall fountain in the Padre Jesús district of Ronda. Photo ©

In addition to digging the stone troughs, we loved the warm sand colour of Ronda’s Tajo. Initially we wanted to make some walls in our home from the same stones, but since we bought a 3-meter wide ruin, we could not allow the extra padding of exposed rocks. Making a stone fountain became the solution.

Finding an ancient stone trough to fit into in the limited space available on our terrace turned out to be impossible. When we told this to our friend Juan, he suggested that we went to a former stone quarry in la Serranía to find a rock, and then to carve it ourselves. Never ones to say no to a challenge, we took off with Juan on a stone finding expedition a few days later. The quarry, like many rural businesses had had to close down due to lack of costumers. There were mountains of rocks to choose from. One could get lost in the piles, and these were just the broken rejects that had been pitched off the lot onto the nearest hillside.

Closed down stone quarry near Ronda. Photo ©

Having the exact measure of our pileta to be and tape measure in hand, we finally found a rock that could do. We dragged the monster to Juan’s jeep, me of course bringing a few extra piedras along, heading back to his property where the real work was to begin.

Already having driven us to get the rock and helped carry it to the car and bring it to his property, Juan said that he might have a more suitable rock for us. It turned out to be an already chiselled stone that had once been part of an entrance arch. The stones were now a garden wall, but Juan persisted that we take one, while he would use the less perfect quarry stone in its place.

The hero stone. Photo ©

Before we knew it, he had wedged the rock out and fetched two different sizes of rotary saws. Though he was supposed to build a bench at his rural estate that day, he began to make vertical, horizontal and finally diagonal cuts in the rock, making it easier for us to dig out the hollow centre.

Juan cutting the stone. Photo ©

What would have taken us days with a hammer and a chisel now took us mere hours. The rest was almost a breeze, at least if one was used to working with stone, which neither of us were. I managed to swing the heavy hammer off target and ended up with a few blood blisters, but nothing that time wouldn’t heel. Miraculously, I still had all my fingers.

Look, 10 fingers. Photo ©

Jaime carving the centre, Photo ©

Driving home with our prized pileta, we left it in the car to wait until a couple of young and strong neighbours could help Jaime hew-hawing it into the space. I would not trust myself to lift it, even if I could do so. Manolo, our neighbour who is near 90 saw us arrive and asked to look at the rock. “Oh that! I can lift that on my own over my back”, he claimed. We said that we were sure that that was the case, but that we felt it was safer to wait until there were more available hands. Not Manolo. He began to shimmy the rock off the back seat giving Jaime barely time to grab onto the other end. They walked into our house, across the living room, past the kitchen and onto the terrace. I could not believe my eyes. Manolo’s hands and step did not falter as he carried the rock, dressed in his customary suit and black leather shoes. There was the typical rural Andalusian man of centuries past: low to the ground, strong as a toro and tough as nails.

Done, and brought to its resting place by our soon 90 year old neighbour Manolo. Photo ©

Once we had our pileta into place, we began searching for rocks for the backsplash. This is no problem when one lives in rural Andalucía where every trail and field is covered in rocks. Juan let us have free range of his property, and we returned home with 10 kilos each in our backpacks.

Another rocky trail. Photo ©

Once we had enough material to choose from, some encrusted with fossils, I drew the shape on a piece of cardboard and plotted in the rocks like a puzzle on the ground (Once a designer, always a designer).

Planning the backsplash. Photo ©

The only thing remaining was to get somebody to apply my rock puzzle onto the wall. Though half the neighbourhood told us how easy it was to do this ourselves, we wanted a pro, to assure that it would not collapse on us. We spoke to four different contractors, all promising to come and nobody showing up. Finally Salvador, a friend and handiman agreed to do it. I will be there at 10 am tomorrow he said, and five minutes to ten he was there, tools in hand.

Work begins. Photo ©

In the morning he applied the rocks to the wall, and the same afternoon he came back to put in the sand coloured grout that we had requested. Écolo, it was done.

Fountain in progress. Photo ©

Our fountain is the first thing we see when we enter our house and look out onto the terrace. Though the grout still needs drying and we still need to attach our solar powered water system, we cannot be more pleased. Like we had envisioned, it echoes the sandstone coloured cliffs around us, bringing a little bit of Ronda’s Tajo into our home. More importantly, it is a labour of love, not only by our own hands, but by the help of some of our wonderful rondeño friends and neighbours. Our fuente is already like a piece of Andalusian history, hecho a mano en Ronda.

Almost done. Photo ©

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Doing El Camino Light - A week on ‘the way’
03 May 2019

100 km left. Photo ©

Ever since I read The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho in the latter part of the last century followed by Shirley MacLaine’s movie-star-incognito account of the route, I have wanted to do El Camino. When Coelho walked it in the 1980s, there were barely any people venturing on the almost-forgotten pilgrim trail. On the other hand, there were allegedly ghosts abound, packs of wild dogs and even an occasional wolf to spice up the route, while lack of signage made one sure to get lost.

Worn trail. Photo ©

Not anymore…

Today El Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James is as busy as it was in its hay day - the Middle Ages. Decidedly one of the most popular cross-continent walking routes in the world, the contemporary caminos attract scores of people every year. 2018 was a record year with 327.342 registered pilgrims! Most pilgrims are Spanish, though Italians, Germans, Americans and more surprisingly Koreans and Mexicans are also frequent camino walkers. There are now several different routes to choose from, with starting points in Roncevaux, Lisbon, Seville or San Sebastian, just to mention a few.

Camino grafitti. Photo ©

Many years after my literary exploration of the pilgrimage, we had an opportunity to do the walk ourselves. As we only had a week off and could therefore only do a partial route, I call our experience El Camino Light. As it is, walkers are of no obligation to do the entire way from start to finish. One can begin wherever one desires. To receive la Compostela, the official document proving that one has walked el Camino, pilgrims simply need to walk a minimum of 100 km or bike 200 km along the trails. (One can also do it on horseback or in a wheelchair.) Particularly for national walkers, it is quite common and practical to split the way into chunks, doing a portion each year depending on ones availability, family plans, wallet, physique, desire, or possibly, how many sins one has committed.

The cross. Photo ©

Speaking of sinners, though walkers are still called peregrinos or pilgrims, the reasons that most people take to the road now are quite different from that of the original pilgrims. Being the most important Christian pilgrimage after the ones leading to Rome or Jerusalem, the way was primarily shared by devout and repentant sinners. The road to Santiago attracted peasants and beggars, adventurers and dreamers, as well as nobles and royalty. One would also meet criminals whom the court had ordered to make the pilgrimage instead of serving a prison sentence. Doing El Camino was a dangerous proposition, as you also risked being attacked by muggers. And if you survived all the way to Santiago, you would face the challenge of getting back home - most likely on foot.

Peregrinos. Wall painting in Sarria. Photo ©

We prepared for our walk from our Ronda home, spending weeks on online research finding the best socks and the perfect insoles, as el Camino is all about the feet. Or more specifically, ones legs and ones pack. Whether one walks for a month, or a week, one basically needs the same things in the backpack, you just reuse the items more times on a longer camino.

La cruz. Photo ©

Before our departure, a friend from Delhi asked me why my husband and I wanted to do El Camino, adding that Indian people often believe that they are the only ones making pilgrimages. I thought about it for a moment. Why were we, neither of us Catholic, attracted to doing this Christian pilgrimage? I told her that there were many reasons: our love of walking, history and the outdoors, as well as the challenge and the adventure. We wanted to approach the way like a walking meditation, doing it for friends who couldn’t walk the way themselves. We would dedicate our daily walk to a friend who was sick with cancer, a neighbour with a collapsed lung, and a pal with a diabetic foot. We would walk out if gratitude for being blessed and healthy enough to be there, and to be on this life's journey at all...

The day before we were scheduled to leave, our friend with cancer passed away, making us feel a stronger urge than ever to begin our Camino.

Old fence. Photo ©

Spring is a glorious time of the year to travel, making a pleasurable 10-hour drive from the very south to north western Spain. Galicia displayed the most electrifying green landscape as we followed meandering roads towards our starting point, the town of Sarria.

Farm, caught from car. Photo ©

We had chosen to stay in what they call pensiones, where we had our own room and usually our own bathroom. Though some might find this a huge indulgence, we felt the extra couple of euros per night were a worthwhile investment. We saw no need to suffer in bunk beds, while sharing room with 20 other pilgrims. After all, we were not doing this to repent our sins, as ours are far too many…

The beer maiden. Photo ©

Each day, we walked about 20-30 kilometres, which is the daily average for most of the caminos. Since we didn’t have to hurry in order to get a bed in the next town (our rooms were booked in advance online), we could leave leisurely after daybreak, enjoying not only the walk, seeing where we were going without using head lanterns.

Morning mist and pilgrims in  motion. Photo ©

Taking our time, we discovered some magical creatures along the way. 

Lizard. Photo ©

The designer in me went amok as we passed one stunning timeless stone barn after another, complete with black natural slate roves. The yards would have old farm tools, as well as a traditional stilted, wooden granary.

Farm wall. Photo ©

The granary. Photo ©

Otherwise, some of the more recent Galician architecture was not as impressive. Most buildings in the towns we passed seemed to have been slapped together right after the Spanish Civil War with little maintenance since. Though there were some lovely restored or reproduced homes using slate and stone, many recent houses had an Edward Scissorhands meets 1971 American Dream home feel. I regret to say, once a snob, always a snob…

The best of the old and the new. Photo ©

Spring is still relatively cool and wet in Galicia, so we did not meet as many pilgrims on the trail as we would have had in the summer months. Being Semana Santa (Easter), we were happily surprised to see many Spanish families with younger children on the trail. (Almost 1/3 of the Santiago pilgrims are under 30.) We didn’t meet anyone talking in tongues or doing the Camino bare feet while whipping themselves, which one might expect after watching the 2010 Hollywood movie The Way. Our trail mates were quite ordinary people, happy to be there, enjoying the walk. Actually one of the most memorable things about el Camino was our trail-mates. Most walkers would greet you as you laboured along. As everybody was moving in the same direction, we would run into the same people at least every couple of days. If we didn’t know their names, we called each other by nationality. Hola Portugal. Como estás, Brazil? We became known as los Mexicanos, since my husband had the emblem of his former military college in Mexico on his pack.

El mexicano. Photo ©

I sometimes would ask our co-walkers why they were doing el Camino. A woman from Toronto told me she was doing is as a Social Media Cleanse. It was probably the best reason I heard, though most of the peregrinos had their mobile in hand to take photos, check out the next village, send WhatsApps to friends and to verify their mileage, calories or daily steps.

Santiago. Photo ©

The youngest pilgrim we met en route was 6-year-old Amor. She walked with a huge staff, accompanied by her older sister, two cousins, parents and an uncle. We had great admirations for the youngsters and their brave guardians, taking to the trail as a family in a time when most kids get their ‘exercise’ through online battles. Amor would boldly ask us our names, where we came from and how old we were, which to her of course might as well have been from the Middle Ages. I never knew her sisters name, but I imagined it would be Paz, as what better companions to have on a pilgrim trail than Paz y Amor (Peace and Love)!

Amor y Paz. Photo ©

Walking anywhere these days except possibly in the jungles of Borneo one is bound to have to cross over or walk along a few sections of highway. We were grateful to find that most days we were on old farm roads and country trails. The Camino crossed ancient bridges and lead along beautiful moss-covered stone fences.

Mossy fence. Photo ©

Each day we needed to get our passes stamped twice to prove that we had actually walked the way. Most frequently, these were stamped in hostels and restaurants. However, a couple of times we passed a ‘stamp station’, once in a chapel where a blind man urged the pilgrims to lead his hands so he would stamp the correct space. Another time, a former Romanian Paralympic athlete had set up a rickety table by a river, offering stamps against a symbolic donation. I didn’t really care if their stories and afflictions were true, as they offered a welcome diversion for road-wary pilgrims.

The passport. Photo ©

As far as The Way is concerned, the trails we walked were usually wide and fairly level, certainly compared to the rocky mountain paths we are used to in Andalucía. Most sections were well marked and decently serviced, passing villages with hostels and eateries every few kilometres. Even tiny hamlets would have a pilgrim shop selling beverages, rain covers, walking sticks, trail snacks and cheap Camino souvenirs. And then there was the occasional oasis…

The Oasis. Photo ©

As we had chosen the most frequented Camino Francés, we were hard pressed to get lost at all - unless, like me, one has a natural tendency to choose el camino malo or the wrong way. There were stone markers every kilometre, sometimes made into shrines by passing pilgrims.

Shrine. Photo ©

In addition, there were yellow arrows painted on houses and fences.

Follow the yellow arrows. Photo ©

Likewise, we could follow the symbol of the camino, the shell, which would be embedded into the pavement in more urban areas.

Follow the signs. Photo ©

We still managed to do a few unintended detours and some rutas complementarias, but when you think about it, what is the right way anyway, especially in a land where all roads seem to lead to Santiago de Compostela?

The way. Photo ©

Though the scalloped shell has been the symbol of el Camino since the pilgrim route began, it actually predates the way as the symbol of the Roman goddess Venus. If you remember the famous Botticelli painting, it was from this same scalloped shell that the goddess rose from the sea. Be this as it may, el Camino has become synonymous with the shell, which one can see dangling from virtually all the pilgrim packs.

The pilgrims and the packs. Photo ©

No camino is complete without a bit of hardship, so of course we were bound to hit a storm. On day two, with a 30 km of road ahead of us, it began dripping, then falling and finally pouring down. Fighting windblasts and trotting in mud, our knee-length one-size-fits-all rain ponchos or chubasqueros came into good use. As I said, el Camino is all about the feet. In spite of all our preparations, I had forgotten to pre-wash some of my double anti-blister socks, so my heels became open wounds. But what would a pilgrimage be without a bit of pain and suffering?

Walking in the rain. Photo ©

When the rain eased up, the Eucalyptus trees released their refreshing scent, clearing our sinuses and spurring us on. At other times, the Eau de Camino would have quite a strong bovine aroma, as we passed farms and fields with the large Galician cattle.

Perfume du jour. Photo ©

The region, by the way, produces Spain’s best beef, so that even I who always order fish and vegetables would break down and have an enormous steak, cooked on a stone griddle, on day four of our walk. (This time. there was only meat on the menu...)

Meat on the menu. Photo ©

We knew we were near the end when we reached Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy) from where we could see Santiago de Compostela at a distance. The city has spread out, so we had to walk through an extensive commercial suburb area with crossing motorways, loosing the sense of the pilgrim path until we entered the old town and finally could discern the tower of La Santa Apostólica y Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. That was our roads end, or rather the Office of the diocese, where we would receive our final stamp of the journey.

In Santiago de Compostela. Photo ©

Speaking for us, Santiago was a bit of a let down. Not so much because the cathedral was under construction and we could not see the famous pendulous botafumeiro incense dispenser at work, but because of the people. Being used to the warmth of the Andalucians, the Galicians we had met thus far had been polite, but not exactly overly friendly. Here in Santiago de Compostela however, many locals we met were downright rude. Not that we deserved applauds for our achievement, but we hadn’t expected an almost Paris-style coldness and disinterest. Granted, there are thousands of pilgrims passing through town, so locals might be fed up of seeing yet another backpacker, but pilgrims are still the main business of the town. Alas. I say no more.

All about the feet. Photo ©

What was special about El Camino was the walk, not the destination. Maybe I had felt different if I was Catholic, but to me, it was not a religious experience. It was a human experience. There was a special feeling of communion as we the pilgrims moved in the same direction. The daily walking, step ahead of step, hour by hour, sometimes in pain, intrigued me. If it weren’t for my blisters, I would have wanted to walk on, possibly forever. Your life at home did not exist anymore, all you could think about was the way and the road in front of you. 

On El Camino. Photo ©

On a more spiritual level, I see the camino as an analogy for life. We all go in the same direction. Whichever faith or religious belief we may hold, our final destination is the same. There will always be people before us and there will always be someone who will come after us. We can choose to walk quickly or slowly, but whatever speed we go at, at one point we will get to the end. Like it or not, when it comes to life, we are all on the same camino…

Sheep. Photo ©

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