Exploring the Sierra de Grazalema from a home-from-home in Benamahoma

Cadiz, sierra, Sierra de Grazalema

You can see for miles from Puerta de las Palomas (1,639m), in the Sierra de Grazalema.

Benamahoma

The pool at Calle Real 66 – always the top attraction for children. Not a bad view, either.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara, from the snaking Grazalema road.

pretty wildflower

Nearly nine years ago I went to a small pueblo blanco (white hilltop town) called Grazalema in Cadiz province on a chilly November weekend, to see a friend’s photography exhibition. While I was there, myself and my then-boyfriend made a spur-of-the-moment decision (on my suggestion) – to get engaged. No bended knee or engagement ring, just a “Let’s do it!”. Families were informed excitedly by mobile phone, and a guest list and possible dates and venues drawn up on a napkin. Our wedding the following summer was a wonderfully English day (with some Spanish spice) of castle and pub, jamon iberico and salmon, sunshine and showers. But that’s another story.

You won’t be surprised to hear, therefore, that Grazalema, which sits in a lush national park where eagles soar and wild boar roam, holds an important place in my heart. I haven’t been back since that weekend, but recently I was invited to stay in a house in a village called Benamahoma, which is close to Grazalema.

The walk up to Punta de la Paloma viewing point.

The walk up to Punta de las Palomas viewing point, with baby pinsapo firs.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

Craggy outcrop - dramatic scenery of the sierra.

Craggy outcrop – dramatic scenery of the sierra.

The Sierra de Grazalema has truly spectacular scenery – all windy, zig-zagging roads and jaw-dropping views across vast valleys and up sheer granite cliffs, with splashes of vermillion pink from wild oleanders. This area is famous for its pinsapar, a pine forest with a species of fir tree only found in this part of Andalucia, at 1000-1700m above sea level – the pinsapo. While you need a permit to enter the forest, you can see examples of this rare species by the roadside and at viewing points along the road, such as Puerta de las Palomas on the Grazalema – Zahara road.

I had never heard of Benamahoma, but I know the prefix “Ben¨-” means son of, as it’s quite common here in Andalucia, which was ruled by the Moors for eight centuries.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, in the Sierra de Grazalema, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its natural spring water.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its pure natural spring water.

One of Benamahoma's restaurants with terrace.

One of Benamahoma’s restaurants with terrace.

As we followed the windy road from the nearest town, and gateway to the Sierra, El Bosque, Benamahoma itself was hidden from view until we came round the corner and suddenly saw a higgledy-piggledy line of white houses, strung out along the side of the hill. We drove up the main street (well, the main of two streets) passing pavement cafes, stone hillside plazas, along hairpin bends and up steep slopes. At the top of Calle Royal was a house with a blue front door, number 66. This was to be our home for the weekend.

Each floor has its own balcony-terrace - this was the top floors, outside our bedroom.

Each floor has its own spacious balcony-terrace – this was the top floor one, outside our bedroom.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

As the house is on a hillside, overlooking a wooded slope opposite, the view is one of its best features. Below you have a pretty terraced garden, sloping down to the pool, refreshingly green and bursting with glorious flora and foliage, from bougainvillea to roses; beyond, allotments of vegetables owned by Benamahomans, and then the tree-covered hill stretching up to the sky. Each of the three floors has a long terrace-balcony stretching along the width of the house, with plenty of room for chairs and tables, so you can sit outside and soak up that natural scenery.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen and view to garden.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen, and door to balcony with view of garden.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

The top floor has four bedrooms, three doubles (one with access to the balcony) and a single, along with a bathroom. The sitting room is on the ground floor (also with balcony access), with an open fireplace, sofas and a dining area; a hatch connects to an excellently-equipped kitchen – as well as the gas cooker and oven, fridge and microwave, there was a juicer, coffee grinder, two hand blenders, loads of pots and pans, earthenware cooking dishes, and some pretty chinaware and glasses. You can have fun trying out Spanish recipes using wonderful fresh local ingredients.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible to my son.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible for my kids.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections on the ceiling.

Essential for younger visitors (like my children), there are plastic bowls and glasses, a notch up from your standard, ubiquitous IKEA fare. In the basement there’s a TV room with wood-burning stove, two squishy sofas and arm chair with big foot rest. Very cosy for wet winter evenings, and there’s a double bedroom next-door with plenty of DVDs and CDs. A door leads from here to the lowest balcony of the three, and down into the terraced garden, with the pool at the bottom. Altogether, nine people can sleep in the house comfortably; for the four of us, it was like being in a palace.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of bougainvillea.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of vibrant pink bougainvillea.

You can tell that someone has lived here – the New Zealand owner comes back every summer – as it doesn’t haven’t that anonymous, purely-for-rental feel. A pretty sunhat hangs on the wall, which was indispensable for me while watching the children in the pool under the hot sun. Lots of good reading material, including books on Arab history and Spain, and a library of DVDs, as well as menus for the village restaurants which featured dishes made with local wild game – venison, wild boar and rabbit. Good hearty fare, with fish-eaters like me being lucky to try trout caught in lakes and rivers in the area, which has the highest rainfall in Spain.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely - we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely – we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

I love attention to detail in a house, and this one had colourful traditional tiling along the bottom of the wall, with plenty of small tables for leaving keys, books and mobile phones, lovely bold print cushions, and lamps for soft lighting. The furniture was mostly dark wood, but without being too heavy, backed by white walls and some decent paintings. Glazed cupboards are such an attractive way to store china, glass and linen. In the garden, and on the terrace-balconies, were plenty of chairs and loungers with cushions and mattresses for the ultimate in chill-out-with-a-fab-view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies take full advantage of the view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies to take full advantage of the view.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

Pool with sunloungers.

Pool with sunloungers – it’s the perfect size for children, and to cool off from the Andalucian sun.

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

But what the children had been terribly excited about, right from the moment I told them where we were going, was the swimming pool. You don’t need much else with children, other than a volume of water. View? Not interested. Flowers? Ditto. But endless jumping, splashing and diving possibilities? It’s an unequivocal, resounding “Yeeeeessss!” every time. We had brought a li-lo, ball and some diving toys, and they were happily occupied for several hours each day, while I had one eye on them, and the other on the view, gorgeous orange irises and my copy of Grazia. The steps in the garden are steep and a little perilous in some spots, with no side protection, so this garden might not be suitable for very young children, or those with mobility problems. Also, there’s no WIFI or satellite TV, which didn’t bother us, although some might find such media disconnection tough to cope with.

 

The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

Over the past few years I’ve heard many people talk about a restaurant called Al Lago in Zahara de la Sierra, another white town, this time located on a lake . After taking one of the most spectacular roads in Andalucia (the CA531, in case you’re interested), which offers jaw-dropping views of the extraordinary-coloured Embalse de Zahara – a deep shade of torquoisey-green, thanks to the copper deposits, spread out like a long jagged Damien Hirst splash among the crags and creeks, with tiny islands just offshore you can swim to – we arrived in Grazalema and found El Lago. The restaurant has a wonderful shady, breezy terrace above the road, overlooking the lake.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zajhara.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zahara.

The lunch menu had an interesting selection, including pulpo a la gallega, slow-roast lamb and tandoori salmon. We tried a selection of cold tapas – cheese, ensaladilla, roast peppers, anchovies, and a rice salad, while my daughter snaffled all the olives. The food was extremely good, if considerably pricier than what we’re used to in Seville tapas bars. The owners, Goan-Pakistani Mona and American Stefan, also have some bright and airy rooms, with lake views.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

Then it was time to head off Grazalema – we didn’t make a nostalgic trip back to the hotel where that fateful decision was made, or the bar where we celebrated afterwards, but we did wander round the main square, Plaza de España, where there was a painting competition, and saw a beautiful old fountain, and a shop selling hand-made wooden toys including some wonderful plush bits of mini-fruit in their mini-wooden crates (and some toy wooden guns – this is a major hunting area).

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese made from payoyo goats' milk.

Cheese made from milk of the payoyo goat.

Street in Grazalema.

Typical narrow cobbled street with white-washed houses.

Grazalema is also known for its wool blankets in earthy tones, but what got me excited was a sign saying “cheese”. La Casa de la Abuela Agustin had payoyo cheese galore – mature, semi-mature, with herbs, as a cream in a jar. Payoyo is a strong-flavoured, aromatic cheese from Cadiz and Malaga provinces, made from milk from the payoyo goat. As a cheese-lover, I bought a big chunk with tomillo (thyme), and the cream, which we tried last night with gnocchi – it was fabulous, with a deliciously rich flavour.

Christians' shield.

Christians’ shield, as used in the Moros y Cristianos festival in Benamahoma in August.

Moors' shield

and the Moors’ shield.

Moor's gun with beautiful inlaid handle.

Moor’s gun with beautiful inlaid handle, made in Morocco around 100 years ago – decorative only.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

That evening, back in Benamahoma, we were taken on a tour by Quitin, the man who looks after the house for its New Zealander owner. We visited the headquarters of the Moros y Cristianos group, which puts a festival with street battles between the two sides every August, fighting in honour of the patron saint, San Antonio. They showed us the outfits (formerly woollen tunics for Christians), helmets, swords, shields, pennants, and guns – the Christians’ are working weapons, like blunderbusses, which fire real gunpowder, while the Moors have exquisite inlaid wood, but non-functioning, arms made in Morocco. Battles from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Christians expelled the Moors, are re-enacted by the villagers, as hand-to-hand fights, with positions in each force being passed down through families as with hermandades. Benamahoma is the only village in western Andalucia which celebrates this type of festival, popular in Granada, Jaen and Almeria provinces – this year, this delightfully eccentric event takes place on 1-3 August.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Quitin showed us the bullring, where the Moros y Cristianos festival kicks off on the Friday night; this was also the scene of a dark chapter in the village’s history about which, most unusually, Quitin was happy, and indeed, keen, to talk to us: the Civil War. Villagers were shot there, and now next door you can see a memorial garden, Parque de Memoria Historica. Even the existence a place of peace and remembrance is a political act in itself, as there are many who would rather forget that period entirely. The small garden is visually striking, with a sculpture depicting rows of people carved into family groups within each other, and more sombrely, profiles of people lined up against a white wall.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

The effect is extremely moving – there’s no information, numbers or names, but the mere acknowledgement that atrocities took place here is a major development for Andalucia, and a poignant reminder of tragic events in this secluded and quiet village, nearly 80 years ago. It’s the sort of place you might not find if you weren’t being shown around (or reading this); knowing important details about a village’s history makes staying there a much richer and more fulfilling experience.

Spring in the village, which is known as "El Nacimiento" (the birth).

Spring in the village, which is known as “El Nacimiento” (the birth).

Further on, passing the last few houses, we saw the “Nacimiento”, a spring from which bubbles the purest, most crystal-clear water – there are vast underground reservoirs in the area. The village’s name means “son of Mahoma, or Mohammed”, as its natural water source was highly valued by the Moors, for whom water was important for a number of reasons: visually – in gardens, with soothing trickling fountains and long symmetrical pools; spiritually, for washing before prayer; and for life – their agriculture and irrigation systems were highly sophisticated and some channels still survive today. An abandoned trout factory has left a large intact stone building, used as a laboratory, and all the square pools where the water still runs, but any fish there are free.

Christian-Moorish lock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol - uniting the two religions.

Christian-Moorish clock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol – uniting the two faiths.

Back in Benamahoma, you can see many references to the village’s Moorish past – both plazas have horse-shoe shaped arches, most famously seen in Cordoba’s Mezquita. It was almost dark by the time we ended up at Plaza de España; the chapel next door, Quique told us, is called the hermita-mezquita, and has the typical Muslim symbol, often seen on the rooves of minarets, of three balls topped by a crescent.

This combination of Christian shrine with Islamic symbolism was another motive for pondering Andalucia’s ever-complex and shifting relationship between past and present. The little chapel plays a part in the Moors and Christians festival – on the first day, (**spoiler alert**) the Moors win, and they take the village Virgin here: on the second day, (**ditto**) the Christians are conquered, and they take her to the church, which is attached to the bullring. A neat balance between eastern and western faiths.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

On Sunday, we were lucky in that the village romeria passed our house just as we were about to leave, and the little procession caught me unawares so I ran out of the door in bare feet clutching my camera. The Virgin and saint rode in their carts; some people, including young children, rode horses; the women wore flamenco dresses and flowers in their hair, and sang traditional songs.

This is authentic rural Andalucia, a small, friendly, pretty village, which makes a perfect base for exploring the area – the Sierra de Grazalema is a hiker’s paradise, and other towns you can visit include Ubrique, Cortes de la Frontera and Ronda, not to mention the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, another forest with great walking paths and picnic spots. The house itself is cleverly prepared to cater for hot weather (shutters, pool, lots of garden furniture, air-con) as well as the inevitable rainy or cold days (two fireplaces, comfy sofas,TV and DVD library, books). And there are plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance – an essential element of any Andalucian holiday.

Important note: If you’re going to this area by car, be aware that the road from Zahara following the southern shore of the lake (CA 7375) eastwards is closed due to a bridge in need of repair. You can take the CA531 back again from Zahara, but we trusted to luck and turned off where the road was closed onto a track which looked well-used (the locals’ temporary alternative), indicated by coloured markers along the way, which went over the mountain and rejoined the CA5311.

Calle Real 66 in Benamahoma is available to rent by the week.

For more on the Moros y Cristianos festival, visit their website.

 

A day with the goats – free-range foodie fun

Goats doing what they love best - climbing.

Goats doing what they love best – climbing.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The finished product: delicious Monterobledos goat's cheese.

The finished product: delicious Monte Robledo goat’s cheese.

Readers of this blog will know that I like my food, especially if it’s from a small local producer, and that I also love days out and trips with my kids, even more so if we’re “close to nature” and eating is an essential part of the experience. So going to an organic farm with the kids to make goat’s cheese – what could be more free-range, foodie and fun?

A few months ago we went to the Sierra de Aracena for the day, to Finca Los Robledos near the town of Aracena – around an hour’s drive from Seville. Down a bumpy country road, then a narrow farm track with a little stream flowing next to it, we finally arrived at the farm. Our hostess and guide was Maria Jesus, who owns the farm along with a cheese shop in Aracena. It’s a family affair: one of her sons, Manuel, looks after the goats, along with his girlfriend; Maria Jesus and her husband, Rafael, make the cheese; and her other son, Miguel, runs the cheese shop in town – his daughter was there on the day we visited, and she played happily with my two children.

But Maria Jesus is definitely the brains and the driving force behind the operation. An energetic, sharp-witted, creative woman, she is full of tales of when her father ran the farm – it was sold to him by a terrateniente (landowner) on very fair terms (unlike today’s endless horror stories of banks, mortgages and evictions). In fact, her family has been making cheese for five generations.

The cheese world in the Sierra de Aracena is a small one, and it turns out another favourite cheese of mine, Doña Manuela, is owned by one of Maria Jesus’s brothers; Manuela is their mother’s name. Both Monte Robledo, Maria Jesus’s cheese, and Doña Maneula are certified organic, as both herds of goats graze on the same pasture – her farm is part of a 400-hectare plot of land divided between the three siblings.

Zac greets a goat - they're such friendly creatures.

Zac meets a goat kid – they’re wonderfully friendly creatures.

Maria Jesus’s herd of goats numbers 150, and she makes 10,000 kilos of cheese every year. The goats wander on the grassy hills around the farm by day, grazing on wild plants including acorns which makes them produce greater quantities of creamy milk, full of protein and with a fantastic taste. The goats are milked by machine every morning, munching on a snack during the process to keep them happy. Maria Jesus explains that it’s quicker and less painful for them, with silicone teats like those on a baby’s bottle. The goats are friendly, nuzzling me and the children; some of the kids, whose mothers wouldn’t feed them and had to be hand-fed using bottles, are downright cheeky and head-butt us.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Then it was Lola's turn to milk the goat - she was a natural.

Then it was Lola’s turn – she was a natural.

Zac has a got at milking the goat.

Zac has a go at the “squeeze, pull”.

We all try our hand at milking – Miguel shows us how to hold, squeeze and pull the teat in the right direction, with pressure in just the right spot. I worry about hurting the poor animal, but a warm jet of white liquid spurts out and Lola shrieks with delight. Her little hands manage to produce some milk too, though Zac finds it trickier.

Zac in the kitchen garden - lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Zac in the kitchen garden – lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Then Maria Jesus shows us the kitchen garden, a long grassy sloping area where they grow tomatoes and other vegetables in summer. The scenery is beautiful – lush grassy hills covered in oak trees, and today the sun is shining so it looks idyllic. There’s a small patio, with low buildings on one side: we visit the little museum, which is chock-full of fascinating old agricultural implements. I love places like this – finding out how people lived and worked in these hills years ago. If you visit their shop in Aracena, you can see more such vintage farming tools.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar in the farm’s museum.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey - this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey – this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An old cooking brazier - hot stones placed under, pan on top.

An old cooking brazier – hot stones placed under, pan on top.

Maria Jesus picks up a scary-looking metal collar with long spikes which looks like a medieval instrument of torture. It was for the dog who looked after the goats, to protect him from wolves – a serious danger to livestock until only a few decades ago. Other antique contraptions in this cave of wonders are a hand hay-baler; an iron cooking brazier; a mill for grinding cereal to feed the pigs; an entremijo, a wooden tray used to separate curds from whey when making cheese (read on for more about this process); an iron plough; and glass jars full of dried herbs such as arnica and hierbabuena (mint) collected by her mother (the mint still has a strong smell despite its years). It puts the farm into a historic context, which seems a wonderful idea and makes our visit that much richer.

The we go into the dairy – this is unashamedly modern, with stainless-steel vats for making the cheese. The milk is filtered when it comes out of the goat, and then heated gently and stirred with big paddles. When it is hot, rennet is added to make it coagulate, and then it is “cut” with a metal implement with blades called a lira.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

The cuajada (curd) and suero (whey) are gradually separated (the latter is fed to the pigs, as it’s high in protein), until you have a creamy, dense-textured white mass which is pushed into small plastic moulds with slots for the whey to drain out. The cheese is turned over every day, and after 20 days you have a semi-curado cheese. If you want a stronger fill-flavoured cheese, curado, you leave it for at least 50 days; for larger cheese, the process takes two to six months. Herbs can be added, such as rosemary or oregano, pimiento or black pepper.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

Next it’s time to meet the Iberian piglets – born just four days ago, they confirm my non-meat-eating beliefs more than ever. I make sure my kids, entranced by the sight, realised these little darlings could be the jamon on their tostada one day. WARNING: gratuitous cute animal photo.

cerdo iberico

Reason #27 why I don’t eat meat.

A pail of fresh goat's milk, ready to be made into cheese.

A pail of fresh goat’s milk, ready to be made into cheese.

Rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The magic ingredient: rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The milk is thickening.

The milk is thickening.

Straining the mild to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Straining the milk to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for: after milking the goats, and playing with them, seeing how the cheese is made, and all those old implements, it’s our turn. Maria Jesus heats up some fresh goat’s milk (the very same stuff that we extracted earlier, or so I like to think), and adds the vegetable rennet, made from a plant called cardoon. The milk starts to thicken and she “cuts” it with the spoon, and then when it has curdled, and gone nice and lumpy, the curds are separated from the whey and we’re each given a little plastic pot-full of cheese to squash down. The process looks so simple, with only two ingredients – milk and rennet – but obviously you need to know exactly what level of heat to use, what temperature the milk needs to get up to, and when to add the rennet.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squeeze the last whey out of it.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squash the last whey out of it.

Zac's cheese, all ready to take home.

Zac’s cheese, all ready to take home.

Lola with her cheese - it didn't last long.

Lola with her cheese – it didn’t last long.

We squish our cheeses to get the whey out – a top activity with my children, unsurprisingly – then we pop lids on, write our names and listen to Maria Jesus’ careful instructions to keep the cheeses in the fridge, and turn and drain them every day for five days, adding salt, then put them on a plate covered with clingfilm. The children’s cheeses didn’t make it home in one piece, as queso fresco - fresh home-made goat’s cheese – is just too delicious to resist, but I kept mine for a month and when I finally gave in, it was fabulous (if I say so myself). And anyway, food tastes so much better when you know exactly where it came from, and what a happy, free life those goats lead.

Maria Jesus is a mine of information about everything from the history of the area, to which types of her cheese sell best where (the markets are king), to her collection of philosophical frases (sayings) on the farm’s website. She is an immensely kind woman, and generous with her time, which makes this a perfect family day out in my book.

A visit to Finca los Robledos costs 2 euros; cheese-tasting 3 euros without wine, or 5 euros with wine; visit with cheese-making 5 euros; visit, cheese-making and tasting 10 euros; and all the above with lunch (goat stew, naturally), 20 euros. They’re well set-up to cater for groups, with a large dining room.

If you want to stay in the area, I can highly recommend Posada San Marcos in nearby Alajar, or for self-catering, Monte Mateo in Navahermosas.

You can buy Monte Robledo cheese at the Monte Robledo shop, Calle Concordia 18, Aracena (tel 959 128 994); in the Alameda organic market in Seville on the second Saturday of every month, and the Aljarafe organic Market in Gines on the third Saturday of every month.

You can see Maria Jesus making cheese in this video.

Five lies we tell our kids (and the ugly truths behind them)

As every parent reading this will be fully aware (as well as those who work with children), sometimes, when dealing with small people, we have to be economical with the truth. So for a change in tack from my recent run of Seville and foodie posts – and inspired by, while in no way claiming to be on the same level as, my new favourite mum blog, The Ugly Volvo – I have put together a list of scenarios when telling a porkie pie (cockney rhyming slang: look it up, or take a guess) is perfectly admissible to get you out of a deep, dark parenting hole. You know, the situation where you can see nay a glimmer of light, only the blackness of shame, despair, and an endless vista of bickering, screaming children. (Or is that just me?)
Oh, what a shame. There's none left!

Oh, what a shame. They’re all gone!

“There’s none left”
You’re on a long car journey, where carefully timed snacks are as essential to a convivial environment as separate colouring books and pens, sugar-free drinks, and The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr Seuss Classics played on loop. Then it turns out that the kids are especially partial to your favourite stupidly expensive exotically-flavoured gourmet crisps. “But what’s wrong with your Fair Trade low-salt wholegrain rice cakes?” you enquire. When they clamour for some more of those delectable honey-roasted parsnip, cardamom and curry leaf munchies*, you put on a sad expression and sigh, “Sorry darling, they’re all gone“, while tucking the remaining half-packet down the side of your seat and smiling inside in a crazed, Dawn French chocaholic way: “Ha, suckers, they’re all mine!”
Ice-cream shop - tantrum central.

Ice-cream shop – tantrum central.

“The ice-cream shop’s closed”
You’re walking round the centre of town on a day out, it’s nearly lunch time and the last thing you want is that they spoil their appetites for the meal you’re about to enjoy together on a rare visit to a proper restaurant. The ice-cream monster child (there’s always one) sees the ice-cream shop that you had noticed and surreptitiously crossed the road to avoid, quickly pointing out an interesting shop-window display of flamenco dresses with matching accessories, or toy cars and aeroplanes (excuse the gender stereotyping).
The ICMC demands an ice-cream. “Oh what a shame – it’s closed,” you say, looking sympathetically at a hopeful little face. “But I can see people in there, Mummy,” counters the ICMC. (Damn! Think fast.) “They’re the people who make the ice-cream,” you explain. (Phew!) “Can we go and watch, Mummy?” “Ah, but it’s top secret,” you reply, sounding mysterious and important. “Noone is allowed to see. We’ll come and have a look later, when they’re finished.” In other words, after lunch, by which time it doesn’t matter anyway. Crisis averted.
road, journey, trip

“Not much further now, guys!” (Where the f*** are we, anyway?)

“We’re nearly there”
You’ve been in the car for four hours, the kids are getting restless – OK, let’s be honest, World War Three is about to break out, with hostilities that would otherwise necessitate UN intervention. Everyone’s sick of Dr Seuss by this point (no I DO NOT LIKE green eggs and frigging ham), all the other CDs are scratched (note to self: must get MP3 for car), all colouring books have been exquisitely rendered, and even Eye Spy’s attractions have faded. The road you’re on and the map you’re using seem in no way related, and you have no clear idea where you are at this moment, or where you’re supposed to be going.
But you’re not going to tell them that. Oh no. With a convincing, practised air of cheery confidence you say, “Not much longer now, folks.” They break off from bashing, poking and the irritating the hell out of each other for a few precious seconds to look out of the window. “Nearly there, my arse,” you think to yourself. “If you believe that, you poor gullible fools…” A least it’s bought you a brief break from the battle – distraction is the key skill in any such drama.
The Ultimate Carrot - technology is a great motivator for children.

The Ultimate Carrot – technology is a great bribe motivator for children.

“Yes, I’ll get you an iPhone/Nintendo DS”
You have unavoidably been put in a situation where you have to take your child to a business appointment. Child has been heavily bribed to behave nicely, to the extent where you have promised him/her the ultimate prize, the current obsession – whether it be a Barbie, bike or iPhone; Nintendo DS, Wii, or PlayStation – so that they do not cause you embarrassment and ruin your meeting. Of course, you have no intention of buying child said much-desired toy or gadget yet (you’ve agreed in principle), but they don’t know that, do they? After the event, if the child kept his/her end of the bargain, the time frame of the reward fulfillment will be expanded to next birthday or Christmas. “Yes, well, I never specified exactly when I would get you it, did I?”
"If you're Not Good, you won't be geting any of these."

“If you’re Not Good, you won’t be geting any of these.”

“If you don’t do what I say, no presents”
It’s the last few weeks before a much anticipated gift-rich event – birthday, Christmas or other major festival. Your children are hyped with anticipation to the point of driving you mad – ignoring every request, command, suggestion and other attempt to control their general insanity. “Right, that’s it, if you do that one more time, there will be NO PRESENTS.” A look of horror spreads over their adorable countenances, as dreams of all those toys and games, so long desired, crumple and disappear.
You know perfectly well that you would never do such a cruel thing to your little darlings. But they don’t – and they always fall for the threat (take my word for it). However with tidying up, “Do it now, or the toys go in the bin” – as threatened with remarkable frequency in my house (by my husband) – no longer works now, as the kids are wised up to the fact that Mummy would never allow it. A Spanish friend told me about an old schoolmate  of hers, whose kids are astonishingly obedient. My friend (who has three under 6, including 3-year-old twins, and is no slouch when it comes to discipline) asked her ex-school friend how she did it. Simple: the threat had indeed been carried out, and toys disposed of. Yes, really. Harsh, not to mention wasteful (I hope they found new owners), but effective.
By contrast to these lies, damned lies, I confess that I am brutally honest with my children on some subjects and in some situations. I have ensured, for example, they are fully aware of the fact that their (maternal, British) grandparents are getting on and will not be around for ever. I have warned my daughter against her current obsession, getting a kitten, seeing that one of our dogs has a strong hunting instinct and loves pouncing on small animals and playing with them in a not-entirely-friendly manner. He could well treat a baby cat in the same way as the rodents who are sometimes foolish enough to venture into our parcela: with no mercy. Basically, I told her it would be very sad for everyone concerned, especially her and the kitty, if small feline came to a sticky end.
Right: I’ve laid bare some of my parenting inadequacies tricks. Why not let us in on yours? How do you keep mayhem at bay in your house? Or are you one of those sickening wonderful families where no one ever shouts or argues, and everyone does what they’re told first time? Do you have a radical strategy like my friend’s ex-school chum?
* Please don’t try to find this flavour, as I made it up. Although I van vouch for the general fabulousness of Tyrell’s vegetable crisps.

My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.

Festive Seville: Mapping and Food Fairs

Happy New Year to all my lovely readers! I hope you had a wonderful festive season, spending lots of time with your friends and family.

A couple of posts ago, I listed all the events that were going on in Seville over the Christmas period.

Although it feels odd still to be talking about last month, I thought it would be fitting to report back on how they all went. I will try to avoid to less obviously festive aspects of our adventures, as I don’t know about you, but I have a serious dose of the January post-Christmas blues.

Flower-covered facade of Ayuntamiento.

Flowers projected onto the rear facade of the Ayuntamiento.

Ayuntamiento, mapping

Meccano construction on the Town Hall.

The Mapping

This is a (free) show of 3D-laser video projections on the rear facade of the Ayuntamiento (town hall), watched in Plaza San Francisco. This was not as imaginative or spectacular as last year’s, which also had more detail and was more technically impressive, and I thought it seemed longer too. However it had some great set pieces, like the Scalextric track with cars racing (video below, quite loud – be warned!), and the sweeping tour of some of Seville’s monuments: Plaza de España, the Atarazanas, Torre del Oro, and Triana Bridge (video also below). But there was no fake snow at the end, alas.

Scalextric section

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=776TXAWFNCg&w=420&h=315]

Seville monuments (watch from 9:20)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JRGThE5aaQ&w=560&h=315]

The markets

We managed to get to three food markets, the first two of which are annual events, so they’ll be on again next Christmas.

The location of convents which make and sell pastries around Seville. Most have their own shops, and many bakeries stock their goodies too.

The location of convents which make and sell pastries around Seville. Most have their own shops, and many bakeries stock their goodies too.

We started off with the convent pastries in the Alcazar, made by nuns in 24 religious establishments located around Seville province. These include seven in the city (see map above), and one in Estepa, which is particularly famous for its mantecados.

What a magnificent setting for such dainty confections, with the colourful tiles and high ceilings of the palace’s long Renaissance salons, which were lined with tables piled high with pretty white and pink boxes.

mantecados, polvorones, Christmas, Alcazar, Navedad

Sweet treats: convent pastries on sale at the Alcazar.

These traditional Christmas shortbread-type biscuits have wonderful names like huesos de santos (saints’ bones) and coquitas de la Habana (little coconuts from Havana). Thankfully they weren’t all laden with pig fat – manteca (lard) is one of the main ingredients of crumbly polvorones (also known as mantecados); some came in vegetarian versions too. Other ingredients typically include egg and sugar, with some spice or pine nuts.

The annual Seville Province Gastronomy and Handicrafts Fair.

The annual Seville Province Gastronomy and Handicrafts Fair.

We briefly visited the Provincia de Sevilla craft and gastronomy fair, held in the patio of the Diputacion (Provincial Government, one of four levels of government in Spain – over-stuffed civil service? really?). This always takes place over the last two weekends before Christmas.

In a crowded, covered space, the average age of visitors seemed to be around 60, so two small, rampaging children intent on running everywhere at high speed, were a dangerous addition to the mix. Before retreating to a less risky area, we spotted lots of delicious local goodies, some of which were taken to the UK as Christmas presents.

Bodegas Salado's cava was popular with the crowd at the Seville Province fair.

Bodegas Salado’s cava was popular with the crowd at the Seville Province fair.

Among the stands of Seville-made produce, we saw olive oil, honey (orange blossom, rosemary and eucalyptus), cheese, embutidos (sausages), and wine. Bodegas Salado, in nearby Umbrete, make a variety of wines, including a cava. Their stand was mobbed by thirsty pensioners desperate for a free copa de vino. But I managed to elbow my way in and try some. Not Catalan, but perfectly acceptable. This bodega offers tours – on my list for 2014.

Spanish food, Portuguese food, Santa Cruz

Spanish-Portuguese food and craft market in Santa Cruz.

Then we moved on to another food market, this time in the patio of a school in barrio Santa Cruz. This was organised by EuroAAA, the Euro-region of Andalucia-Algarve-Alentejo (southern Spain and Portugal). In a large, open space, this was much better for the kids, who could charge around without annoying anyone – there was even a face painter!

Little Portuguese cheeses, a snip at 1 euro each.

Little Portuguese cheeses, a snip at 1 euro each.

We got some delicious little Portguese cheeses, as served with bread and butter as an appetizer at many Algarve restaurants (although no sardine pate, sadly); Flor de Sal, prime sea salt, produced in the salt flats at Castro Marim, just over the Portuguese border (as always, the Portuguese owner of Agua Mae, Luis, spoke excellent English); and Monte Robledo cheese, a tangy favourite from the Sierra de Aracena, made of goat’s and sheep’s milk and rolled in rosemary, oregano or paprika.

Riding a camel on the Alameda. As you do.

Riding a camel on the Alameda. As you do.

Nothing like a good, old-fashioned funfair ride to fill a small person with seasonal joy

Nothing like a good, old-fashioned funfair ride to fill a small person with seasonal joy.

We also did the camel ride in the Alameda (the Reyes arrive on camels, so they’re a big part of Christmas here). They take three children each, one of the hump and one either side. This was a huge success, despite (or perhaps because of) the half-hour wait; and we couldn’t resist some funfair rides too. The colour and excitement, and exotic treats like riding a “ship of the desert”, are such a wonderful part of Christmas for kids. Seeing the delight on their faces is present enough for me.

What we didn’t manage to see/do: ice-skating at the Prado or the Setas (son); the Mudejar Belen at the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba – a model of Seville in post-Moorish times (me). Next year!

Coming up in next blog posts: the Norfolk coast, and the Cabalgata de los Reyes in Gines.