I’m just back from my second trip visiting a beautiful village, Pozos de Cabrera, located in the mountains of Northern Spain, in Castille y Leon province. As in so many places in the world, they are struggling to keep their cultural knowledge alive, still in first-person memory, as their young people immigrate en masse to urban areas. This remote community still lived a pastoral lifestyle until as late as the 1990’s with ox-drawn carts, and mostly self-sufficient lifestyle raising sheep and goats, gardens, grain, flax and wild-forage. It has been a difficult and sudden loss for the people who remain in these remote villages.
I returned this year to see if there might be a way to support efforts to capture and restore the plant knowledge. I have been hosted both trips by Esmeraldo Otuerela and Laura Leffingwell, who run Esme Tours, a name that does not adequately describe the unique experience they offer. They generously supported this return trip with a greatly reduced fee, and organized my meetings with key people. I chose August because this is the time the families return to these now nearly abandoned villages. Those that have left are often nostalgic about these mountain homelands and hold on to their family homes, often restoring them as summer homes. You can read about my first visit and impressions which led to this trip in my post from last year.
For this trip I was joined by Wendy Delaney, a pediatrician from Atlanta, Georgia, who read about this project from my post last year. She has been involved in missionary work in South America, and has a good perspective on cultural sensitivity, and an interest in herbal knowledge. She is also a frequent visitor to Spain and speaks Spanish fluently which was instrumental to this return visit.
The village was full when we arrived, in marked contrast to my previous visit. Families all come together at this time, often now dispersed to various places around Spain and Europe, so this is a time of reunions and festivities. Cars and ATV’s crowded the tiny streets, and groups of all ages congregated in places throughout the village. The ‘bar’ in the plaza only opens in August, selling beer and wine, candy and ice cream, and is the only retail business in the village, other than the girls selling lemonade, considered quite American!
During this time I was privileged to be able to meet with some of the amazing people working to keep the knowledge alive. Within hours of our arrival we were taken around by villagers to be shown plants and their uses. We met elders who lamented the impacts of newly introduced cattle herds on the hydrology and plants, as well as roadside maintenance mowing their plant resources.
Esmeraldo, our host, invited us to go to a Book Fair in Truchas, the main village of La Cabrera region, where there are stores, schools, library and council offices, and so, out of curiosity, we joined him over the next two afternoons. I was surprised and pleased to realize that the books at the fair were all by local authors who were there to talk about their work, and were primarily about the history of the region. There were also numerous books on the language of the region, Leonese, which has been distinct to the area, and being taught locally in the school. Wendy often did not recognize words and realized that they were speaking in this rare dialect. Esmeraldo, who is well regarded, introduced us to many people there, explaining our interests. During these conversations, one man offered to teach us willow basketry, to Es’s surprise, who had not realized he carried this knowledge, which led to our basketry experience documented below.
After our first visit to the book fair we went to a nearby bar, and again ran into the people we met at the fair. Importantly, we were introduced to Ivan Llabo, who helped organize the fair and very involved with cultural preservation. Wendy helped me query him about whether plant knowledge was being collected along with what we had seen, as I had not seen any focused references on plants. We learned that though an ‘etnobotanica’ book on plants was in development, they lacked the time to do the necessary interviews, as the few people actively involved with the cultural work, most of whom I’ve now met, either this trip or last, primarily now live elsewhere, returning to their home villages periodically.
I asked if I might help by bringing students to help conduct the interviews and he was enthusiastic about this. This scenario was just what I had hoped for- rather than attempting to organize an effort as an outsider, instead support existing efforts. I also know that the people involved are interested in all aspects of plant uses, fiber, dyes, woodwork, basketry and more, as well as the medicinal and food uses typically studied.
We returned the second evening to the book fair, this time knowing that there was going to be a ‘reading’ of one the books by the various contributors, including a cousin of Esmeraldo. This was followed by music, which turned out to be an amazing educational presentation of the ancient musical instruments of the region, including a square double sided drum, a handmade hide-covered violin as well as a washboard and spoons. I am constantly reminded while in Spain, how much of our culture in America was shaped by the early Spanish influence, predating the English. We felt very fortunate that the timing of our visit allowed for this opportunity, not intended for tourists, but for their own cultural preservation. It reminded me so much of what I’ve seen within tribal communities here in the Northwest.
We also met with Demetrio Fernandez, a priest (also referred to as a monk) who returns at various times of the year to his home in the village, from Madrid where he teaches. He met with us outside his village home which is very photographic, and after talking for a while, pointing out plants in his garden outside the house, he took out his keys, appearing to get ready to leave. Instead, he brought us into his home, which other villagers marveled at later, since they had never been invited in. As a monk it is apparently his place of sanctuary. He wanted us to see the simple way in which he lives, and his herbarium sheets, which he uses as a form of wallpaper, on the walls and ceilings, which he described as keeping the plaster dust from falling. He shared some herbal handouts he uses in his teachings about herbs, which he conducts around Madrid and during the culture week in Pozos. We used these handouts to guide some of our herbal experiments while there.
We spent one morning collecting some of the plants along the pathways of the village, finding wild mints, calendula, greater celandine, St. John’s wort, elderberry, and even some Oregon grape berries which were planted as landscape plants, and unknown to the villagers as food (they were quite concerned when I ate some), though they recognized my reference to berberine in the bark. Over the next few days we made oil infusions, juices and syrups from the berries we collected, as well as a delicious jelly from the Oregon grape berries, now a new addition to the Pozos menu!
We took a day trip up through the Cabrera valleys, past the vast slate quarries, and over a high mountain pass into Galicia, visiting Ourense, driving along the beautiful Rio Sil gorge, dotted with hot springs. My primary interest for this day trip was to get a lay of the land, to gain understanding the relationship between Cabrera region and their connections to the Galician coast which abounds with seafood, a major part of the Cabrera diet, brought fresh to the village in food trucks. In Ourense we found a hot spring which had a public pool along the river, and for a 5 Euro fee, private pools of varying temperatures, with showers, and steam rooms. We spent a couple of wonderful hours there, then walked on the ancient Roman bridge the city is known for, and traveled back to Pozos through the Sanabria valley between Cabrera and Portugal. In this region we spotted a couple of small fires close to each other, and wondered about them, also noting the hills criss-crossed with wide roads I realized must be fire breaks, speaking to the hazards of fire in the region.
The next day we visited the Toro region, which is a ‘Designation of Origin’ for the Tempranillo grape, brought back from obscurity to produce the red Toro wines unique to Spain. We visited one of the oldest vineyards of the region and shown the incredibly unique soil, a very sandy loam, with a top layer of rounded, small rocks which help to heat the soil, and learned about the specific agricultural practices to grow these grapes (no irrigation, chemicals or trellises). We had a gourmet tailgate picnic, provided by Nicole who operates the ‘Spanishpalate’, and was our host for the day, standing in the vineyard, tasting a variety of Tempranillo wines with some of the beautiful cheeses of the region. We even sampled some of the grapes fresh from the vine, which were deep purple and sweet, just weeks away from harvest. We followed the grapes to a modern winery where they are stored in oak barrels, then bottled and shipped around the world.
Back in the town of Toro we visited one of the many ‘wine caves’ which exist under the ancient homes, very complex systems which included stone chutes to unload the grapes from the street, massive grape presses to create the juice which traveled down stone troughs to the cellar where they were stored in huge oak barrels until ready to drink. Prior to glass wine jugs, they were distributed in the hides of sheep or goat, the legs sewn shut, and filled like balloons with wine, the neck serving as the opening. These cellars were a lovely cool place to get out of the heat of the day, hovering in the 90’s that day.
The village of Toro was in the midst of their weeklong August festivities, the bull-run had occurred the day before. Today was the Paella contest, with teams creating huge platters of rice and seafoods to be judged. This was followed by a wine fight, where everyone gathered in the square, and to loud music, threw wine at each other. Yes. Big tanks of wine people used to fill their water guns and buckets. The fire trucks joined in with water hoses until everyone was completely drenched.
The next day, back home in Pozos, we readied for the basketmakers to arrive to show us baskets. Esmeraldo is famous for his cooking, so coming for a dinner was just compensation it seemed for our basket lesson. Es and his helper, niece Laura, prepared for the dinner all day, creating an amazing Paella, along with lamb and other feast foods.
When Candido and Seforino arrived with their bundle of fresh willow I was thrilled, as I had thought starting baskets at 6:30 was probably a bit late and perhaps it would only be a show and tell. But no! Dinner doesn’t start until at least 8PM in Spain so we had plenty of time. They showed us the techniques which I found unique to the region, and exactly as I’ve seen in the museum, and which makes use of smaller, field harvested willow. We quickly had two sweet baskets which we put to use the next day to harvest from Esmeraldos amazing garden. We had just enough willow left to show our host Laura how to make one on our last morning there, helping us to reinforce what we had learned (and what we didn’t!).
Throughout this time, we were fed the most amazing foods. I had asked Laura and Es if we could focus on the more traditional foods of Cabrera which I knew to include wild meats, garbanzo, grains and greens such as chard, though potato and tomatoes have taken center stage, as elsewhere in the world. Es is a fabulous chef, internationally known, and he made us rabbit, partridge, tongue, fish, prawns and lamb dishes with garbonzo, lentils, beets, chard, carrot, fresh beans, melon, and more in so many fabulous dishes. I am still sorting out all of our meals and attempting to create them myself. The gardens were full of fresh tomatoes and new potatoes so they were also a delicious part of our meals, and definitely part of the traditional foods today.
In the last days we were there, those tiny fires we saw in the other valley became part of a huge fire which swept through the Cabrera region, west of Trussachs, not far from us, which burned over 10,000 hectares, in the land through which we traveled on our day trip to Ourense. It is now a disaster area, the rains filling the rivers with black ash and mud presenting an environmental crisis in the area which is still unfolding. I wonder if plant restoration, teaching gardens and others might be of interest in the future there as well.
I finished my trip with a full day in Madrid, where I geeked out on their amazing botanical garden, the Prado Museum and their Archeology museum, as well as great food and wine.
In conclusion: by any standard, this trip was a success for me, and was so almost immediately, as my primary interest was figuring out a way I might be able to use my ethnobotanical experience to help preserve the plant knowledge of the region.
I will be working with our contacts there to see if I can organize a return trip, probably earlier in the season this time, when the plants are present, and less visitors in the village to allow time to interview the year-round residents, if they’d like us to help with that. I imagine there are other possible projects as well, such as restoration projects, field assessments, education gardens, etc. Numerous ethnobotany studies have concluded that tourism can play a role in preserving these regions as people come from Madrid and other urban areas to reconnect to their land, and with a new interest in traditional foods and medicines restoring the plant knowledge could contribute to the economic revitalization of this region. I can imagine a role in suggesting ways to do this, as one of those tourists, without damaging the authenticity of the truly unique region.
Please email me if you are interested in participating or supporting these future efforts.