Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at Many Lands: Spain by Edith A. Browne
Peeps at Many Lands: Spain by  Edith A. Browne

The Harvest Lands of Spain

Spain is an agricultural country; her people have always preferred farm-life to factory-life, looked down on trade as a plebeian mode of making a living that is unworthy of a nation of gentlefolk, and honoured as a genteel calling any occupation in direct connection with the land. Nevertheless, the prosperity of Spanish agriculture is much more the result of the naturally favourable conditions of climate and soil than of enterprise. The agricultural implements in general use are very primitive, and the methods of cultivation are far behind the scientific times of the agricultural world at large. True, a general spirit of progress is now influencing Spanish ideas and Spanish practices, but the consequent changes are demonstrated by individuals rather than by the populace, by localities rather than by the whole nation. In agriculture, for instance, some up-to-date innovations have certainly been made: there are some Government model farms and agricultural schools; agricultural exhibitions are held, and modern implements are imported. But such progressive assertions are only founded on isolated examples. It is the rule rather than the exception for Nature to get very little assistance from man in creating the Spanish harvests.


A street in Eleche.

The chief crops are maize, corn, olives, and an abundance of Southern fruits, such as oranges, lemons, citrons, pomegranates, dates, melons, and grapes. Artichokes, peas, beans, and other vegetables, grow luxuriantly in some regions; rice is produced in considerable quantities; mulberry-trees grow well in the neighbourhood of Valencia; a little sugar-cane is cultivated, and a little less cotton.

Maize flourishes in the North of Spain. It is sown in May and the early part of June in straight lines, and is ploughed in or trodden in with the foot. July is the busy season for weeding—quite a working month, indeed—and in August or September comes the harvest; but toil during this period is relieved by numerous rural festivities, in which dancing is the most popular form of rejoicing. You will remember that I told you the ears of maize are hung about the outside of the farmhouses to dry, and that the landscape is dotted with most fascinating pictures in consequence. The principal farm implements used in the cultivation of this grain are the wooden plough, a pickaxe, a two-pronged fork, and flails for thrashing.

The Eastern and South-Eastern regions form the paradise of the naranjales—or orange-grounds—and of the lemon-groves. The orange-trees constitute one of the most picturesque sights in the whole country. To walk among the naranjales  in March, when they are in full bloom, is to wander among bowers or shining green leaves and fragrant white blossoms, in a perfumed dreamland of wondrous beauty. It is impossible to feel you are on earth amidst such surroundings; all your worldly senses are drugged, through your sense of smell, by the potent accumulation of a delicate fragrance, and you are magically wafted through the charmed air into the realms of romance.

Orange-trees begin to bear after the sixth year; they improve up to the age of twenty, after which they become more and more degenerate. The harvest lasts from October to March, and it frequently happens that you see young leaves, blossoms, and fruit at one and the same time on the same tree. The picking season, as I have previously told you, is one long, happy round of merry-making. The actual work, which is of a light and bright nature, is largely performed by boys and girls. The trees being low, the branches are easily reached by means of ladders; the picker goes up a ladder, carrying a basket slung by a cord round his neck, gathers one orange at a time, and gently drops it into the basket. When the baskets are full they are carried to a shed. Here the fruit is left for a short time, so that the skin may harden, but still further precautions must be taken to guard against damage en route  to the various import markets. You have often seen a wooden case packed with tissue-paper-covered balls, and one or two naked golden oranges lying on the top as a guide to the whole contents. Those bare oranges have been taken out of their travelling costume by the shopman, to be displayed as samples; they, too, came over wrapped in tissue-paper, like their neighbours below. In Spain, children and young people are extensively employed as orange-packers, and very deft they are at their work; they envelop each orange in its wrap with a single turn of the hand, and pack the fruit straight into a travelling-case at lightning speed.

The Eastern region is also famous for dates. The date-palms flourish at Elche, close to the town of Alicante. The gigantically tall trunks of these trees often rise to a height of 60 feet before they throw out their plume-like branches, which wave so gracefully aloft in the breeze. The fruit begins to ripen in November, and is ready for picking about January. Harvest-time in the date-forests is rich in both gorgeous and quaint scenes. The trees present a magnificent spectacle, with their deep golden clusters of fruit on tawny stems hanging in profusion around the summit of the trunks, beneath the shadow of sun-flecked green plumes that make their obeisance to the heavens on the very threshold of a sapphire-blue sky. Now watch the pickers at their labours. Here is a boy mounting to his task. He winds his legs round a tree, knots his bare feet, takes a grip with his hands, and clambers up the 6o-foot branchless trunk as dexterously as a monkey. What a pigmy he looks now that he has reached the branches! Unless you have exceptionally long and strong sight, you need a good pair of glasses to see what he is doing. He passes a rope round his waist and the summit of the trunk, makes it fast, presses his bare feet against the tree, and leans very slightly back, with the whole weight of his body on the rope. That leaves his hands quite free, you notice, for picking. As he gathers the fruit he puts it into a basket, and when his basket is full he lowers it by a cord, and draws up an empty one by the same medium. When he shifts his position to the right or to the left, he looks as if he were miraculously moving in space, for the lean-back on the rope is so slight that his body is practically in a horizontal position, and in the quick movement that he makes you cannot see he is touching anything solid. But, as a matter of fact, just as the rope support encircling his waist and the tree enables him to rest firmly on his feet upon the trunk, so it enables him to walk round that trunk.

The vine grows in all parts of Spain, but flourishes in the South. In almost every village you can buy for a halfpenny a good meal of grapes, generally of a very good quality, and there are many places where, for the lavish expenditure of a penny, you can get more muscatels than would be good for you to eat at a sitting.

The mention of prices as a means of helping you to realize the richness of Spain as a vine-growing country recalls to my memory a pleasing little incident which bears further witness to the fertility of the land.

I was walking along one day, feeling very hot and exhausted, when I struck a little hamlet, and espied in the window of what was apparently a cobbler's hut some fine-looking musk melons. Obviously they were for sale, as they were displayed amongst a motley collection of garden produce in the front of the window, the boots to mend and the mended boots being relegated to a shelf in the background. In spite of the fact that I was parched with thirst and very hungry—or more probably because I had passed that stage of famishing in which anything to eat or drink is supposed to be acceptable—I did not fancy any of the fruit in that window except the musk melons. You know what luxuries they are at home, and the prices they fetch in consequence. It so happened that on this particular occasion in Spain I had only about the equivalent of a couple of shillings in my pocket; was it too much to hope that I could bargain to bring one of those coveted melons within reach of my means? I entered the shop in a somewhat despondent mood:

"How much are your melons?"

The old cobbler rose, walked to the window, rummaged out the largest specimen, examined it all round, weighed it in his hand, and thought for a long minute; then, turning to me, he said very slowly, as if he were still working out the problem:

"I can't let you have it under . . . twopence.'

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