Seriously slow food

Bring on the free food . . .

Mallorca’s long hot summer is behind us. Autumn has begun with some unsettled weather and storms, and the buckets are poised to catch the rain pouring through the roof into our home; this weekend’s forecast is looking rather grim. Six months after we applied for permission to repair our seriously leaky roof, and nada. Six months! We’re not the only ones seriously fed up with waiting to get the job done. Our local Mallorcan building firm would love to get on with the work and be able to invoice us for what is a substantial job. Might help his cash flow situation in these challenging economic times . . .

Free food anyone?

Anyway, I digress. Wet weather means free food . . . if you like gastropods. Heavy rain is the cue for snails to emerge from wherever they hide themselves when it’s hot and dry, and go for a glide (or whatever that forward motion that snails do is called). And there are hundreds of ’em. When the snails come out, so do the Mallorcans, on the hunt for a free meal. The French aren’t the only ones who love eating them: you’ll find snails on the menu of many restaurants serving traditional Mallorcan cuisine. People even drive out to the valley – presumably from the nearest town – to forage for the pot, abandoning their cars wherever they can to set off on foot with their containers. They’re easy to spot, as they weave slowly along the lanes, heads bent low to spot the gliding gastropods.

Bagsy those

One Sunday, we were out working in the garden and saw two elderly ladies slowly making their way up the lane towards our property. These were clearly accomplished snail-spotters, as they were bobbing up and down as they went (rather good exercise, I thought). As they passed our garden, we greeted them in Spanish and they stopped to exchange a few words. It was then that I noticed one of the women wasn’t carrying a container for her snails: she’d simply placed them all over her arm. Lots of them.

“Would you like a bag for . . . those?” The Boss asked, indicating her ‘passengers’. The lady accepted the offer and was last seen plucking the snails from her arm (I tried not to shudder) and putting them into the provided paper bag before continuing her quest.

Free they may be, but you won’t find me foraging for snails . . .

Are you being served?

No paperwork required from this local resident

An official-looking letter, attached to the gate of one’s property, is never good news, is it? That proved to be the case last week, when we found a notice from the Agencia Tributària de les Illes Baleares, wedged into the gate. It was written in Catalan, which meant we didn’t instantly understand it. Like many foreigners who move to Mallorca, we studied Castilian Spanish in  preparation for the move, not realising back then that Catalan – or the local Mallorcan dialect of it – is the official language. Interestingly, 25 per cent of the population in our municipality is foreign and probably more likely to speak Castilian than Catalan. I imagine that the sale of Catalan dictionaries is booming.

Paper, paper everywhere . . .

Luckily, we both speak some French which, with our reasonable Spanish, helps us to understand some written Catalan, but we still needed a session with the Catalan dictionary to work out exactly what this latest piece of paper (oh, there have been others) was all about. It seems that records of rural properties here need some considerable updating and this is an exercise to bring everything up to date (and make sure we’re all paying the correct property taxes). For people who have carried out illegal building works, it’s definitely not good news. Thankfully, our illegal building – a story for another day – was subsequently legalised (at great expense and effort).

Keen to get this all sorted as quickly as possible, we’ve spent quite a few days preparing all the documents that we’ve been requested to present to the local Tributària office within one month of the date of the notice. Photocopies of our deeds, building permits, receipt for local municipal taxes, identification papers etc have all been made. The Boss has been tying himself in knots with his steel industrial measuring tape, working out the dimensions of the rooms and drawing floor plans. And we’ve had to take photographs (size 10 x 15 cms specified) of every external aspect of the house and the small casita that houses our generator and solar power equipment.  It all amounts to quite a bundle of papers, that will join hundreds of others in the system and probably contribute to the loss of another rain forest somewhere.

Unwelcome news

We hadn’t been singled out for this special attention: within half an hour of digesting the contents of our notice, an English neighbour and holiday home owner here was standing on our doorstep, anxiously clutching his piece of paper, with no idea what it was about. It didn’t take long to find out that every property around us had also been served. There were international phone calls and emails to inform friends who own holiday homes here but are not expected to be back on the island in time to meet the compliance deadline.

It’s all taken a surprising amount of time over the past week. And that’s before we arrive at the Tributària office, where there’ll no doubt be a long queue awaiting us . . .

A rude awakening

Who said I can’t hunt here? Photo by Jan Edwards

Yesterday, the sound of two early morning gunshots woke me; I turned over and went back to sleep, wondering how the hunters can possibly see anything when it’s barely light. I’m used to the sound of guns going off these days but, when we first moved here, it was like living in the Wild West. At the first shot, I’d leap out of bed and crawl underneath it until the final shot had been fired. OK, that last bit’s an exaggeration but, when you’re not used to it, the sound of guns firing all around you – and the occasional peppering of lead shot on the roof of your home – can be a tad unnerving. And, in the various hunting seasons, shooting is permitted on Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and public holidays.

Run, rabbit, run

Some research I did, a few years ago for a newspaper article I was writing, revealed that there were then around 22,000 people in the Balearics with a gun licence. Not surprising really, as so much of the island is rural. Hunting and foraging are part of rural living for many and, although I don’t personally like hunting, I’m out there with the rest of ’em when it comes to foraging for blackberries or wild asparagus!

Back in our early time here, our valley – with its vast rabbit population – was a magnet for gun-toting Mallorcans: some even came by taxi from the Palma area to give their guns an outing. Most of these congregated at a nearby derelict property, which became known locally as ‘the hunting lodge’. Not all of them seemed to understand the regulations about not shooting close to properties or roads.

Of leadshot and Lycra 

Things have changed in our valley over the past few years: today, there are fewer rabbits around here to shoot (myxomatosis has taken its toll) and ‘the hunting lodge’ has been restored and turned into the country home of a Manacor family – who don’t hunt. The hunters are now more likely to be folks who live in the valley, shooting for the kitchen pot rather than for pleasure.

Whether it’s the reduced chance of bagging a bunny, or the higher cost of fuel to get here, there is definitely less shooting here now. Of course, it could be due to the increased interest in our valley shown by Seprona (the Nature Protection Service of the Guardia Civil, which polices rural matters, including hunting), after – so the story goes – a German cyclist reported a ‘leadshot meets Lycra’ experience while on a bike ride through the valley . . .

Got Shorty

Spot the kitten . . .

If you live in the Mallorcan countryside, you can probably expect to be ‘adopted’ by a feral cat or two. We’ve had up to nine outdoor cats living around our finca: a mother and her two lots of offspring. One of the second litter – now more than a year old – recently decided it was a bit crowded around here and left in search of his own piece of Mallorcan paradise. And then there were eight . . . but not for long.

The tiny ginger kitten we spotted under a shrub on our land was even smaller than Harry, the last ginger kitten that had briefly come into our lives. There was no sign of its mother or any siblings and it was clearly starving, as well as terrified. So we put out a dish of kitten food and did our best to make sure that the rest of the cat clan left it alone. After a few days, we noticed that Shorty – we weren’t going to name it, but had to call it something – was dragging a back leg. And despite appreciating the food, it didn’t want anything to do with us.

“We’ll have to get it to the vet somehow,” I said. We located and prepared the cat basket and The Boss set about catching Shorty. After a few failed attempts – I tried not to laugh, honestly – he succeeded. But Shorty had other plans, biting The Boss’s finger – twice – and making an escape.

No trip to the vet’s that day for Shorty. Instead, I drove The Boss into town to have a tetanus shot.

From swine to wine

Until we moved to Mallorca, I’d had few encounters with pigs (the four-legged variety, that is). Most memorable was when I was in a previous relationship: my then partner’s parents kept a sow.  When his father became ill, we visited frequently and, on one occasion, our visit coincided with the imminent birth of  piglets. We gamely agreed to sit in the pig shed with the enormous sow, to ensure that she didn’t squash any of her newborns (a not-very-motherly trait they apparently have). Watching those little piglets come into the world was a moving – and rather messy – experience. I certainly heard vegetarianism’s siren call that morning: I simply couldn’t face the enormous pile of bacon sandwiches that my partner’s mother served us when we returned to the house . . .

It’s a swill life . . . 

My next encounter was here in our tranquil valley in rural Mallorca. When we first moved here, a charming Mallorcan lady called Margarita ran a pig farm further down the lane. It wasn’t too far from our finca, but rarely did we suffer piggy aromas. Margarita’s husband had died from cancer but she continued to run the farm for quite some time, with the part-time help of a local man.

One of our regular walks is what we call ‘the triangle’, which takes about 25 minutes. Much of the walk is on tarmac but there’s also a rough old track that runs past the pig farm and this is probably the most interesting part. One day we were passing and Margarita called out from her doorstep and invited us for a tour of the farm.  We followed her into the huge barns behind the small house and were astonished to find that she had more than 200 pigs and piglets in her care. Now we understand why a lorry came twice a week to take pigs off to market; suckling pig – or lechona – is an extremely popular dish here in Mallorca.

When we left the farm (gulping in huge amounts of fresh air), I wondered how Margarita had managed to continue running the farm, with so little help. She couldn’t really even take a day off, let alone go and visit her sons (both of whom live abroad).

These little piggies went to market . . .

Pigs ‘n’ figs

Then one day, the pig lorry called for the last time. Margarita had had enough. Unable to sell the farm, she’d sold her stock and most of the pig-keeping paraphernalia, and went off to embrace the urban life.  A month or two later, we were at a wine-tasting fair in town and a well-dressed woman with immaculate hair – and beautifully manicured hands – came and greeted us warmly. It took us a few minutes to recognise this smiling, relaxed woman as Margarita, who was enjoying a night out with ‘the girls’.  We had another glass of wine to drink to her new pig-free life.Margarita managed to rent out her farm to a couple who have a home in town, but also enjoy part-time country living. They grow a lot of produce on the land and each winter they buy a couple of pigs, which seem to lead a contented – but fatally doomed – life in a field of fig trees, where they feast on fallen fruit in the summer. Until it’s time for the annual matanza . . .

One splendid sun . . .

Occasionally, we see the most spectacular sunset and Monday, September 3rd was such an evening. We’d had sunshine and showers (and a rainbow), and there were some very impressive (and some menacing) cloud formations around. So I took some photos to post on this blog, and also sent some to IB3, the local Mallorcan TV channel, which shows viewers’ photos as part of the weather forecast. Clearly, I was not the only person who rushed for a camera, given the number of similar photos shown on IB3 yesterday afternoon – but to my great surprise, they showed one of my pictures!

I once visited Key West, Florida, where I joined a crowd of people who applauded enthusiastically as the sun slipped into the horizon. It was a special moment that’s made me appreciate sunsets wherever I am. You won’t find me clapping my hands here in the Mallorcan countryside though as the sun disappears behind the valley ridge. The locals would think I was bonkers . . .

Fifty shades of cloud

Fifty shades of sky

Golden moments in our valley

Golden moments in our valley

Goodnight Mallorca!

Nuts about Mallorca

Our neighbours prepare to harvest their almonds

The repetitive clink-clink coming from the direction of the nearest farm means that it’s almond-harvesting time again. Mallorca’s countryside is renowned for its numerous almond orchards and, in particular, the magnificent sight of the almond blossom in late January/February. The locals say their almonds are the best in the world, and I wouldn’t dare disagree.

Fill ‘er up

Almonds have been a fantastically useful crop for a long time here. In the corner of our dining room is an old Hergom stove (sadly no longer operational) in which almond shells used to be burned to heat the house. I’ve even read that, back in the 50s, some people here ran their cars on burning almond shells. I have an image of passengers shelling almonds furiously as the driver progresses, so that their final destination could be reached. Given the record prices of petrol and diesel right now, it could be time to return to this practice.

Let them eat cake

The almond is a highly nutritious nut and the Mallorcans have plenty of recipes incorporating almonds – one of which is one of the island’s best sweet treats, known locally as gató. This is a delicious almond cake, usually served with almond ice cream. It should be made without flour, making it suitable for those on a gluten-free diet, but if you visit Mallorca and want to order this when eating out, it’s wise to confirm that no flour has been used. My father is a coeliac and during his visits we have sometimes come across versions that have some flour in them – presumably because flour is cheaper than almonds.

Almond oil can be used in cooking and also makes a wonderful natural moisturiser for the skin. I recently paid less than 3 euros in a pharmacy for a bottle of almond oil and a little goes a long way (especially if, as I did, you knock the bottle over and spill some!).

Bringing home the harvest

There are several ways to harvest almonds and most of the folks in our valley use the traditional methods: large nets are placed on the ground around the tree and long metal poles are used to bash a hailstorm of nuts to the ground. It looks like the kind of job that ought to require a hard hat, but health and safety rarely seems a consideration here. The more sophisticated farmers – or those with large orchards – use a tractor fitted with a device to shake the tree and a strange attachment resembling an upside-down umbrella, that catches the nuts.

As for us, we have nine almond trees on our land, although not all produce the sweet variety. Being the main consumer of almonds in our household (I have them every morning with fruit and yogurt for breakfast), it falls to me to harvest our nuts. Any day now, I’ll be out there, knocking the almonds from the branches using the plastic handle from my kitchen broom. No chink-chink here . . . more of a dull thud and a curse when an almond bounces off my head.

And then comes the laborious task of removing the nuts, first from their fibrous husks and then their shells. Given the speed at which I manage this part of the job, it’s a good thing we’re not depending on the shells for car or home-heating fuel . . .