Saturday, December 30, 2017

An Alpujarran Experience

A beautiful day in Las Alpujarras
There are some specific characteristics that the people of las Alpujarras share. For example, it is traditional here to use and re-use, and then re-use for a new purpose, any item that is still usable.

Gates are often made from old bed springs and doors can show up in any number of places. We have a large concrete box that contains our water controls, and it is covered with two faded, non-matching, wooden doors that had been inside doors at some point in history. Fences are patched with any number of things - side rails from a child's crib, an old sign, or a rusted out wheel barrow. Bathtubs dot the landscape where they are used as water troughs for sheep or cows.

The history of this area is one of great poverty and the habit of using things for multiple purposes is likely rooted in that history, but it is also challenging to acquire and deliver materials, or to dispose of materials, and so using what you have is a reasonable thing to do. And we have learned that possessing new items, that are used only for the intended purpose, can raise suspicions. After all, only rich foreigners would do that!

Another characteristic, common in the people of las Alpujarras is generosity. This culture, with such a history of poverty, is nevertheless generous and people are willing to share what they do have with anyone who is in need. We have also seen this generosity in the giving and receiving of regalos, or gifts. If you give a gift, or otherwise assist an Alpujarran native, you can expect to receive something in return. 

This year I made two types of sweet nut breads to share for Christmas. I used our walnuts and for one batch I added persimmons and raisins, while the other loaves were made with dried cranberries and orange juice. 

Harvesting Persimmons

Orange season has begun!

The day before Christmas we distributed the breads to our various neighbors. 

One ex-pat couple sent me home with a lovely card and a box of tasty chocolates, another ex-pat family made ginger bread cookies and packaged them with a jar of homemade jam. Manuel invited us in for wine and thin slices of Pata Negra jamón - ham from pure bread Black Iberian pigs reared on the open range on a diet of acorns; a native of the Huelva province, Manuel reminded us that this is truly the best jamón, and we agreed! 

Jésus was somewhere on the mountain with his flock of sheep so we left the bread and a note card on the front seat of his van. Jésus is a native of las Alpujarras and was actually born in the house where we now live. He is our nearest neighbor and we enjoy hearing the sheep and goat bells each morning as he takes the flock out, and again as the sun sets, when he brings them back to the barn.

Yesterday we were working in the yard and Jésus was out with his flock. He climbed down the hillside to our back gate and we went over to greet him. He is patient with our limited Spanish and seems willing to have the same conversation about the weather each time we see him. 

After thanking me for the bread and declaring it muy bueno, he started to talk about pollo. We were not sure what he was saying but it reminded me that I wanted to ask about purchasing chicken eggs from him. He explained that his hens were not laying in the cold weather, and then we realized that he wanted to give us a chicken, as a regalo. We expressed great appreciation at this generous gift and it was determined that he would bring us a chicken mañana.

Then he asked, with gestures, if we knew how to kill it. Sam and I stuttered a bit; we hadn't killed a chicken, but we probably could. If we had to. Maybe. He watched us and then made it clear that he would kill the chicken, but that we would do the plucking and, we assumed, the cleaning. He spoke more about chickens at the supermercado being only 1 month old, but his was 6 months old and much larger. We thought we understood all of that and eventually thanked him again and bid him hasta mañana

Later in the evening I received a text from a neighbor; Jésus had stopped her on the track and asked her to contact me as he did not think I understood what he was telling me. Some of what he had communicated was that I needed to cook the chicken longer than usual because it is an older chicken and therefore a bit tougher than what I am used to from the grocery store. Hmmmm, Ok!

Last night I slept restlessly. When would the tough dead chicken (TDC) arrive? If it was just butchered it would need to be plucked and cleaned immediately. We would need a large bucket of very hot water to dunk the chicken in before plucking it. How would I heat up that much water with my various pots and pans? I dreamt about Jésus and in the dream he spoke fluent English, but he wanted us to practice our Spanish and that is why he pretends to not speak any English...finally it was daylight. 

We didn't know what time to expect the arrival of the TDC. We wanted to be ready and by daybreak had all of our pots full of water and heating on the stove. He said "mañana," but that could mean morning, or afternoon, or tomorrow!  We looked at YouTube to learn how to pluck and clean the chicken. It said not to feed your chicken on its last day, so we figured that must mean it would arrive early in the day. We turned off the boiling pots and busied ourselves in the back yard so we would notice when Jésus arrived. 

Using every pot in the house to heat water

Finally we heard Jésus' two miniature donkeys hee-hawing and then we saw his little white van making its way across the field above us. Gah, it's time!  

I re-lit the burners under the various pots of now-cool water and Sam and I went to the gate to receive our gift. Jésus carried an old feed bag that clearly had the chicken inside; remember, re-use everything! Sam took the bag, we each shook his hand, and thanked him again for the gift, recognizing that this is truly a kind and generous gesture, one that makes us feel very welcomed and accepted.

Sam retrieved an adequately-sized bucket and I carried pot after pot of hot water from the house to fill the bucket. Once filled, Sam dunked our TDC into the bucket, held it there for a few seconds and then placed it into another bucket and started plucking. It was amazing how easily the feathers came off. Next he placed the plucked chicken on top of an over-turned garbage can, in front of the woodpile, as you do, and completed the job of making our TDC look very much like a chicken from the supermercado. 

Ready, set, go!

Almost prepared

After some rinsing and then some additional rinsing, I covered our chicken with a dry brine solution and now it is in the fridge, wrapped securely in plastic wrap where it is brining and waiting to become our New Year's Day dinner. 

We are truly honored that Jésus shared one of his chickens with us. It seems that herding sheep does not result in any excess, and to receive this gift in return for our simple Christmas loaves, means more to us than he can know.

Jésus' donkeys with our Scottish friend


  1. Another wonderful story! (I loved the dream :) ) You are blessed living in a place where you can experience the joy of gift-giving-and-receiving in all its elegant simplicity. ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

    1. Thank you Nancy. Giving and receiving seem very straight forward and honest here. None of the societal cumbrances that exist in many places. If you need something, ask - if you have something, give. I love it.

  2. Nice--thanks for sharing this with me.

  3. Love reading your writings, Laura! You are a gifted writer! Enjoy hearing about all your adventures in daily life. The area is beautiful and it’s depth of quiet (missing all the sounds of ‘civilization’) brings peace to my soul! I especially like listening to the YouTube of sheep bells, it’s additive. Thank you for sharing your journey. Libby

    1. Thank you Libby for your kind words and thank you for following along! I am due to write another post. Last year everything was eye opening and novel; now it is just part of our normal life, but you remind me that others are interested in what we are doing here. Hugs to you and Bob.