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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​Chocolate, Avocado Eggs and the Canary Islands

Chocolate, Avocado Eggs and the Canary Islands

The Spanish love their chocolate. Pastries are dipped into it, biscuits are coated with it, churros are drowned in it and anything else is sprinkled with it. Chocolate is everywhere in Spain, which is not surprising, because it was the Spanish who discovered and gave birth to modern chocolate. It was Spanish explorers who brought chocolate to Europe more than 500 years ago with the addition of sugar to a bitter cocoa drink transforming it into the chocolate delight that we know today. Indeed, it was Christopher Columbus who may be credited for being the first European explorer to encounter chocolate. It is said that Columbus intercepted a trading ship loaded with cocoa beans during one of his voyages, but thinking they were almonds he ignored the precious load.

The next step in the journey of chocolate was left to the explorer, Hernán Cortés, who may be credited for being the first European to bring chocolate to Europe. Cortés was mistaken for a God, and invited to a generous Aztec feast where he was given their prized, spicy drink of warm chocolate. Cortés was no fool, and the capitalist that he was led him to realise its value to both himself and the Spanish Crown.

The knowledge of how to turn cocoa beans into a delicious frothy drink was more a mystery that was jealously guarded by the Aztecs. It was left to Cistercian monks to get hold of and adapt the recipe that would produce chocolate for the Spanish nobility. They managed to keep their secret away from the rest of Europe for more than a century after its discovery.

Over the years, the recipe was modified to suit the European palette, which came in the form of cutting out the fiery hot peppers that the Aztecs traditionally used, replacing it with sugar cane from the Canary Islands to create the sweet chocolate that eventually became a worldwide sensation. It was decades later that a British company, founded by Joseph Fry, created the first ever chocolate bar that delivered chocolate and excess calories to the masses.

Recent shocking statistics screaming from some of the headlines this week accused Brits of eating more chocolate than anyone else in the world. Apparently, Brits munched their way through 8.4kg of chocolate each during 2017. Many commentators are suggesting that the increase in chocolate consumption is due to Brexit, with nasty rumours floating around that the price of chocolate bars will suddenly wildly increase following Brexit. Some Brexiters are wickedly claiming that it is the fault of Remainers, who are so depressed about severing their links with the chocolate makers of Europe, that they are putting away as much as they possibly can before Brexit takes place. In response, Remainers are claiming that increased consumption is due to Brexiters who are so nervous about the implications of Brexit, that they are anxiously eating their way through the nation’s chocolate bars before it is too late. It is also said that they have a longing for European chocolate, which they wish to keep secret.

Sadly, it seems that since the takeover of Cadburys by an American company, British chocolate just doesn’t satisfy British taste buds any more. Some of the blame for increased chocolate consumption is also being passed onto the current trend for alcohol flavoured Easter Eggs, which apparently are going down a treat. Personally, I am not too sure about gin and tonic flavoured eggs, but I am sure that readers will tell me how wonderful they are very shortly.

Despite these interesting statistics, I was surprised to see Spain not heading towards the top of the chocoholics list. For many Spanish, there is nothing more delicious to start the day than a steaming bowl of hot chocolate in which to dip a plateful of delicious churros, which is fried choux pastry (a little like a donut that has been stretched out of all recognition). It is a highly fattening, but delicious combination, I am told.

Personally, I am very keen to get my hands on one of the new vegan avocado chocolate bars that went on sale in Europe recently. The avocado used in these chocolate bars is 100 per cent natural freeze-dried avocado, and I am reliably informed that the delicious blend of avocado and organic dark chocolate is a chocolate lover’s dream. Interestingly, this product has been brought to the world by James Cadbury, who is the great, great, great grandson of Cadbury’s founder. Despite this amazing news, I was very disappointed not to have received an avocado filled chocolate Easter egg this year, but I live in hope.

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Kill or Cure?

Kill or Cure?


An article about bee sting therapy caught my eye this week. Tragically, a woman recently died in Spain after undergoing a bizarre form of therapy at a clinic that involved bee venom. The therapy is known as apitherapy, which involved the woman attending a session every four weeks for two years, which was designed to improve her muscular control without allergic reactions.

As a child, and as unlikely as it now seems, I remember attempting handstands on the lawn of our garden. Unfortunately, during this challenging activity, I placed my hand over a bee who was sunning himself quietly in the grass. The bee quickly let it be known that he was not happy with my gymnastic efforts. I remember that the resulting sting was very painful and that my mother quickly removed the sting once she had realised what all the fuss was about. I also recall taking great consolation after I was told that a bee can only sting once, and then it dies. Several weeks later, I remember my father coming home from work, telling us that the young wife of a good friend and colleague had died from a bee sting that very morning. I remember my parents being very upset about this tragedy, and after my event a few weeks earlier, I considered myself to be extremely fortunate, given the circumstances. Since that time, I have always treated bees with the utmost respect and until recently have had a somewhat cynical view of how bee stings can actually help to preserve and enhance life; I am now having some doubts.

Bee Sting Therapy claims to bring relief and healing for spinal, neural, joint and musculoskeletal conditions that includes gout, arthritis, tendinitis, shingles, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, cancerous tumours, fibromyalgia, cramps, pulled muscles and many other ailments. The therapy is based upon the idea that bee venom stimulates the adrenal glands after a sting, which produces the hormone, cortisol, which has anti-inflammatory properties that jump starts the healing process.

This is not as unlikely as it sounds, since it has been reported for some time that venom from bees, as well as snakes, spiders, scorpions and sea urchins have the potential to work as the next generation of drugs that have the ability to effectively fight cancer. Needless to say, pharmaceutical companies are currently working hard to exploit the potential of these natural remedies to enhance their balance sheets and to impress their shareholders. The theory is impressive and I hope that current research bears positive results that will improve the lives of so many people suffering from a range of debilitating and life-threatening conditions.

This particular therapy involves holding a bee by its head and pinching it until the bee’s stinger emerges and punctures the patient’s skin. Sadly, the poor bee always dies in the process, since they can only use their sting once. In the case of the patient in Spain; she suffered an anaphylactic shock, developed wheezing and lost consciousness. An ambulance was called, a steroid was administered, but no adrenaline was made available. The bee sting had triggered a stroke, the patient fell into a permanent coma, and sadly died a few weeks later from multi organ failure.

Advocates of apitherapy make many claims for its health benefits, which remain largely unsupported by traditional medicine, but such cynicism has been faced by advocates of chiropractic, acupuncture and aromatherapy, amongst other therapies. Indeed, some therapies, previously regarded as ‘fringe’ by the established medical profession, have gained a reputation as effective therapies in recent years and are often used to support traditional medicine. This sad incident in Spain is reportedly the first case of death by bee venom. I will continue to do my best to keep an open mind about this and other therapies, but at the moment would prefer that my only contact with bees is through honey on my morning toast.


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​The Virtual Spanish Hotel

The Virtual Spanish Hotel

Our first holiday in Spain some years ago was not a great success. We had booked into a major tour company’s “flagship hotel”, as it was described, only to find a bed containing the residue of its previous occupant, a couple of cockroaches and the distressing remains of a previous night’s curry in the toilet. Needless to say, we complained and were moved to another room. It was not the best introduction to our first holiday in Spain.

What do you look for in hotel or self-catering accommodation? I have always maintained that if I am going to spend hard-earned cash on holiday, I require the standard to be at least the same, if not better than our accommodation at home. Like many visitors, I dislike those narrow, uncomfortable, wooden beds and thin mattresses that are so popular in most Spanish and Canary Islands’ budget hotels and bungalow complexes. Insufficient hot water, no kettle, and ineffective air conditioning are all areas that are likely to generate a negative review on Trip Advisor. Nowadays, my demands also include free Wi-Fi, and not just a pathetic signal in reception, but one that I can actually use in the hotel bedroom, without an additional charge. I have this at home, so why not on holiday? Sadly, even some of the four- and five-star hotels on these islands rarely offer this facility and is a source of constant complaints from guests. According to a recent tourism fair in Spain, much of this is about to change.

How about a hotel room that automatically adjusts to the needs, language and nationality of its guests, virtual reality headsets instead of brochures, as well as facial recognition instead of a key card to enter your room? Once guests’ personal details and preferences are logged into the system, the room will automatically change the digital pictures in the room from Picasso to Monet, monitor the room temperature and adjust the lighting to personal requirements.

Hotels will be able to provide a facility whereby guests can order a pizza in 40 languages; why one would want to do this is open for discussion, but I guess it is a nice gesture to while away an hour or two. Room locks will also be ‘intelligent’ and will open and close according to the WhatsApp settings on a guest’s smartphone. What about those ghastly wooden beds and thin mattresses? Well, new ones will have sensors built into the mattress, which will monitor movements and sense when the occupant awakes, and will notify staff to bring a cup of coffee and croissant to get the morning off to a good start. However, I am not sure that guests will approve of bed sensors monitoring the time, quantity and speed of their lovemaking.

Needless to say, the main benefit of these new systems is not always for the guests’ benefit, but to improve “productivity”. If, for instance, a large number of British guests are due to check in, additional quantities of bacon, black pudding and eggs will be ordered automatically to cope with the copious demand for those much loved ‘English breakfasts’. Virtual Reality headsets are currently being used, both in Spain and Morocco, to present hotels to tour companies instead of brochures. Travel agents can take a virtual tour of the bedrooms, pool area, restaurant and other facilities, which will give a much more realistic indication of likely customer satisfaction.

In some hotels, there will be beacons and sensors fitted in rooms that will make use of guests’ smartphones to monitor at what time they visit the pool, how long they stay in their rooms and how vigorously they brush their teeth. Maybe it will also monitor how much toilet paper is used on ‘curry and lager’ nights and order additional quantities according to need? Complicated algorithms will be able to monitor their guests’ habits in order to sell additional products and services, as well as special offers to encourage them to return to the hotel. The system will also be able to determine whether guests arrive with their usual partner and children or with someone else - in which case, if the guest does not eat in the dining room, a special meal will be sent to the hotel room, complete with a bottle of champagne.

Is all this going a little too far, do you think? Few of these new services will be able to operate without considerable intrusion into the personal data of guests, which I suspect many will be unhappy about. As much as I love gadgets and applaud some of the new technology, and particularly improved beds, I suspect that most visitors will be content with a clean room, a comfortable bed, a kettle and good quality Wi-Fi.

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​Brexit and the Faint Hearted Expat

Brexit and the Faint Hearted Expat

Of course, the tabloids never miss an opportunity to try and raise the blood pressure, so it was with some amusement that I read the headline in one tabloid this week that “Brit Expats flock from Spain because of Brexit”. Seriously? I have yet to meet an established expat living in Spain, either in person or online, who is planning to return to the UK simply because of Brexit. However, I do know many who have been widowed, have significant health issues or whose businesses or relationships have collapsed and are reluctantly being forced to return to the UK, but not simply because of Brexit.

Conversely, I know of several Brits who are so upset with Brexit, high cost of living, as well as the appalling weather, that they are ready to move to Spain and other European countries at the earliest opportunity. Let’s have a look at the assertion that Brits are leaving Spain by the plane load and put these headlines into some form of context.

It is true that the fall in the pound against the euro has been substantial and has had a significant impact upon the lifestyle of many British expats who are surviving on a state pension. Compared with the heady days some years ago when one pound could buy somewhere between 1.40 and 1.50 euros, there has been a considerable change in the fortunes of many expats. It was clear to many that the pound was grossly overvalued at that time and would not last. There is also an assertion that Spain has become “incredibly expensive”. Again, just have a chat with a newly arrived expat, who will leave you in no doubt as to which is the most expensive country to live in - just start off with heating bills and the price of a decent cup of coffee…

There is an assertion that the number of expats leaving Spain outnumber those now arriving in the country. I suggest that this is a highly questionable statistic and should be challenged; as with all statistics, they can be manipulated in any direction to make a good story. My own, admittedly limited contacts with removals companies, lawyers and other professionals, particularly in the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol, tell me that the balance between those expats arriving as well as leaving broadly evens out, and that there is no expat panic. The flood of expats returning to the UK appears to be merely a convenient tabloid illusion.

There is also a huge disparity in official numbers of those living in Spain, and there could be two main factors at play here. There has been a change in municipal enrolment rules with tens of thousands of Brits previously registered, but who have returned to the UK or died, and inconsiderately forgetting to notify the town hall. Town halls benefit from having more residents, which means greater levels of funding and so there was previously no incentive for town halls to encourage people to deregister when they left the country. A change in the law in 2010 has since meant that municipalities must now confirm if a person is still in the area every two years, or every five years if the person is listed in the Central Registry of Foreigners, which has led to many being removed from the official registers. This disparity in official numbers might also be explained by the number of foreign residents who live in Spain, but have not applied for residency.

It is uncertain issues, such as health and social care, that currently concern most British expats living in Spain, despite vague assurances from both Spanish and British Governments that all will be well. Many expats consider it unwise to move from a country where the health service is generally accepted to be under less pressure than the UK’s health service at a time in their lives when they may need it. There is also the cost of renting or purchasing a home in the UK to consider, with many expats simply no longer having significant financial resources to draw upon. It is also worth remembering that many Brits moved to Spain when they were over 65 at the beginning of 2000. Many are now left widowed, resulting in an increasing desire to return to their families in the UK. Once again, this has very little to do with Brexit. Now, let’s have a look at the next tabloid scare story…

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​Learn a Language with Beer and Insomnia

Learn a Language with Beer and Insomnia

Those expats who enjoy a tipple will no doubt be delighted to read the news that I am reporting this week. According to researchers, German students studying the Dutch language found that their pronunciation improved remarkably after drinking just one pint of beer each. So, I guess many readers are now wondering if a glass or two of Spanish Rioja before attempting to speak Spanish might be of help? Sadly, I have no more information about this, but if you too find that your Spanish language skills soar following a few drinks, do please let me know and I will pass this information on to the researchers.

As far as more traditional approaches are concerned, I remember a brief period as an awkward teenager when I suddenly decided to learn Russian during the Cold War period, which I now confess was designed mainly to annoy my parents. I invested in a small pillow speaker linked to a tape recorder that was supposed to help me to learn the new vocabulary whilst I slept. Sadly, during one restless night I became so entangled in the cables that it destroyed the connection and damaged the tape recorder; my confidence in this new approach to learning was badly shaken. It was an experiment without a satisfactory conclusion.

A more serious study has recently found that millions of insomniacs could do something useful with their time and instead of counting sheep, could practice learning a language instead. It seems that if you practice the language that you are learning at night, just before you go to sleep, you are more likely to remember it.

In this latest study, twenty participants learned in the morning and their learning was tested later the same day. An additional twenty participants learned in the evening, had a good sleep, and were then tested the following morning. Researchers discovered that sleeping between lessons led to greater long-term retention. It is also important to mention here that a number of studies indicate that learning a language can help to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and other health conditions.

As well as practicing a language before you sleep, it is important to make language learning a daily habit. A focussed time to learn, and just before going to bed seems to be a good idea, because you are less likely to be interrupted. Learning and practicing a new language can take many forms, such as the use of subtitles in another language when watching television or listening to podcasts in Spanish.

I have always thought that in order to foster cooperation, communication and harmony, it would be a good idea if the world’s three major languages: English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese were taught in all schools, allowing effective communication across the globe and making misunderstanding and conflict less likely. Personally, I am always keen to use technology when possible, and maybe one day I will make an effort to learn Mandarin Chinese whilst I sleep. However, this time I will be investing in a new type of pillow speaker that is connected by Bluetooth, and certainly with no more cables.

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