By Theresa O’Shea
September’s a great month in Spain. The country has mostly gone back to work, it no longer takes nine hours to get served in a restaurant, you can roll over on your beach towel without landing on someone’s lap /grandma /dachshund, and the idea of swapping sea and sand for the fun and games of a village fair no longer seems about as appealing as a midday sauna. You do, of course, need bags of stamina and staying power to enter fully into the spirit of any Spanish fair, and the Fiesta del Ajoblanco in Almáchar, near Rincón de Victoria on the East coast of Málaga is no exception.
Raisins, grapes and white Garlic
Almáchar is part of the Ruta de la Pasa, the Raisin Route, which means that it is one of several villages in the area whose economy is still largely based on the production of the Muscatel grape. September is harvest time. And party time. Neighbouring Moclinejo holds its Feria de Viñeros (grape-growers fair), and the village of El Borge draws thousands to its annual Fiesta de la Pasa (raisin festival). At first glance the Fiesta del Ajoblanco – literally, the “white garlic” festival – would seem to have little to do with the vine. But, in fact, ajoblanco is the name of a gazapcho-type soup made from crushed almonds, bread, garlic and olive oil – and it is traditionally served with Muscatel grapes.
The fun starts
Leaving the madness of overurbanistion behind us on the coast, we s-bend our way through the gentle velvety landscape of raisin country until we spy the white houses of Almáchar strung out on a ridge like, well, a slender bunch of grapes. The car we park at the bottom, and then join the steady stream of visitors to climb the steep approach to the village. (12,000 of us made the trip, the local paper tells us the next day). It’s five o’clock and the sun’s still fierce. We’d hate to miss anything, so we’ve foregone our siesta. The fair will go on until sunrise. The question is: will we?
The large square-cum-balcony at the village entrance is lined with stalls. Some are packed with boxes of plump blue-black raisins, piles of flat fig cakes and bottles of sweet Muscatel wine. Others offer rather less healthy fare: supersize bags of gusanitos (corn worms, a bit like “Wotsits”), onion wheels, oil-drenched crisps, and popcorn; candy floss, barquitos (tubular wafers) and 98 kinds of squidgy rubbery sweets. The raisins, by the way, have nothing to do with those dainty things you buy in packets at the supermarket. These are big and fat and wrinkled, and come with their large nutty seeds intact. We crunch a few, and wash them down with our first glass of thick honey-coloured wine. Delicioso.
In one corner a dozen or so “minstrels” are gathered, dapper in black breeches and white shirts, holding tambourines and cymbals, guitars and fiddles. Nearby a gaggle of young girls done up in black embroidered skirts and lacy white blouses wait for the music to begin. These are one of the verdiales groups who will sing and play and dance their way around the village throughout the day. Think of fiddlers and troubadours and morris dancers, of hand-clapping flamenco artists and swirling Sevillanas all rolled into one and you’ll have some idea of what the verdiales are all about. Suddenly the “lead singer” bursts into song. The others close in around him, banging and rattling and plucking their instruments, while the girls kick up a storm, dipping and skipping and clacking their be-ribboned maracas.
Even watching is thirsty work, and we set off in search of one of the five ajoblanco tasting stations placed at strategic points around the town. Upping and downing steep, winding streets strung with streamers and flags, we come to the Plaza de San Cristo. The tiny square is absolutely chockablock with people sipping / knocking back thimblefuls of sweet wine and large plastic beakers of ajoblanco. A teenage boy squeezes through with a crate of grapes on his shoulder, while another follows behind bearing a large earthenware vat. We trail them down a narrow side-street to a tasting station and watch as they pour the sheer white liquid into another vat. Around 3,500 litres of the stuff will be drunk during the festival. We do our bit. It’s wonderfully cool, slightly creamy, and incredibly garlicky. The sweetness of the grapes act as a perfect balance to the sharpness of the garlic.
Back in the Plaza de San Cristo, midst the ceaseless din of verdiales and animated chatter, we queue up to visit the Museo de la Pasa – a traditional village house, stuffed with ruler-length keys, threshing boards, giant clay pots, wash boards, balances, baskets, ancient sulphating machines and other everyday household objects and tools originally used in the production of grapes and raisins. But you don’t have to go inside: on this day the whole village is converted into an open-air museum, as every street and neighbourhood competes for the prize of prettiest patio or best street decorations. Walls are hung with ceramic plates, paintings and antiques, and scenes of village life are recreated with life-size muñecos (dolls). Sometimes the dolls are “real” and mingle with the crowds. We spot a grey-haired old lady, a red-frocked priest, and a busty transvestite.
Doing the Macarena
As the remains of the day fade, so do we. The wine and the beer and the vertiginous streets take their toll. In the town square we watch a series of regional dances, but none impress us as much as the young boy we spotted earlier, slicing and swirling a red and yellow flag around his body with great solemnity and skill. At eight o’clock the Minister for Development is due to do make a speech and award the prizes. She’s late. We tire of waiting around and seek sustenance at one of Almáchar’s numerous bars and restaurants. After a few raciones – of calamares and garlic mayonnaise, grilled slithers of pork, and Malageñan salad (potato, oranges, onion, green olives, cod, oil and vinegar) – we get our strength back and are ready to party till dawn.
We start off listening – and clapping and stomping and olé-ing – to an excellent flamenco group on the main stage, then wander up to the square where the orchestra is kicking into its standard repertoire: everything from cover versions of this year’s summer hits to pasadobles and rumbas, and every song ever recorded for which actions are required. Along with toddlers, teenagers, sprightly fourth-agers and everyone in between, we make like gorillas, follow my leader, do the Macarena, and still can’t get the Ketchup song right. Hot and sweaty, we take refuge in a refrigerated den of techno music. It’s cooler and hipper, but not half as much fun.
Sardines and tinto de verano
Next on the festival agenda is La Noche de las Candelas, which translates as something like “night of the fires”. Towards the edge of the square, where the orchestras are on a break, a bonfire the size of large car is lit and everybody cheers. I ask an elderly lady in a black widow’s dress what it’s all about. The fire, she tells us, is a representation of what happens on this night in the lagares – the traditional farmhouses where the raisins are dried – when people burn their unwanted or worn out belongings to mark the end of the harvest.
Worn-out definitely describes our state by now, but we hang on for the sardine barbecue and watch mesmerised as one lone man embeds stick after stick of skewered sardines into the sand around the edge of a large, glowing fire. Round and round he goes, sweat pouring off his face, turning a stick here, adding another there, until at last his expert eye deems that they are done. The air fills with smoky, fishy aromas and the hundreds of hungry fair-goers at the counter jostle and push to grab their share. The wait is worth it. Slightly burnt and crispy on the outside, soft and succulent and flavoursome on the inside, mopped up with a hunk of bread and washed down with tinto de verano, they make a perfect early morning supper.
Meanwhile, the orchestra’s started up again, the seven-year olds and seventy-year olds are still jiving, and they’re still giving away ajoblanco. But weaklings that we are, we’ve had enough – for this year, at any rate. It’s 2.30am. We’ve lasted a mere nine and a half hours.
Where to stay
Forget about negotiating scary windy roads in the dark and missing out on all the free tippling. Book into La Posada del Bandolero in El Borge (2km from Almáchar), a charming rustic inn with an excellent value-for-money restaurant. Rooms €35-40. Tel: 952 519450. Web: www.posadadelbandolero.com
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