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Yesterday morning I strolled from the market to the river, on the south side of town taking in the sights, sounds and scents of May along the way. What seemed like the longest, wettest and coldest winter since I moved to Andalusia finally finished a couple of weeks ago. Thank God that’s over was the general feeling sweeping through the pueblo. May has always been one of my favourite months in Conil de la Frontera. Spring flowers still abound for the first few weeks; the tourist season has yet to get into full swing, and the temperatures are mostly in Goldilocks mode. By the end of May the tall grasses have dried to straw and the flowers are nearly all gone, but summer is with us once more.
The Costa de la Luz is luckier than most of the rest of Spain as far as summer weather goes. However hot it gets during the day, temperatures drop to a very reasonable level most evenings. In May that can seem a touch chilly, when you’re used to the heat, but better that than lying awake, sweating much of the night.
The past couple of weeks I’ve been out with my lens trying to capture a taste of the month for my readers to enjoy. Though the bars and restaurants have dragged themselves out of hibernation to freshen up with a scrub and a lick of paint, the streets are far from overcrowded; most chairs and tables standing empty. The beaches only fill up over the weekends and are all but deserted the rest of the week. There’s plenty of room for even a herd migrating giraffes to stretch their legs, though we don’t get too many of those down this way, since the circus ceased its annual visit.
Talking of animals, May sees the start of the snail season. Not your hoity-toity escargots of France, mind. Conil snails are more your, any-old-snail-clinging-to- grass stalks-and anything-else-that-doesn’t-move kind of snails. And an awful lot of any old snails cling to stuff growing, or left lying about, round these parts. Locals prise them off to fill sacks. They peddle them to bars and restaurants, where they’re boiled up with herbs and spices following highly-guarded, secret family recipes. Afficionados have favourite snail slurping haunts to suck the little beauties from their shells and spoon up the snail juice known as licor, which is served in glasses. But snails aren’t the only culinary delight on offer in May.
May is also the time for the Almadraba, or tuna fishing season, which begins in spring. The Ruta de Atun – Route of Tuna – is an annual event to celebrate Conil’s historical association with tuna, which stretches back to Phoenician times. It started on May 8th this year and will go on until June 8th. More than thirty bars and restarants are taking part, all of which will be serving special fresh tuna dishes to mark the occasion. Tuna doesn’t get much fresher than this. At lunchtime, you can sometimes view flotilla fishing boats, out at sea, hauling in catches, from the restaurant and bar terraces. They work as a team. Though tuna is still an endangered species, it has recovered remarkably over the last few years. Eating it at the places where tuna fishing has been part of the local culture and economy for thousands of years, and where traditional methods are employed, is not the problem. Eating it where tuna is not a traditional dish, caught locally, is.
Friday mornings bring the weekly market to Conil. I’ve never been able to resist markets, and neither can the crowds of Conileños that turn up each week on the hunt for a bargain. My father ran stalls selling woollen yarn and nylon tights at Grantham and Coventry markets. Some of my earliest memories are of fetching jugs of sweet milky tea from a café kitchen with a dumb waiter. I’ve been going to markets ever since I learned to walk. From about the age of seven I started serving customers. When I lived in London’s Notting Hill I sold antique rugs and kilims, I bought in Turkey, on Portobello Road market for a time. The stalls in Conil mainly feature brightly coloured clothes, materials, some knock-offs made in China and shoes at modest prices. The traders used to pitch their tables by the beach, which was so much more Andalusian. A couple of years ago they were relegated to the outer edges of town by a busy road.
But goats and sheep still graze down by the beach. They’re usually among the dunes in front of the allotments, where locals grow vegetables and keep a few chickens.
Descending the little path down to the beach on the other side of town there are wonderful views of the estuary plain stretching out to a horseshoe of hills in the distance. The plain is a nature reserve, which serves as a stopping-off point for thousands of migrating birds in autumn and spring. On the other side of the River Salado the long stretch of beach stays relatively deserted even at the height of the holiday season, because of restricted road access. There are no bars, or buildings to spoil nature at its very best.
Back in the pueblo I went for a chlled fino at the Zurriagazo tucked just off Calle Chiclana at the fringe of the maze of lanes and alleys that make up the fishermen’s barrio. The atmosphere is timeless. Four men sat at a table playing cards. I ordered a fino from the cheery barmaid. Fino is the local sherry. Best served cold in summer, it is fairly dry with a hint of fruitiness. It reminds me very slightly of Kent scrumpy, for some reason, though it doesn’t blow your socks off in the same way. And then there’s the advantage of not ending up on your back, unable to walk, staring up at a starry sky, like I did somewhere along a country lane near Tenterden many, many summers ago last century. Some of the best fino comes from nearby Chiclana. The Zurriagazo is one of the few remaining bars in Conil that still draws it from a wooden barrel. I was on my second glass when the cook emerged from the kitchen bearing a couple of hot tapas. Some bars still serve free tapas on occasion, but they are few and far between these days. The cook asked the barmaid who she should give the first two, gesturing at a man seated on a stool next to me at the bar, and me. The barmaid said “Si” and “Si”. I said “No” and the barmaid said “Si” again. So I gave in and said “Si.” A few chunks of tuna in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and green peppers, it was delicious. It’s moments like these I know how lucky I am to live in Andalusia.
Copyright © 2015 Bryan Hemming
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