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MORAN: Experiencing the culture, food and history of the Spanish desert

January 04, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


I have spent nearly seven weeks traveling Spain. My latest stop has been my favourite so far, and the first to exceed my expectations. The culture, food, and history of the province of Almeria will be hard to top.

Since I am having an extended stay in Spain, the majority of my trip is spent in remote areas volunteering on small organic farms. This is a great way to save money, stay fit, and experience the legitimate local food and culture.

The main product from this farm is oranges. A typical year in Almeria has a few days of rain, and the most sun in all of Europe. The garden is nestled between desert ravines and is designed to take advantage of the natural surroundings and the limited rain available. The garden could be up to one thousand years old. It was originally built by Arabic people, who inhabited the south of Spain for centuries ending roughly 600 years ago. The design of the garden would be classified as what is now called permaculture, but this is a new term for something that has clearly been around for centuries (probably much longer).

Although Spain is known for consuming incredible amounts of meat, our diet here is vegetarian. This means the majority of our food comes from the property. For breakfast we have guava jam on homemade bread with fresh orange juice. This afternoon I collected a salad with wild herbs growing amongst the orange trees. Our seasonings come from olive oil, tomatoes, and Mediterranean herbs from the farm and the surrounding desert.

After a day of work we spent the late afternoon hiking the ramblas. This is the name for the dry riverbeds dispersed across the low regions of Spain. The annual rain occurred one week before Christmas, and now is the best time to observe the temporary growth spurt of wild herbs. Most of these plants will not grow in the summer and many of the recently sprouted greens will only be there for a few weeks. There is wild thyme, lavender, rosemary, asparagus, and an assortment of edible and toxic plants with centuries of lore and history for each one. One herb was used for abortions, one shrub has apparently poisoned an entire Roman legion after using it to cook meat over the fire. Another will shed salt from its leaves and discourage any plants in its immediate vicinity.

This farm has a rainwater collection system, but in the past there was only one season to grow a crop. The fields were directly beside the dry riverbed, and could be irrigated one time when the annual rain arrived. One of the first things a person will notice as they trek up the ramblas are the remains of old walls. There were gates in these walls to control the flow of water to the adjacent field.

Compared to the rest of the country, this region is sparsely populated. Many of the classic spaghetti western movies were filmed here because of its resemblance to the American desert. It may be too hot in the summer for some people, but the climate in winter should be agreeable for anybody. If you want to get off the tourist trail and see a unique corner of Europe, Almeria is the place to do it.


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