"If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”
Friends who know that Jamie and I are plant based eaters asked how we’re managing in Mairena, the tiny Alpujarran village where we’ve spent the last 5 months. Our answer is, “Surprisingly well!” This region of Spain grows about 50 percent of Europe’s produce making it plentiful and inexpensive for the local residents.
My dad used to do the grocery shopping in our family and he’d spend Saturday morning at three or four grocery stores to take advantage of their weekly specials. I’ve always done the same thing but I shop with a different purpose. I like different stores for different products. Even in tiny Mairena we’re still sourcing our food from at least three places each week.
La Tienda de Maria
Amalia and her mother, Maria, run the only shop in Mairena. Their tienda is tiny. You might be able to take 12 paces from the entrance to the back of the store but only if your shoe laces are tied together. Side to side maxes out at eight steps. I’m amazed at the variety of foods packed into the limited space. It’s like a household pantry times six.
Part the swinging chains that discourage the flies and you’re face to face with the produce “department,” a rack of four shelves and a few crates stacked on the floor. Early in the week (Monday afternoon) there will be plenty of freshly delivered potatoes (one type), onions, tomatoes, eggplant, Italian peppers and sometimes zucchini. Sporadically, we can get mushrooms, avocados, broccoli, celery, and sweet potatoes. Then there’s the seasonal produce - melons, cucumbers, mandarines, asparagus, grapes, and pomegranates. Later in the week, the now vacant produce shelves are stocked with miscellaneous staples. Last week it was bicarbonate of soda and Stevia.
Turn left, no need to move, just turn, to find rice, dry beans, cereals, flours, and pastas. There’s always one or two choices of each: garbanzo’s and white beans, paella and long grain rice, spaghetti and ziti.
Breakfast cereals include Special K, corn flakes, and cocoa puffs. Okay, I lied. There are three choices of cereal. And at least four choices of cookies. Sugar-based edible food-like products occupy a lot of shelf space, like in every grocery store in the world.
Take one step beyond the cereal shelf to pick up your laundry soap or paper towels. Then, turn right at kitchen sponges for your hair dye (really).
Lean a bit forward and you’re in the meat department where chorizo and blood sausage always seem to be front and center. Salted fish too. I only know this because produce is weighed at the same scale used for the meat. Additionally, there’s a small freezer stocked with seafood, meat, and frozen pizzas.
The right side of the store is the busy side. The aisle is a bit wider. It holds alcohol, sugary beverages, condiments, snack food, candy, and Twinkie-like individually packaged sweets. Oh, and canned beans, tomato sauce, and spices.
The only tienda in Mairena may be tiny but, each week Amalia and Maria bring us back to their shop with a welcome even warmer than the friendliest Trader Joe’s team member. When they can’t make change or if we don’t have enough cash on us (everything is cash), they set us up with a tab. When we were looking for dried tomatoes, Maria dipped into the personal stash that she’d put up from her garden last year. She offered preparation advice too. You don’t get that at Safeway.
We’re not limited to Maria and Amalia’s shop. Every couple of weeks we get a lift to Ugíjar for quinoa, chia, oatmeal, oat milk, yeast, whole wheat flour, brown rice, and cat supplies.
The Fruit and Vegetable Van
Refrigerator space is limited around here, in the shop and in our casita. So by the time Friday rolls around, the supply of fresh produce has gotten thin and mostly droopy. That’s when Miguel arrives with his van full of fruit and veg to set up on the church plaza.
At 12:30 pm Jamie and I grab our bags and make the steep climb to the upper village. There’s always a half dozen or more apron-clad ladies who’ve arrived ahead of us and are already scattered in twos and threes around the plaza. We find out who is last in line, pick a place in the sun, and wait.
It can be a long wait. Some of Miguel’s customers want to inspect each tomato, discuss the relative virtues of red versus yellow potatoes and otherwise occupy 15 to 30 minutes. No one minds waiting. In this time of Covid, produce shopping is the main social event of the week.
Miguel actually has a broad selection of vegetables on offer. We can give our cooking some variety and pick up those vegetables with a shorter shelf life such as spinach, chard, or broccoli.
Bread and Fishes
The fish truck comes Monday through Saturday around 10:00 am. He annoyingly announces his arrival with his horn blaring as soon as he’s in sight of the village. We don’t know anything about his products because we don’t care.
The bread man also comes Monday through Saturday, but around noon. I used to lament that the driver didn’t make a noisy fuss like the fish vendor because I'd always miss him. Then I figured it out. The baker only sells white bread baguettes (also known as pan de abuela or grandmother’s bread) . I have to really, really want his bread. We rarely do, because...
We’ve had two sources of healthy homemade bread. Alistair, the hotel chef, was baking weekly batches. Now, Jamie is finding great pleasure in turning out his own artisanal loaves.
Las Chimeneas Garden and Finca
We arrived in November just in time to harvest almonds, pomegranates, grapes, and chestnuts from the hotel farm plots near the village. The olive harvest came next. And the Las Chimeneas garden produced herbs all winter long: sage, cilantro, parsley, mint, basil, bay leaves, and spring onions.
These days we’re collecting oranges and lemons right off the trees in any quantity we can consume. After a brief pause in February, arugula or garden rocket is again abundant. In a week or so fresh red leaf lettuce will be ready.
In the Fall, our hosts, David and Emma, took us high in the mountains to seek the yummy wild mushrooms we used to see in the Valencia food markets. I can’t remember the cost per 1/4 kilo but it was pricey enough that they remained a mystery. Naturally, I was eager try these gold plated fungi.
We had no success on our one foraging trip, but, two days later David surprised us with a sack. Apparently, someone in the village found a mother lode. We immediately sautéed them and ate them straight from the pan. They were tasty.
Borage is my new favorite. I never knew anything about this medicinal plant but both the flowers and leaves are edible and rich in vitamins and minerals. I don’t actually forage for it because it is growing wild in the hotel garden. If the garden didn’t exist I could find it along any hiking trail.
I sauté the leaves and add them to soups, stews, or anything that calls for greens. Some describe the flavor as “cucumber-like.” I just know that freshly sautéed borage added to a soup adds a new and delightful richness.
Wild asparagus season spans March and April. I took advice from successful foragers, watched Youtube videos and we set out optimistically with two bags. Initially, we were not rewarded. Only when Emma and David took us by the hand did we find any. Wild asparagus are quite thin and we were disappointed that they don’t have the flavor of the domesticated plant. I’m not sure foraging is worth it.
Next up will be the wonderful summer cherries and figs. If all goes according to plan and we pick up stakes soon to continue our nomadic lifestyle, we’re going to miss their bounty.
Taking this Experience Forward
When we arrived in Mairena we didn’t know we’d be harvesting, foraging, and taking Moroccan cooking lessons. We didn’t know the pandemic would last so long and that we’d have so much time to test recipes and bake bread.
David offered us a garden plot but we declined. We weren’t planning to be here for the harvest. Now, we regret we didn’t plant an olive tree. The way things are going, we joke that we might be around for its first crop.
When we do start traveling again, we know we want to look for ways to be closer to the sources of our food. We want to find local cooking classes. We want to create vegan versions of the region’s culinary specialties.
And when we do eventually settle down, we’re going to shift our skills from ornamental gardening to food gardening in order to control our food source for as long as we’re physically able. It has become that important to us.