16 January 2015

Berza - comfort food for the winter months

Acelgas (chard): a versatile winter
vegetable. Use the leaves like spinach
and the stems like celery.

If you look up berza in a dictionary it says cabbage, kale or collard greens, but around here it is the name of a hearty winter stew, justifiably popular at this time of year. It is nourishing and tasty, and very economical to make, being based on chickpeas (garbanzos) and dried white beans (alubias blancas) for bulk, plus seasonal vegetables and cheap but tasty meat products like spiced sausage (chorizo) and blood pudding (morcilla).

The locals will often include plants harvested from the countryside, such as the various kinds of edible thistle (tagarninas and cardos). You can buy these at the village shops or from street vendors when they are in season.

The authentic version includes various bones and other items you can get cheap from the butcher, which all help to flavour the stock and add protein, but I just stick to things I recognise and chuck in a stock cube.

Chorizos and morcilla are produced

The stew is thickened at the end of the cooking process by stirring in a majao, a strongly-flavoured paste traditionally made with a pestle and mortar (from the verb majar, to mash or crush).  You can use stale bread, or if you want a gluten-free version, ground almonds work well.  Garlic, salt, cumin and paprika (pimentón) are used to add the flavour.

The meaty bits, known as la pringá, are removed before serving and sliced up on a plate, to be eaten separately  or distributed evenly amongst the bowls of stew.  The verb pringar means (among other things!) to "dunk" or dip your bread in the soup.

Berza with the pringá served separately
Everyone has their own version, and this is mine:

Ingredients (serves 2-3):

200g dried chickpeas (garbanzos), or 1 x 400g can
200g dried white beans (alubias blancas) or 1 x 400 can
A selection of winter vegetables e.g.Swiss chard (acelgas), carrots (zanahorias), turnips (nabos), pumpkin (calabaza), potatoes (papas), celery (apio) or green beans (judias verdes).   The quantity is flexible but aim for at least 500g after they have been cleaned.
1 beefsteak tomato, skinned and with the woody bit cut out.
1 chorizo (the kind suitable for cooking rather than slicing)
1 morcilla (black pudding)
1 slab of tocino (fatty bacon)
1 bayleaf
Pinch of thyme
a handful of chopped parsley, including stalks
1 litre of meat or vegetable stock

For the majado:
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp ground cumin (comino molido)
1 tbsp paprika (pimentón dulce)
A hunk of stale bread (use ground almonds if you want it gluten-free)
1 tsp salt


1. Pre-soak the beans and chickpeas overnight, in separate bowls.
2. Cut the vegetables into rough chunks, not too small.  Be sure to remove any stringy bits from the celery and chard.
3. Put everything except the majado into a large saucepan. Leave the chorizo etc whole. Bring to the boil and remove any foam, then cover and simmer until the chickpeas and beans are soft (about an hour). If you are using precooked ones (or a pressure cooker), 30 min should be fine. 
4. Meanwhile soak the bread in some of the stock to soften. Drain it then pound it in a pestle and mortar with the garlic cloves, salt and spices, moistened with some olive oil so you have a thick paste.  As an alternative to bread, you can use ground almonds, or some of the soft chickpeas from the stew.
5. Add the paste to the stew and stir in well. Season to taste.  If it's too watery, simmer a bit more to reduce.
6. Before serving, remove the meat items and cut them up separately. You can then distribute the meat evenly amongst the bowls of stew, or eat them separately with bread.


16 November 2014

An environmental success story: Laguna de los Tollos

We hear with depressing regularity about natural habitats being destroyed in the pursuit of profit. So it's good to learn about a project where the opposite has happened, thanks to the hard work and persistence of a group of environmental conservationists.  Such a project is the Laguna de los Tollos, near the town of El Cuervo just north of Jerez.

Until 1976 this lake was an important stopover for wetland birds, including flamingoes in their thousands, winging their way between the Coto Doñana and the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra in Málaga Province.  It was also a breeding site for purple swamp hens (aka purple gallinules), crested coot and the rare white-headed duck. 

Then along came Hefran SA, a mineral exploitation company, who dug a pit next to the lake to extract the special clay needed to produce Fuller's Earth - a mineral used in the pharmaceutical industry and in the production of cat litter. The effect on the lake was catastrophic.  The water level dropped and the extent of winter flooding was dramatically reduced.  The claypits and waste encroached into the lake itself and polluted the water.

Unfortunately the site was not protected by any environmental legislation and there were no legal constraints on Hefran.  It was finally designated as a conservation area in 1986, but the destructive mining activity continued.  Various groups of ecologists and conservationists organised protests and petitions demanding that the Junta de Andalucía put an end to the clay extraction, and in 1994 a report by the Junta's own Environment Agency confirmed that the quarry was causing serious environmental damage and should be closed.  Four years later, after a lengthy court case, the mining consortium gave up and abandoned the site - but there was no requirement to restore it to its former glory.

Over the next few years Los Tollos was used variously for clay-pigeon shooting, off-road 4x4 racing, and the general plundering of nests and protected wildfowl.The tenacious ecologists didn't give up though.  With the Junta de Andalucía now firmly onside and prepared to make a substantial financial contribution, they managed to procure additional funds from the European Union's "Life" programme and begin the process of acquiring the land and planning the project.

Work began in the summer of 2013 to restore the hydrological status quo.  They had to pump millions of gallons of water out of the claypits and back into the lake, refill the pits with sand and the clay previously extracted, then remove the dyke which separated the pit from the lake to let the water find its own level again.  An educational programme was launched to engage the local population, who participated enthusiastically in the task of replanting trees and vegetation.  The total cost was around 8 million euros.

The restoration work was completed last week, and already the birds are coming back. Birding expert John Cantelo reports on his excellent blog Birding Cádiz Province:

"On my first visit in early April 2014 I found the place alive with birds once more, but, significantly, the high water levels were no longer simply a matter of fortuitous winter rain, but of careful planned management.  The birds included Purple Gallinule, over 30 Black-necked Grebes, half a dozen Flamingos, similar numbers of Spoonbill, a good variety of ducks (Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Gadwall, Shoveller & Mallard), a couple of dozen Whiskered and a few Gull-billed Terns, Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers, Collared Pratincoles and  in excess of 300 Coots (perhaps a hopeful sign that Crested Coot may soon return).  A subsequent visit in early May produced similar range of species plus several passing Curlew and Common Sandpipers and, best of all,  3-4 White-headed Ducks.  Some eight birds are present this summer and hopes are high that they may soon  breed once more.  Other birds present on the reserve this spring include Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Great-reed and Melodious Warblers.  Later in the season the tamarisks  here should also be worth checking for Olivaceous Warblers.   Black-winged Kite are present nearby and during passage almost anything might turn up.  I certainly found  much more of interest on my two visits to Laguna de los Tollos this year than I managed to find at Laguna de Medina, a much better known and more highly regarded site."

01 November 2014

No hay pan para tanto chorizo!

No, this is not a post about food.  "Chorizo", as well as being a famous Spanish sausage, is a slang word for thief (probably derived from the gypsy word chori).   The slogan is saying that there are so many chorizos in the country (in the form of politicians, businessmen and bankers lining their pockets)  that there isn't enough bread to go round.

But the chickens are coming home to roost. In the past month alone, 127 potential chorizos have come under investigation, 38  have been locked up and 37 have resigned from their posts.  A staggering 75% of cabinet ministers from José María Aznar's last PP government (2000-2004) are currently either in prison or under investigation.

The latest scandal to hit the country was Operación Púnica, an investigation into bribes for contracts. Last Monday saw 51 arrests in a sweep across Madrid, Murcia, Valencia and León last Monday.  Four have been held on remand, including two mayors. Millions of euros were found hidden in Swiss bank accounts.

Earlier in October we learned about the secret credit cards used by senior staff in Caja Madrid, one of the Madrid banks bailed out by the government.  Over 15 million euros were spent on clothes, restaurant meals etc; this perk came on top of their official expenses, for which they had a different card, and which were disclosed to the tax office.  One of them, former deputy prime minister Rodrigo Rato, has paid bail of €3 million and has been suspended from the PP membership.  His colleague, ex-bank president Miguel Blesa, couldn't raise his €16m bail and remains incarcerated.

Miguel Blesa and Rodrigo Rato in happier days- not smiling now.

The investigations into the hidden accounts of undeclared donations to the Partido Popular, revealed by former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas, roll on.  Last week it was revealed that work on their Madrid headquarters was paid for with "black money".  The former PP general secretary Angel Acebes was called to testify in the High Court but stubbornly denied all knowledge of the party slush fund, despite the mountains of evidence.  Current President Mariano Rajoy, who also denies all knowledge, was obliged to offer a public apology:
“I apologize in the name of the PP to all Spaniards for having given positions of responsibility to individuals who were not fit for it,” he said in the Senate, echoing earlier statements made by senior party official Esperanza Aguirre, the first member of the party to issue an apology.

Closer to home, former PSOE mayor of Jerez de la Frontera Pedro Pacheco has been jailed for five years for misuse of public funds.  In Andalucia, judge Mercedes Alaya continues to gather evidence that money
destined for redundancy payments and training courses for the unemployed right across the region found their way into the wrong hands.

Judge Mercedes Alaya with her
suitcase full of evidence

There are many more similar cases.  Every time you turn on the news, some new scandal has broken.  It's a healthy sign though; Spain can't move forward until all this poison has been exposed and expelled.  Meanwhile, some joker has speculated that with so many honoured guests expected, our prisons might be due for a makeover:

14 September 2014

CRECE-Empleo - Every little helps

Fifteen Alcalá women, who have all been unemployed for some time, have something to celebrate this week. They have been selected to take part in a nine-month training programme on basic restaurant and bar skills, comprising six months' theory followed a further three months' work experience in local businesses. During that time they will receive a grant of €400 a month. At the end of the period they will get a certificate (but no guarantee of a job). 

A further 125 Alcalá residents considered "at risk of social exclusion", including some with physical or mental disabilities) will get help from coordinators who will liaise with local businesses to find them placements according to their abilities.

The Chosen Few (plus a handful of politicians)
This project, known as CRECE-Empleo, is being funded 80% by the European Social Fund and 20% by the Diputación de Cádiz.   It is part of a further injection of EU funds to help the chronic unemployment situation in Spain.   €16 million was allocated to the Province of Cádiz, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (more than one in three people are out of work). This was distributed amongst the 44 municipalities in the province and Alcalá was awarded €82,169. Province-wide, the project should help nearly 2,000 people, as well as providing temporary work for co-ordinators and trainers.

The training programmes and participants are determined by the Ayuntamientos (town halls), identifying local needs and liaising with the private sector and non-profit organisations. Hospitality training was chosen for Alcalá because of plans to open a new service area next to La Palmosa industrial estate on the A381. This will be run by the hotel and catering group Grupo Abades, who operate a chain of roadside service stations across the country. There is no information yet on when this will open, though they appear to have started levelling the land.

Abades service area at Puerta de Andalucía, Jaén
Some might question whether taxpayers' money should be spent on providing local businesses with unpaid labour in their bars and kitchens (what will happen to their existing staff, most of whom aren't on secure contracts?) or subsidising the training costs of profitable national chains. But for these fifteen women, desperately hoping for a decent future, this opportunity has to be a step in the right direction.

07 September 2014

Feria in the '50s

Alcalá's August fair is one of the highlights of the festive calendar, with friends and families getting together for four days of eating, drinking, loud music, dancing and general merriment.   But it wasn't always like that and it wasn't always in August.  

Francisco Teodoro Sánchez Vera, an alcalaíno now living in Catalonia, describes the ferias he remembers from his childhood. 

 During the years of my childhood and adolescence in Alcalá, there was no fair in August. It was celebrated in May, and it was very different to nowadays. In those days the girls didn't wear dresses with frills, and you didn't hear sevillanas1 on the Paseo de la Playa. We had song and dance del gazpacho2 to the rhythm of verdiales or pasodobles, played by local groups with well-known musicians like my friend Jésus Sánchez, father of the great Alejandro Sanz.3 There were also flamenco shows in the Cinema Gazul, alternating with movies starring Miguel Ligero,4  the Lone Ranger or Fu Manchu. In later years, these spectacles took place in the more comfortable and luxurious Cine Andalucía.

In the mornings the fair kicked off in the Prado, from the Venta de Teneria to the mill of Manuel de la Jara. In this space, which stretched from the hill of la Salada [now C/ Nuestra Señora de los Santos] to the bridge over the Rio Barbate, livestock farmers, brokers, and a significant number of alcalaínos of all ages mingled with the numerous outsiders who came looking for business, along with hundreds of horses, cattle and goats. There wasn't much organisation; it looked more like a great improvised camp site than a market which had been legally constituted more than a century earlier.  At that time it was a livestock fair, very prestigious and long-established. The buying and selling of animals worked very well, many deals were done, and people moved from one group to another, curious to eavesdrop on the bargaining process, which always ended with a handshake.

Livestock fair in Olvera, similar to the one held in Alcalá

In the afternoon and evening, the focus moved to the Alameda and the Paseo de la Playa, and towards the Monte Ortega (the site of the current fairground). The feria was about wine and aniseed liquor, churros5 and candied pine-nuts, cones of shrimp and crab-meat, slices of coconut or fudge, and other forms of sweet pastries. There would be a circus in the Hoyo6 and bullfighting in the wooden bullring at the Jaras' mill. Hundreds of people would come into the town from the countryside, dressed in their best clothes. You saw the beautiful girls with their long glossy plaits and their demure, healthy appearance. For some, the fair was the only time in the whole year when they came down from the Sierra to the town.

When Alcalá was tragically depopulated in a short space of time, with its patios left half empty and its chozas7 abandoned, the animals who helped men with their labours in the field were no longer necessary. During this period [the 1960s], more than half of its men and women left the town. What remained is what is there today, because our town has, unfortunately, prospered little in the past fifty years, and what little prosperity there is, has been the knock-on effect of progress in the rest of Spain. The towns which surround us – Benalup-Casas Viejas, Paterna, Medina and Los Barrios - have all grown in population and commercial activity, in a very noticeable way. Alcalá remained dormant and continues so - due, or so I believe, to its inability to heal the tremendous wound which it suffered in its belly, a wound much deeper than in the surrounding towns, given that those places lost far fewer of their inhabitants. They did not lose as much young and vital blood as we did, and therefore have prospered much more.

With the fields empty and without the need for animals, celebrating the May fair no longer made sense. It deteriorated rapidly, and then disappeared completely. Various attempts were made to hold it on different dates, but it never found its ideal slot, for one reason or another. Today it has indeed found its place, coinciding with the holiday period of many alcalaínos who live far away, and it sits comfortably within the calendar of local festivities.

The modern fairs have lost their original function as a commercial event, and have been converted into a festive occasion, a gathering of social relations, organised for the enjoyment of the local people. Our town today has a fine fairground, in which groups of friends and families have places where they can meet up and have a whole year's worth of fun in a single week. Most of the women dress up in trajes de gitana8. They look splendid and are eager to dance sevillanas, or enjoy a glass of beer or rebujito9 with their tapas of ham or the magnificent local goat's cheese. They fill the streets and the fairground marquees with a spectacular range of colours and joyfulness.

The women are the same, the men are the same, but nevertheless the atmosphere of the Alcalá fair has changed. It is very different from the other towns in the region, a unique, generous pueblo, whose busy public spaces leave no-one indifferent, given that we have a Playa with no sea, and an Alameda with no poplars.10


1. Sevillana – a sociable, joyful folk dance in 6/8 time, seen at fairs and festivals right across Spain. It is usually performed in pairs, and involves a lot of twirling and raising your arms above your head. Tourists visitng Andalucía often mistake it for flamenco dancing; the style was influenced by flamenco in the 19th century but its roots are much older, derived from Castilian seguidillas.

2. Baile del gazpacho is an informal folk dance event, a bit like a ceilidh, Documents from 1839 record it taking place in Alcalá de los Gazules. The dances are performed by up to twelve pairs, accompanied by singing, clapping and guitar music. Verdiales and pasodobles are flamenco dance rhythms.

3. An internationally famous pop star whose family came from Alcalá.

4. A film star from Argentina.

5. Deep-fried strings of batter.

6. An excavated piece of ground, behind Pizarro's restaurant where the municipal park is now.

7. Rough dwellings used by agricultural labourers.

8. Gypsy-style flamenco dresses, skin-tight to the knees then flaring into elaborate frills, usually in brightly-coloured fabrics. Flowers and combs in the hair, shawls and enormous earrings complete the outfit.

9. Pale, dry “fino” sherry (e.g. Tio Pepe) served in jugs with lots of ice and lemonade.

10. The original meaning of Alameda was an open space surrounded by poplar trees (álamos).