Friday, May 30, 2014

Esparto, wine and oil

Life in 1950s Britain was pretty grim for many people –  ringworm, houses with only cold running water and outside toilets. I just about remember it and I'm sure some of you do too. Imagine living in Pinoso, or anywhere in inland Alicante, in the same period. Think how isolated the place must have been with only dirt roads, no cars to speak of and no electricity. You couldn't make a living then by selling houses or designing websites. Three key local industries were wine, olive oil and esparto.

Olive oil is still produced in inland Alicante. In Pinoso I think we have two oil presses, or almazaras, one at Casas Ibañez and one in Culebrón. Olive oil production hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. Basically the olives are washed, crushed and then spread on woven fibre discs which are squeezed to press out the oil.

Wine continues to be a big industry although the donkeys mules and carts have been replaced with trailers and tractors. Some farmers still prefer to pick the grapes by hand but most have changed to mechanical harvesters. These shake the vines so the grapes drop onto a conveyor belt that takes them to a holding bin inside the harvester. No more collecting the grapes in big woven baskets. The cottage industry earthenware tiñajas down in the cellars to store the wine have been replaced with temperature controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks and oak barrels. The initial pressing of the grapes wasn't done by hand it was done by foot; by stomping on the grapes wearing alpargatas the local woven soled shoes.

Those alpargatas, very similar to the jute soled espadrilles, the baskets slung across the donkey's back and the fibre discs were all made of esparto. Esparto type products can be made from various grasses but the local one, logically enough, is called esparto. In fact esparto was used to make hundreds of things on the same principal that once made oats a staple of Scottish diets. It was to hand.

The esparto grass was collected and damaged stems discarded. Next it was dried for forty days in the sun until it was golden brown. The dried grass was then wetted again so it recovered its flexibility. There were two main esparto production methods. In the first the grass was wetted for a couple of days and then braided into wide strips by plaiting between thirteen and nineteen strands. The second was to leave the grass to soak for forty days before beating it with a wooden stick on a tree trunk to separate the individual fibres of the grass. This crushed esparto could then be woven into different plaits using anything from three to eight strands. Distinct braids were used to make different products, or different parts of the same finished item, with the braids being sewn or woven together to give the right shape.

Esparto items are still produced on an industrial scale but lots of the everyday items have been replaced by cheaper, better or more durable products. Hobbyists and craftspeople still make esparto products in the traditional way which is why they're occasionally on sale at the town market and always at the craft fairs and mediaeval markets.

So the next time you buy an esparto mat or basket remember you're buying a product as traditional as the glass of monastrell I'm sipping as I type.

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