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
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 2017
Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724