martes, 10 de noviembre de 2009

Memories of Alcalá 15: Edible Wild Plants

Spanish original

In Alcalá there existed a rich variety of edible wild plants. They were eaten as wild vegetable produce or as seasonal fruit, much appreciated especially by the children. Nobody cultivated them and they appeared punctually each year on the commons and wasteland. The children knew them all, and on Thursday afternoons, when there was no school, we would go out into the countryside in search of its fruits. They were the plants which God gave to the poor and to the children, without anyone having planted them. In the postwar era there were many families who made a living from wild asparagus and edible thistles.

The most popular wild plant was always the asparagus [Asparagus acutifolius]. The asparagus plants of Alcalá were so famous that people came from far and wide to search for them or to eat them in the local restaurants. It has still not lost its prestigious reputation. It is a plant from the lily family, very common in the whole province, but the best plants were found in the interior triangle between Medina, Alcalá and Paterna. They called it espárrago triguero [wheat asparagus] because it was said that the best plants grew alongside wheat-fields. The plants produced their stems with the first rains and the sunshine of our region. There was a place between Alcalá and Paterna known as “Mesa del Esparragal”, i.e. a place full of asparagus. It was used in many incomparable home-made dishes; in stews, fried, mixed with scrambled eggs, served with hot gazpacho, made into omelettes ...

Another plant of well-deserved fame was the tagarnina [Scolymus hispanicus - golden thistle or Spanish oyster thistle]. It was given its name by the Moors: “ta-karnin” or milky thistle. It is a species of edible thistle belonging to the family Compositae. The stems of its leaves, stripped of their spines when still tender, are much enjoyed sautéed with other components of the famous berza alcaláina [a type of stew]. But it was also used in combination with asparagus-based dishes. It couldn't be used on its own, because it was a tough, wild plant which grew in the most difficult places. It was the cookery of Alcalá which made the most use of the tagarnina. In other places they didn't know how to combine it with the other ingredients of the berza.

The cardo [artichoke thistle] is similar to the tagarnina, but with more diverse uses. It has spiny leaves and round blue heads. It is scraped to obtain the clean fleshy parts and the tender, edible part is cut into pieces. It too is exquisite in the berza, but the fleshy parts are also fried at Christmas. The smallest ones are called cardillos and are also much used in home-made stews. There are many other types of cardo: borriquero, with curly, spiny leaves and purple flowers; corredor, with thorns on the edge of its leaves and spiny fruit; estrellado, with hairy stems, leaves and flowers with white spines; lechar, with a woody stem covered in sticky fluid, and orange flowers; and santo, which has a furry quadrangular stem, veined leaves and yellow flowers, and is used as a medicinal plant.

The palmicha, or fruit of the palmito [European fan palm] was much enjoyed, a type of sour berry which became sweet when ripe. They started off green, turned yellow and ended up red. The stems and hearts of the same plant were delicious too; today they are cultivated and I have seen them used in restaurants in mixed salads. But the cultivated palms never have that pure, wild flavour of the palmitos of Alcalá. With their leaves, the country folk made tomizas, plaited threads used to make ropes to tie up sacks or animals, or slings to throw stones. This was taught to us by the Romans and the name tomiza is Latin. The Roman soldiers used the slingshots as arms against the enemy.

The mirto [myrtle], a type of shrub, looked very similar to brezos [heathers], agracejos [berberis] or lentiscos [mastic]. It produced a small, round fruit with an agreeable flavour; they were deep blue covered by a whitish bloom. We ate them by the handful and our mouths would be dyed blue.

The majoleta or majuela was the fruit of the white hawthorn, a plant from from the rose family with white thorns, wedge-shaped toothed leaves, white flowers and a very sweet fruit. They released a sweet juice which made your hands sticky. In some places they are called wild plums. They are generally associated with the worm of the olive tree. In some zones they are grafted with the nispero [medlar].

The zarzamora or zarza [bramble or blackberry] was abundant in the gulleys, riverbanks and other damp places. It is a thorny plant of the rose family. The children liked it because it provided two edible products: one was the tender stems, before they hardened and became spiny. When the skin was stripped off they provided a pleasant but indefinable mouthful. But more precious were the berries, known as moras, shaped like little pine-cones composed of clusters of tiny fruit, with a delicious flavour.

Among the most popular fruits were those of the madroño [arbutus or strawberry tree], an evergreen shrub belonging to the Ericaceae family. It was very common in the shady mountains around Alcalá. It was associated with espino [hawthorn], [wild laurel], agracejo [berberis], and lentisco [mastic]. It was also found on the riverbanks with the adelfas [oleanders] and ojaranzos [rhododendrons].

This is a topic which deserves much more space, but I want to limit myself to what I personally remember from my childhood in Alcalá. There is much more to the local flora than all this. Another day we will devote some space to the trees and shrubs of Alcalá.

Translated by Claire Lloyd

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