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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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 last year. 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.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to:

Chickpeas or Coco Pops for Breakfast?

I have rarely given chickpeas much thought. I know that I like them and, as vegetarians, we have regularly used them in our meals for many years. They are versatile, absorb flavours in the most delicious way and the bottled variety can usually be found at a very good price in local supermarkets.

I was interested to see that the thorny issue of chickpeas has featured quite heavily in the press recently. An article by a Spanish food blogger featured a picture of her son, alongside the claim that her son doesn’t know what a biscuit is, which led to an interesting spat. Apparently, the boy starts his day with a bowl of chickpeas rather than coco pops for breakfast, which brought forth a flurry of debate, and some abuse from fans of coco pops, who consider that all children should start the day with this sugary feast, washed down with chocolate milk, rather than a highly nutritious bowl of chickpeas. Although, nutritionally, I tend to be on the side of chickpea fans, I am not sure that they are particularly good for breakfast, but then again, I have never eaten them for breakfast and intend to stick to my morning bowl of Alpen (without added sugar, of course).

The blogger raises some good points about nutrition, since it appears that breakfast for many Spanish children, as well as for children in the UK, has turned into a morning frenzy with many children being stuffed with sugar before being sent to school. Of course, in worst case scenarios, children are being sent to school without any breakfast at all, which has led an increasing demand for breakfast clubs to be established in schools in an attempt that children start the day with at least a reasonable breakfast.

What’s the name for a battered chickpea? Hummus, of course, which is apparently in serious trouble due to a worldwide shortage of chickpeas. Maybe Spanish children are eating them all for breakfast? No, the real reason is that the crop has been very poor in the last few years and this has led to an inability to meet demand, which in turn has led to a price increase. The increasing demand for hummus, which is made from chickpeas, is also to blame since supermarket hummus is in high demand in the UK. The price of chickpeas is the main reason for the rapid increase in the price of hummus.

The major UK supermarkets completely ran out of the product for several weeks last year, and the ready availability of hummus is still looking doubtful, which has led to serious talk of a ‘National Hummus Crisis’. After all, what exactly are people supposed to put on their pita bread? Chickpeas and hummus used to be known as ‘the food for poor people’. Not anymore, since hummus is now seen as a trendy addition to any sandwich, wrap, pita bread, or whatever the ‘in word' for a lunchtime snack is at the moment.

The humble chickpea is grown in parts of Spain and the Canary Islands, where it is a popular addition to traditional stews and soups. Known as ‘garbanzo’, the chickpea has been grown in the Mediterranean, Middle East and parts of Africa for more than 7000 years. The ancient Greeks tucked into them as snacks, and they are a popular addition to Spain’s national dish, ‘cocido’, which is a stew that consists of chickpeas and pork. In the Canary Islands, there is a similar dish, but made with beef and chickpeas. The ingredients of these stews are not an exact one, since I guess much depends upon what the restaurant has available at the time, but I can almost guarantee that chickpeas will be lurking in there somewhere. Just don’t get me started on the potential shortage of falafel!

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to:

Calima - Gone With the Wind

Expats in Spain and the Canary Islands will often hear the words “Oh, it’s just a calima” trotted out whenever it is a little cloudy or there is annoying dust in the air. In reality, it is not quite as simple as that, and the true calima is something to be celebrated, as well as to curse, particularly if you suffer from breathing conditions and respiratory allergies.

In the Canary Islands, the calima is often referred to as “Bruma Seca”, which is “Dry Fog”. It appears for up to ten times each year for a day or two, but in the worst cases, can be present for a week, or even longer. People with respiratory problems and allergies often suffer considerably during these periods. It is a time when sensible people try to stay indoors or wear a face mask when going outside for any length of time if they suffer from breathing conditions.

Calimas are usually, but not always, accompanied by very hot winds, and humidity levels increase. Residents are plagued with reddish dust on their patios and cars, which also invades every crevice of their homes. A calima occurs when dust from the Sahara Desert is dragged across landmass by strong winds. Dust can remain suspended for hours and even days; visibility is reduced and the air becomes cloudy as a result of the dust.

The Canary Islands are often regarded as having the “best climate in the world”, but we are not immune from the devastating effects of calimas. The intensity of heat on the islands increases respiratory problems and allergies, as well as general oral health. The tiny particles of dust generated irritates the mucous membranes, which can have serious implications for oral health. Often, as a result of taking antihistamines to control allergies, the immune system fills the hollows of our head with mucus. The cavities that are located above the mouth cause pain and greater sensitivity to cold and heat when filled with mucus, because of increased pressure upon the upper teeth.

Calimas are not all bad, since the Central Sahara was a lake in prehistoric times. The dry sand contains fertile remains of its once rich, organic particles. These nitrogen-rich components within a calima help to fertilise the Atlantic Ocean by promoting the growth of phytoplankton, which forms the basis of the food chain that allows all sea creatures to survive and thrive. Climate change scientists believe that the greenhouse effect is minimised, because the sea’s micro-organisms absorb harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In other words, the more phytoplankton in the sea, the less carbon dioxide in the air. However, it is a delicate balance and too much dust in the Atlantic could create too much plankton and areas of low oxygen, which is not so good.

According to researchers, calima dust from the Sahara also helps to feed plants in the Amazon, since it acts as a fertiliser, which helps the rain forest to grow and thrive. There are also other complex interactions linking calimas to events that we do not yet fully understand. Some studies claim that the damage of hurricanes is reduced due to the effect of calimas cooling the water temperature that is needed for hurricanes to build. Around one third of the natural soils that make up the Canary Islands are based upon Saharan dust that has dropped on the islands over millennia. The rich, fertile soils on these islands have been enriched through the effects of the calima.

Many suffer from the health effects of the calima, or complain about the dust that has landed on their patios and cars. Maybe we should instead be grateful that it is feeding the luscious plants in the Amazon rain forest, fertilising the Atlantic Ocean for sea creatures to survive, as well as reducing the greenhouse effect that has such serious implications for us all.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to:

Bed and Breakfast, but no Roof

It is holiday time again, and the ‘big getaway’ is about to begin in most countries. Those of us who live in Spain and the Canary Islands will hardly be surprised to read that Spain and the USA are jointly the second most popular countries for tourists to visit in the world with 75.6 million visitors each. Figures show Spain and the USA just behind France, which had 82.6 million visitors.

With all this holiday travel, and particularly during the peak holiday season, finding sufficient accommodation for all manner of guests with different budgets can be a problem. In the Canary Islands, for instance, it used to be a simple matter of recommending a tried and trusted hotel for visiting friends, yet this is currently becoming more of a problem with most hotels at full capacity for much of the year. Whilst innovative ideas, such as Airbnb have helped to ease the load, this form of accommodation is increasingly being eyed with suspicion, especially by tourism officials who are concerned about wide variations in the quality of such accommodation, as well as tax and local authority officials who are concerned that taxes are not being paid.

I was intrigued to hear about one innovative offering from Airbnb on the deliciously unconventional Spanish island of Ibiza. Since accommodation on the island is in short supply, and prices have increased to unrealistic levels, some locals are offering a bunk bed on their balconies for just 50 euros a night. One such ‘hostel’ offers up to nine bunk beds on a small balcony. Guests have use of the bathroom and living room, although understandably, this area is heavily monitored with a security camera.

If this isn’t quite up to usual standards, guests can opt to stay in a wooden shack and delivery vans converted into ‘caravanettes’, although these alternatives are more expensive at 90 euros per night, but they do have the added advantage of a roof. It is probably worth paying extra for protection during a sudden storm or a mosquito attack. Intending guests might find it useful to know that Ibiza is an all-day party island where quality sound proofing could be quite useful, particularly at night.

One enterprising businessman in Spain recently bought an old plane from a bankrupt airline with a view to converting it into premium accommodation for tourists. I am often told how comfortable planes are to sleep in during long haul flights, so logic tells me that they could make comfortable night time accommodation on the ground too. This form of holiday accommodation could well appeal to aviation fanatics and those seeking something different. Personally, once I have arrived at my destination and left the plane, the last thing that I would want to do is to spend my holiday in one; still, it takes all sorts.

This businessman may well be on to something big, since there are several converted planes around the world that have been successfully converted into hotels, bars, restaurants, homes and even a McDonalds! There is one plane in Georgia that has been converted into a kindergarten, which will no doubt appeal to aspiring pilots of the younger generation. In New Zealand, one 1950s Bristol Freighter twin engine aircraft that was used in the Vietnam War has been converted into a motel, although guests have to pay extra to sleep in the cockpit. Another airplane in the Netherlands has been converted into a romantic getaway with all those holiday essentials, including a spa, jacuzzi, infrared sauna, mini bar and three flat screen televisions. I am curious to know what happens in an infrared sauna…

Personally, I think I will give these alternatives a miss, since I am desperate to stay in one of the new ‘virtual reality’ hotels with accommodation that adjusts to the specific needs of individual guests, such as the prototype recently demonstrated at Madrid’s tourism fair, but that is a story for another time. Finally, if you find yourself sleeping in unusual holiday accommodation, such as a garage, kennel or disused swimming pool, maybe a little more research is needed next time.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to:

Anyone for a Timple?

“How about a timple?” I was asked by an earnest assistant in one of the traditional music shops in Las Palmas. I had just called in for a replacement violin string, and was looking at the range of Canarian traditional stringed instruments for sale. I quickly realised that I was not being offered an early morning alcoholic drink, and that the young salesman, speaking in English, had discovered an amusing way to catch the attention of English-speaking visitors to the shop. I have only recently begun to study early Canarian musical instruments, and as my first passion is the violin, this particular stringed instrument caught my eye, simply because of the beauty and simplicity of design.

The timple creates a voice by the instrumentalist plucking its strings in much the same way as the guitar, but there the similarity ends. It is much smaller than the guitar and usually has five strings, although in Tenerife some timples only have four strings. The timple is mainly used to accompany Canarian folk music and has a loud and rather sharp voice. Due to the success and increasing popularity of this instrument, it has now reached the status of a solo instrument in some circles.

The name of the instrument still intrigues me and I have yet to find a definitive answer to the origin of its name. In line with my initial thought about an alcoholic drink, the timple did used to be called a tiple (with only one ‘p’); before that it was called a ‘camelito camelillo’ because the back of the instrument looks very much like the hump of a camel, although it is less than 40 centimetres in length.

Timples were created in the Nineteenth Century and played throughout the Canary Islands and much of South America. In many ways, they are related to the ukulele, the Spanish guitar and the Portuguese chavaquino. Interestingly, the range of woods used is varied with the most common being pine for the body, ebony for the bridges, holy stick for the mast, and wood from the orange tree for decoration. Creation of these beautiful and interesting instruments was and still is a cottage industry across the islands, offering considerable variation in both design and construction. The island of Lanzarote became the centre for the systematic making of these instruments where one of the last timple makers is about to retire after more than sixty years of timple making.

The Government of Lanzarote has recognised Antonio Lemes Herandez as artisan of the year for his involvement for more than half a century in the production of timples. Antonio, a craftsman from Teguise, has been building small timples since he was a child. As a child, he made them from cardboard and other materials before painting them. He eventually perfected his technique and transformed a range of wood into his instruments, mostly pine, which he favours for timples since it can tune well. Over the years, Antonio has developed his own unique house style, which continues to delight players across the islands and across the world. Sixty years after his first contact with the timple, Antonio’s hands continue to create his unique timples, although he now feels that it is time to retire.

There are many renowned timplistas, as timple players are referred to, playing classical music and jazz and it is often regarded as an alternative instrument of choice chosen by guitarists. During the next fiesta, if you are fortunate enough to hear Canarian instrumentalists, do watch out for and listen carefully to the timple. I am sure that, like me, you will find it to be an engaging and fascinating instrument.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to:

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