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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Enjoying Coffee from the Canary Islands


One of the many things that I enjoy about living in the Canary Islands is a decent cup of coffee. Gone are the days when “a cup of instant” seemed to be the norm, and I still shudder when I return to the UK for a brief visit. A visit to one of the relatively new, and supposedly trendy, overpriced coffee shops is, for me, an ordeal best avoided. A quick visit out of sheer desperation during a frantic shopping expedition led me into one of the many branches of ‘Costa Lottee’ that are opening up in all of the UK’s High Streets - after all, it did offer “Free Wifi Internet Connection.” Once inside, however, I was told that the connection was not working and had not been for some time. Oh well, I could do with a sit down as I had forgotten quite how exhausting shopping in the UK can be.

My request for a simple cup of black coffee, no I don’t like mugs, was met with a disinterested look as the spotty youth pointed to a huge variety of coffees on the board above his sentry post.

“Take yer pick,” he slurped, as he continued chewing his gum and picking his fingernail. “That one will do,” I replied, "but I only want a small cup and not a mugful.”

“We only do them mugs,” he replied stabbing at the nearest soup bowl with a fingernail partly hanging from his index finger.

“But I only want a small cup...,” I protested.

“Yer can’t have one. We only do what’s on the list,” came the surly response. I was now getting very concerned about where the almost detached fingernail would land. Maybe it would finally descend into the plate of expensive-looking chocolate muffins perched temptingly at the side of the till?

Realising that discussion with the spotty youth was pointless, I handed over my ₤4.50 and perched myself on a most uncomfortable stool at the side of an equally unfortunate table with three legs - goodness, they still do Formica! Maybe I should count myself fortunate that the loose fingernail was not floating in my coffee... The coffee was one of the most revolting drinks that I have ever tasted. Two sips of the dark liquid and I was out of the door, vowing never to return to the soulless branches of Costa Lottee.

I contrast this with a cafe bar in my nearest town, Vecindario, on the island of Gran Canaria. It is a genuine town with real working people and well away from the tourist areas and expensive bars that are mostly owned by expats in the south of the island. Here I can get a cup of excellent coffee for 90 cents, sit in comfort and people-watch for as long as I wish. I watch Canarians, Spanish, Chinese, Argentineans, Russians, Cubans, Germans, Scandinavians, Africans and Indians pass by, together with a rich variety of skin colour, clothing and fascinating headgear. It makes me realise once again that I am living in a community where race, colour, faith and language rarely matter and that most people still live by the old adage of “Live and Let Live”. It is a community where most people just get on with each other and I know how fortunate I am.

Back to my cup of coffee. Did you know that coffee is grown in Gran Canaria, as it has been since 1788 when King Carlos III issued a decree ordering the introduction of the first coffee plants to the Island? Today, coffee is produced in very small amounts by local farmers who have kept the tradition of growing and consuming the coffee that they produce for many generations. The coffee is called Finca la Corcovada and is grown in the Valley of Agaete. This valley has a microclimate and a rich soil and is perfect for growing coffee. The coffee is grown and produced by Juan Godoy, the only coffee grower in Europe and who is now supplying the UK market. So next time you are buying coffee, how about asking for coffee from the Canary Islands from your specialist coffee supplier and bring a taste of Canarian sunshine to your cup of morning coffee?

My memory turns back to Costa Lottee in the UK, and I wonder if the spotty youth is still filling his soup-bowl mugs with foul-tasting overpriced coffee. Maybe, he is serving coffee from Gran Canaria?

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

The Story of Nelson, a Lost Arm and the Smelly Cheese


Many will have read stories and been taught about one of the UK’s national heroes, Horatio Nelson; that brave son of Norfolk who taught the Spanish a thing or two during his famous battles, his “mesmerising personality”, complicated love scandal and heroic death.

The stories surrounding Nelson are, of course, based upon the British point of view. Are they true? How about looking at Nelson from the Spanish and Canarian perspective?

About 220 years ago, Admiral Nelson of the British Royal Navy decided to attack Santa Cruz in Tenerife to help himself to some gold and silver collected by Spanish galleons from the Americas, but was humiliatingly and satisfyingly defeated by the local residents. I guess this part wasn't stressed too strongly during school history lessons, was it?

The residents of Santa Cruz de Tenerife have long memories of their history and proudly re-enact an historical event each year on 25 July that reminds everyone of the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1797. This re-enactment of this battle has taken place for many years in a variety of formats. Why was this battle so important to the people of Tenerife?

In 1797 the British Royal Navy decided to attack the port of Cadiz in Southern Spain, but Spanish warships drove the British away. By chance, the British Navy heard that Spanish treasure convoys from America arrived regularly at Santa Cruz in Tenerife, and sent a flotilla of ships under the command of the recently promoted Admiral Nelson.

This attack force had 4000 men, nine ships and 400 guns, but the military on Tenerife led by Lieutenant General Gutierrez only had 91 guns and a mixture of 1700 militia and sailors. This looked to be an overwhelming attack force with insufficient military to defend the port of Santa Cruz.

Things did not work out as planned for Nelson, as the Tenerife commander was more experienced and particularly clever in managing his soldiers. Several British ships were sunk and many sailors were killed in this failed attack.

This was also the battle when Admiral Nelson was shot in his right arm, and he had to be taken back to his ship where the ship surgeon amputated most of this arm with the help of some opium to lessen the pain in the middle of the battle.

Many British militias became trapped on the shores of Tenerife with no escape possible. Although 30 Tenerife residents were killed and 40 were injured; 250 British militia were killed and 128 were wounded.

The British asked for a truce and agreed to withdraw with an undertaking to do no further damage to the town or to make any more attacks on Tenerife or the Canary Islands. This was agreed by Lieutenant General Gutierrez, who also allowed the British to leave with their arms, but perhaps not Nelson.

However, Admiral Nelson had lost so many ships that he did not have capacity to take all his militia back home, so the Tenerife General lent Nelson two Spanish schooners. This was a huge embarrassment for the British Navy and a resounding success for the militia of Tenerife in protecting their island. I doubt that much of this story has found its way into the National Curriculum syllabus, as it really does not show the British in a particularly good light.

There are also some interesting facts that are linked to the Battle of Santa Cruz, such as what happened to Nelson’s right arm after it was amputated? It was thought that the arm was thrown overboard after the on-board operation, as was usual during this period, but it seems that some keen-eyed Tenerife resident found this floating in the sea or washed ashore, and eventually Nelson’s arm ended up interred within the altar of the Cathedral of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

This story has been challenged, but it has not been denied either! Also, the honourable withdrawal and truce led to a courteous exchange of letters between Nelson and Gutierrez. Later, Nelson sent a large cheese to Gutierrez as a token of his gratitude, which was never eaten and is still on display at the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo in Peninsular Spain. Maybe the good General did not trust the British to send a cheese that wasn't poisoned?

No doubt the British will hope that people will forget the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 and the humiliating defeat that the brave people of Tenerife achieved over the British Navy. However, the residents of Santa Cruz in Tenerife are determined never to forget this momentous day in their history. Many wear faithful reproductions of uniforms and weapons of this historical period in all its detail of the battle in July.

Many might think that Tenerife residents would hate Admiral Nelson as he had planned to rob them and destroy their homes, but actually he became admired as he stuck to his word and the British Navy never returned to attack the Canary Islands. Indeed, there is one street in Santa Cruz that is named ‘Avenida Horacio Nelson’, which says a great deal about the island’s capacity for forgiveness, or is it amusement?

Anyway, the Canary Islands still have Nelson’s arm in their possession, or maybe not, but it definitely has a smelly cheese as a result of this battle from long ago.

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

A Recession Busting Breakfast


In our Canarian village we are blessed with three small grocery stores. They are not very large and it can be a bit of a squash if there are more than a handful of customers in the shop at a time. Despite being surrounded by spacious, modern supermarkets in nearby large towns as well as in Las Palmas city, we have discovered, as have many villagers, that the prices in our local shops are very competitive with the larger supermarkets and usually we prefer to shop locally. There are also other benefits; for example, one shop happily delivers anything to our home, which is a boon for such items as large bottles of water and anything that is particularly heavy. They are also very reliable - items purchased are always delivered to our home later the same day and nothing seems to be too much trouble. I guess our village shops are reminiscent of village shops and post offices in the UK that have since given way to the out-of-town hypermarkets.

On one weekly shopping expedition in the village store, I patiently waited at the cheese and processed meats counter for my turn. There was an elderly Canarian woman in front of me and she seemed to be having some trouble in deciding which cheese should should buy. Eventually she stabbed her finger on the glass counter and pointed to one of large slabs, asking if she could try it. As in all the best UK delicatessens, the shop assistant nodded and cut off a generous slice and passed it over the counter on a cardboard plate for the old woman to try. Ancient, well worn fingers slowly crumbled the cheese into small pieces and I watched as she savoured each tiny piece of the creamy white cheese. The shop assistant, anxious to return to the girl on the till to continue the morning gossip, watched in silent anticipation.

Eventually, the old woman put the cardboard plate back on the counter with some satisfaction, looked inside the glass cabinet for a second time and pointed to another large slab of cheese of a different variety. Again, she asked for a sample. The shop assistant nodded and cut off another slice, this time not quite as large as the first, and handed it to the elderly woman. Again, she broke it into tiny pieces, savouring each delicious mouthful with relish before nodding and placing her plate on the counter. To my increasing disbelief, once again the old woman repeated the process of pointing to yet another slab of different cheese and, without a word, the shop assistant cut of a small piece and handed it over for the old woman to sample.

By now, there was a small queue of people patiently awaiting their turn. Most Canarians are very tolerant by nature (this tends to distinguish them from their Peninsular Spanish counterparts) and we all stood watching with some amusement as the old woman then pointed to some slices of ham. Again, a sample of ham was handed to the old woman to try. This same process was then repeated for two different varieties of olives - each time the old woman savouring each delicious mouthful with considerable enjoyment.

Eventually the old woman appeared to be satisfied. At last she smiled and pointed once again through the glass display cabinet to the first slab of cheese that she had sampled. We all heaved a sigh of considerable relief as a small chunk was cut off, weighed, and carefully wrapped in both plastic as well as tin foil and was finally handed to the old woman, who popped it into the jacket of her cardigan and wandered over to the till to pay for her purchase.

Walking home from the shop I wondered if the old woman repeated this process regularly in all three of our village shops? Certainly, the shop assistant seemed to know the routine well and I admired her uncomplaining attempts to satisfy her customer. I wonder just how accommodating the Saturday girl would be to this old woman in a Tesco's delicatessen in the UK? “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” they say, but maybe there is such a thing as a free breakfast in the Canary Islands?

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

Water from Wind


Turning water into wine is a great idea, but how about turning wind into water? I have always loved windmills. Their graceful form and natural motion have always fascinated me. However, I know that many people also hate the sight of them as yet another of man’s intrusion upon a beautiful landscape. However, now that a new era of limited fuel supplies is upon us, harnessing the wind to provide a cheap and sustainable source of fuel to feed our unending desire for electricity seems much more attractive.

A drive to a Canarian village near my home, Pozo Izquierdo, near Vecindario, will provide a physics lesson that is not easily forgotten. Not only is it a great place for a good walk with the dog and some fresh air, but you will be in the centre of a wind farm that not only produces electricity from the wind, but also any excess electricity produced is used to desalinate water from the seawater that surrounds this island paradise.

Saving water, one of the island’s scarcest resources due to the lack of rain, has led to extensive research in the desalination of seawater and using wind power to operate small desalination plants. The islands are not short of wind power – the Trade Winds, with their moderate speed and direction, are constant throughout the year. This technology and ideas have since been exported to many other parts of the world.

One of the main objections to wind farms has always been that they produce a varying amount of electricity. This variability of supply in the electricity grid means that there must be other power generators, such as gas fired units, that can come ‘on line’ at short notice – in order to avoid wide fluctuations of power and your television or washing machine blowing up. Keeping these generators ‘at the ready’ is an expensive use of resources and is often the quoted reason for not using wind powered generators.

Now this is the clever part. The desalination of water is an expensive process and requires a lot of electricity. However, scientists found that the wind generation of electricity and the process of desalination of water can work together successfully for the simple reason that electricity cannot be cheaply stored, but water can. Using surplus electricity from wind farms such as the one in Pozo Izquierdo to desalinate seawater is the ideal solution. When there is a falling amount of surplus electricity, the number of desalination units operating is reduced. The water produced when the wind farms are in full production can then be stored relatively cheaply until required. Clever stuff, eh?

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

Until death do us part (or until someone better comes along)


Divorce statistics from Spain’s National Statistics Office are, at first glance, alarming. The figures show that in the Canary Islands the rate of 3 divorces per thousand of the population is the highest in Spain, where the divorce rate has fallen by 10 per cent since the time of the last survey.

Given that, for many, these islands appear to be an island paradise that draws many Northern Europeans to the islands, begs the question “What has gone wrong for these couples?” I can only guess that most of these breakdowns will be in the younger age group and are linked to the stresses caused by a lack of jobs, homes and a bleak future.

It is traditional for Canarians to marry when they are young. Many are still not out of their teenage years when the pressure of many overbearing families and the Church forces them to take their wedding vows. It is not unusual to see, what appears at first, to be a brother and sister taking a baby out in the pram or playing with a toddler on the beach. It is only when chatting to these ‘brothers and sisters’ that we discover that they are in fact husband and wife and that the child is their own.

Canarians are struggling with nearly 30 per cent unemployment, and this has hit the youth particularly hard. One in every three unemployed are under 30 years old leading them to be dubbed "the lost generation". Statistics indicate that more than half of those in their thirties are still not financially independent and rely on their parents for support.

Needless to say, many of these young couples do not have the financial resources to rent a flat or to start a mortgage and, as a consequence, they are forced to live with their in-laws. This brings its own pressures on any couple. In the past, this has meant that grandmother has taken on the burden of raising the child and later providing after-school care, whilst the young parents are able to finish their education or start a career, but times have changed. The pressures of living within an extended family for far longer than in the past, and the inability of obtaining a home of their own, places unbearable pressures upon many families.

The problems have become more acute in recent years with the influx of expats moving to these islands. The best and most affordable properties have been snapped up by expats, forcing house prices, goods and services to increase as a consequence. It is an anomaly that despite the popularity of these islands as a holiday destination, they remain the bastions of unemployment, low pay, long hours and a reliance on ‘black money’ rather than secure contracts offering a living wage to local people.

The islands’ government has attempted in recent years to provide affordable housing for young families, but the supply and availability of such properties has been slow and requires a steady income, which many young couples do not have. As many of us will remember from the UK, affordable housing, starter homes and other such well-meaning schemes do not remain affordable housing for very long.

We are often told that Spain is a very family-orientated society, and so it is - far more than many would consider realistic or desirable in the UK. In Spain, it is customary for all members of the family to take responsibility for, and to look after, the young, elderly and sick members of their family. In the Costas and the Canary Islands, residential homes for the elderly are few, with the exception of several run by nuns for the elderly with no families.

Island living, although idyllic in many ways, also brings other pressures that are often not realised. Island living often creates, by definition, an insular view of life. Despite attempts by schools to widen their pupils’ experiences, many have never left these islands. Whereas school leavers in Peninsular Spain and other parts of Europe attend universities far from home, gaining rich experiences and meeting a wide variety of other people, as they complete their formal education, many Canarians study locally and have never left the islands. I recall putting the question of travel to Peninsular Spain and further afield to one young Canarian in his thirties. His reply was, “Why should we? We have everything that we need here.” However, it is this insularity of knowing maybe only the people that we went to school with, or those from the same town or village that creates its own problems.

Hopefully, these recent statistics will provide opportunities for some soul-searching amongst clerics, local and national politicians. The statistics will also provide useful fodder for university researchers and the like. Hopefully, society too will look seriously at the pressures that young Canarian families currently face and take action. However, in these days of Covid, recession and financial cutbacks, I somehow doubt that anything positive will happen to address an obvious problem.

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

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