Traditions in El Maestrat

Traditions in El Maestrat

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Animal herding still exists here, but the times are achanging!

By Stephane de Leng, Photojournalist and resident in the Maestrat

Traditional animal herding is still a common sight in El Maestrat. When I first came here, I showed the above photo to a local estate agent in Atzeneta and she was horrified. Stephanie, she exclaimed, you cannot put this on your website. People will think we are backward! I had never looked at it like that; it had not occurred to me that anyone could be embarrassed by the lingering of old traditions. Of course it is this old way of life that draws the tourist from “New Europe”. It signals an escape from the stresses and pressures brought about by modernisation. However, modernisation has arrived here too despite appearances.

The old farms are left to crumble when the young go to work in the cities, Spain

In El Maestrat there are still no foreign restaurants or McDonald’s, not even a cinema, but most villages have high speed wifi and the streets are packed with cars. Increasingly the land has been neglected as many young move away in search of work in bigger towns and cities, leaving parents behind. Many have not been able to maintain their crumbling farm buildings without help. In addition the land is broken up into ever diminishing parcels by inheritance laws that stipulate an equal division between all the offspring. This too is modernisation! People who do remain worry. What will become of their region? And at the same time they want to look modern like the rest of the world.

What will happen to El Maestrat – I think it will be fine

In the meantime there is hope. City jobs are not as easy to find as they used to be, a hangover from the past recession and the subsequent Covid pandemic. While the cities slowly recover, in El Maestrat the economy is soaring. Tile factories that did not close down or sell to the Chinese are positively booming. Just check out the new Baldocer factory. It’s facade resembles a mini Hadrian’s wall with beautifully positioned huge stones winding beside the main road for quite some distance (No place to stop to take a photo). The space it occupies must be more than my finca of 5 hectares and the work that has gone into its construction is first rate. Baldocer’s previous factory, beautifully landscaped, has been sold to Mexicans. Mexican tiles are truly beautiful. Let’s hope they introduce their style to Spain!

The crumbling masias are not so crumbly anymore

In any event around here there is a noticeable return to el campo and villages to find a better quality of life and space. Although work is thin on the ground in one respect, in others it is not. Apart from the tile industry, the building profession is booming and those crumbling fincas are not so crumbly anymore. It seems that any finca has an enthusiastic owner now and of course they need workmen.

a lot of effort is put into village feistas and it shows

This aside, there are those who think outside the box and start their own businesses or just work as digital nomads. Really, does anyone need to live permanently in a city? Here the rents are cheap, taxes low, the countryside gorgeous and lots of activities such as bicycling and hiking, not to mention the plethora of well-attended fiestas and fabulous restaurants. It is also not that far from Castellon and cheap trains elsewhere, or even the gorgeous blue flag beaches the Communidad of Valencia is famous for.

A millennium olive tree

Meanwhile the almond and olive trees gnarled with disease and lack of pruning, are being re-generated. The ancient millennium olives are no longer massacred by chainsaws – this is the only province in Spain where they are protected and not allowed to be uprooted. Yes, many young are going back to the land out of choice, not for lack of it. Some have even become goat herders. I was so happy to hear their bells, despite the fact that once they raced onto my land and started to eat the young olive trees!

The sight of goats being tended is just fantastic

In California they are planting almonds and olives as fast as they can for their prosperous yield, but in the Upper Maestrat they shake their heads and say there is no money to be made. The Yanks harvest mechanically, but in the upper Maestrat that is not really an option due to the steep mountains and narrow terraces. Apart from a few bad years in California when most almond crops failed, the market here is poorly paid. Families spend weeks and weeks hand harvesting their olives and almonds, then bring them to the cooperatives found in many towns. One euro for a kilo of almonds, but they are proud of their produce and so they should be. To press your olives is cheap and if your land is certified organic, there are specialised mills to take your produce too – you get the sticker! Although 2.5 years of drought and recent violent winds have significantly lowered the yields this year, we are all happy for our clean, unadulterated oil. It is really delicious.

Harvesting the olives on my farm with help of the neighbours

The winds of of social change are definitely blowing in El Maestrat. But for an immigrant as me, I adore the here and now while understanding the Spanish view. Let see how it pans out. I’ll check out now and have the traditional tasting of this year’s oil. A bottle of it opened and sniffed immediately for its first heady note. Then a plate to pour the oil in with a pinch of salt to mop up with great bread. I assure you, much better than foie gras (fatty liver by the way). Hasta luego!

Let’s hear it for here and now and the old traditions