The sands stretch for miles and the only soul availing of them was a solitary beach fisherman sitting beneath a large sombrero, watching his line.
It was hard to believe that only 48 hours before we had stood on our third floor balcony and watched the elegant trees in the formal gardens below us lash and bend as if they would be rooted from the earth and sent flying over the turreted rooftops and Berber-style chimneys of the small apartment buildings in the complex. The wind howled and the tops of the palms tossed like demented Medusas’ heads, their leaves reflecting the street lights and clashing and slashing like swords in the turmoil of battle. If any late-migrating swallows wanted a tail-wind to carry them across the Straits to Africa, they certainly could have found it. The sheer ferocity of the gale was awesome and all night long the sea, 200 metres from our windows, soughed and boomed.
On the following day, rain deluged down and thunder roared. But for the relative warmth, we might have been back in west Cork. We sat indoors in half-light, amusing ourselves with crosswords and books, and watching the weather forecasts on TV.
As predicted, next day brought mixed weather. In a window of sunlight, when we walked along paths amid the scrub that divides the sands from the low-rise complexes that edge the beach, I caught a glimpse of a lizard species I had never seen before, dark green with vivid green spots. When I’ve finished this column, I will go and look for him again.
The ‘wildlife’ here includes free-range retinto cattle, red or black, with wide, pointed horns. A distinctive breed, they wander in foraging herds across the dry plains or through the cork oak or umbrella pine forests, remaining in the open all year. The calves stay with the mothers and it is the bulls that provide the meat which the Spanish (and the Portuguese, for retintos are also cultivated in Extremadura) hold in high esteem for it delicate flavour deriving from the wild plants, acorns, shrubs and berries upon which the cattle feed. The meat is tender and fine-grained. We tried some and, indeed, found it to be so.
Another culinary speciality of this Atlantic coast between Cadiz and Tarifa, is tuna. Zahara de los Atunes is the name of our local town. Spain has many “Zaharas” but this one has been dedicated since Roman times to the capture of giant blue-fin tuna on their annual migration from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in spring and their reverse migration in winter.
Blue-fin is a threatened species but the local economy relies on the traditional harvest. Huge nets are drawn between boats to trap the fish in the Almedraba, a name deriving from the Arab word for ‘hitting’, because previously the fish were clubbed to death; nowadays they are gaffed and pulleyed aboard. Blue-fin can weigh up to 300kg but can be butchered by the local ronquedores in a matter of minutes. Over centuries, the method of dividing and filleting the large fish has evolved into an exact, almost ritualistic science.
The sound of the knife cutting through the tuna is so unique and intense that it is called ronqueo, which means ‘snoring’. Much of the harvest is exported to Japan. I believe Japanese boats stand offshore, ready to ice the fish for fast carriage to the Tokyo markets where blue fin is the most favoured and expensive of all fish, eaten raw in sashimi or sushi.
Meanwhile, on the television, we see that the island of El Hierro, next door to our familiar haunt of La Gomera, has been suffering earthquakes, mainly occurring offshore, but the people are preparing for worse and more fearsome tremors to come.
El Hierro, about which I’ve written in these column, is quite unlike the holidaymaker’s pictures of a Canary island and is reminiscent of Connemara or the Burren, with small, green fields divided by stone walls and grazed by Friesian cows. It is a small island; there is little space to which to retreat in the event of seismic upheavals. We hope, for our erstwhile neighbours’ sake, that these will not happen.