The area: extends east to west from the expanse of the Caballo Mountain Range (Lanjarón, Nigüelas, Dúrcal, and Padul mountain ranges), to the Albuñuelas plateau and Guajáres Mountains, and from north to south from the ‘Suspiro del Moro’ (‘The Moor’s Last Sigh) mountain pass to the confluence of the Rivers Ízbor and Guadalfeo.
This makes it one of the areas in Andalusia with the widest variety of scenery, and where the climate ranges from subtropical in the south to extreme in the high mountain ranges. As our area lies in a depression, the surrounding mountains shelter it from cold entering from the north and endow it with a large number of springs. With the Mediterranean to the south, sea breezes moderate the high temperatures that this suntrap in the Sierra Nevada foothills would otherwise experience.
Therefore we can conclude that our area has been inhabited since time immemorial, groups of settlers populating the Valley and carrying out all kinds of farming activities ranging from intensive farming in the central area to large cereal crop cultivation on the peripheral plains.
There is low annual rainfall, so intensive farming requires irrigation. The ancient network of royal irrigation channels (‘acequias’) is fed by the three main rivers: the River Dúrcal, which joins the Padul Lake river to form the River Grande, the River Torrente which descends from the peaks of Caballo Mountain and the River Santo which collects the waters flowing from the Albuñuelas mountains and plateau. The three rivers Grande, Torrente and Santo come together in Restábal at the head of the Béznar reservoir. There are also numerous springs used for irrigation purposes, such as the Juncal and Zaza springs in Pinos del Valle, the Pleito Ravine springs (Acequias and Mondújar) and the Tablate Ravine springs that irrigate Mondújar and Béznar. There are numerous natural water sources in all the mountain ranges which mean that the rivers have constant water, even after the spring thaw is over.
There are two entirely distinct zones in our region. The fields in the northern area (Acequias, Mondújar, Nigüelas, Dúrcal and Padul), where irrigation can only take place on a periodic basis using the excess water from the spring thaw, are used to cultivate cereal and legume crops which need spring watering, along with extensive olive groves with large trees of the “lechín” variety. Summer irrigation favours cultivating second harvest potatoes, depending on availability of water, and sweet corn, only planted on land near water sources since both crops require abundant irrigation.
Villages with extensive mountain areas have traditionally cultivated late crops such as rye, a cereal sown before the winter snows and which germinates after the spring thaw. It is a cereal used for making bread (black bread) and the stalks were also used for making roofs for huts or weaving chair seats, an expensive substitute for the bulrush found in Padul Lake.
Another crop typical of these mountain areas was seed potatoes, which were collected at the beginning of autumn and stored in deep trenches, “pits”, where they were covered with rye straw and earth to prevent them from shooting and kept cold by the snow until they were taken down to the coastal plains for sowing. The end-of-summer vegetables and mountain fruits are famous for their delicious flavour.
These are the most fertile lands in our area and have traditionally produced very high yields. A clue to their abundance is provided by the six centres of population established over time (Murchas, Melegís, Saleres, Restábal, Béznar, Chite, and Talará); small villages that meant that their workers could be near their carefully tended crops.
From ancient times, citrus fruit - oranges, lemons and mandarins - has been cultivated in perfect symbiosis with olives, which protected the citrus trees from winter freezes as they still do today. Olive trees are taller and form a thick canopy above the fruit crops, both fruit and the trees themselves being very susceptible to damage by low temperatures. A characteristic of the Valley today is citrus fruit cultivation, which extends to large areas of Pinos del Valle and Albuñuelas. As oranges are not labour intensive and the olives are not harvested by beating the trees with sticks, the ground is prepared and as the olives fall to the floor they are harvested by machine. This means that these types of cultivation can continue although the true farmers are very elderly and when required their children carry out the physical work even though they are not full-time farmers. The traditional flood-watering style of irrigation is being replaced by drip irrigation which requires less labour and uses less water. Sales are managed by the "Trama y Azahar" cooperative which has over 400 members and is based in Talará, and sells the majority of Valley oranges. Today there is some subtropical fruit cultivation, such as avocado and guava, given their good profitability.
The olive treehas always been complementary to other crops and planted around the edges of farming plots where potato or wheat crops were sown, providing the principal crop. Plots given over solely to olive cultivation in areas of periodic irrigation are found in the high field areas of the Valley. The central and southern part of the area has always been used for cultivating other crops. The olive variety is “lechín” which, although somewhat unreliable (some years there are abundant crops, other years not), is very well adapted.
Tipping: In the carting yard there are small enclosed cribs for the olives. These cribs are numbered and assigned to the harvesters, each bringing in his olives in number order by ‘load’ (the amount that can be pressed in one go. A load is approximately 250 Kg or 5 ‘fanegas’, around 55.5 litres, of olives).
Milling: This can be done in two ways: “Beast of burden” milling. Of Roman origin, the mill was drawn by a beast of burden (mule or ass) with its eyes blinkered, which turned the mill by walking around it anti-clockwise. There is a horizontal bedstone which mills the olive using a vertical stone roller mounted on a shaft, which turns on another vertical stone. Hydraulic mill: The structure is the same as that of the “beast of burden” mill, but the shafts are of steel to mount the two vertical rollers. The hydraulic mill invention has an external water tank which is used to exert adjustable pressure on the blades of the large pit wheel. The pressure makes the runner stone turn on the bedstone at a speed of no more than 10 turns per minute.
Pressing: Once the olives have been crushed they produce the paste or pulp which must then be pressed to obtain the olive oil. Beam presses are over 11 metres long and have a quintal weighing around 800 Kg which is fixed to the beam with a worm screw or Roman type screw. Each load was pressed twice: one press with the paste at ambient temperature (to obtain virgin olive oil for cooking) and another press with the paste spread out and sprinkled with hot water (to obtain a lower quality oil used for lamps). The oils were collected in the "wells" underneath the beams by decantation (the oil rises slowly to the surface as it weighs less than the other vegetable liquids). The pressing process is lengthier than the milling process and the two assistants to the master miller would take turns, sleeping on rough beds so that during the night they could continue with the pressing process. The solid mass left over (pomace) was used as fuel and fodder. From each load, around forty litres of olive oil was obtained.
Storage: The oil is very sensitive to oxygenation and ages easily. It must be stored well sealed and in a cool place. For this reason, in the oil press there were large earthenware jars sunk into the ground so that the oil could be stored for longer.
The four olive oil production companies in our area use automatic computerised processes, pressing having been replaced by centrifuging which separates the oil from the other liquids and solids in a single operation. Olive oil is currently produced and sold by: the S. Roque cooperative in Pinos del Valle, Aceites Navarro García in Nigüelas, Aceites Juan Jiménez Pérez in Albuñuelas and Guerrero Amos in El Padul. All four use the latest technology and produce high quality oils that compete well in the market.
Agriculture has traditionally been the core activity of the Valley population, and so devices or tools to turn the harvest into food are essential. The invention par excellence was the mill, animal-drawn originally but over time being replaced by technological advance in the shape of the “water mill”, used to obtain basic foodstuffs (bread making flour and olive oil), a traditional staple of Mediterranean populations which, along with wine, made up the Mediterranean triad in Roman times. There were three types of mill:
Tank, pond and millrace, having the arrangements described below:
A. – Tank: squat cone comprising rings fitting together, made from glazed ceramics on the inside and strengthened on the outside by a stone wall. The main aim is to maintain the column of water which will provide flow and sufficient pressure for the system. The principal piece of this cylinder is the splitting stone, situated at the base of the cylinder and housing the key part of the assembly, the ‘saetillo’, a conduit a few centimetres in diameter directing the force of the water at the wheel paddles to make it turn sufficiently fast and strongly to move the heavy millstones.
B. - Wheel pit: dome shaped chamber housing all the hydraulic systems:
Pit wheel: Large wheel made of olive, chestnut or oak wood with a large number of spokes, on the end of each spoke was a paddle or scoop which were replaceable if broken. They came in different sizes, flour mill wheels turning more quickly (up to 300 revolutions per minute, olive oil wheels no more than 50).
Iron shaft: This is, strictly speaking, the axis, made of iron, its base held in place on the wheel’s wooden handle by pressure and metal rings. At its upper side it was assembled with a roller made of olive wood, held in place on the millstone by pressure and lubricated with strips of pig belly skin.
Shank beam: Lower end of the shaft, underneath the wheel and in two parts, one of iron with a concave head, nailed to the centre of the wheel and the other of bronze in a convex shape fitting into the first part, this bearing being lubricated by the water itself. This part is mounted on a fixed piece in oil mills, whilst in flour mills it is moveable.
‘Ragua’: Large beam of olive, chestnut or oak wood which, fitted at either end into a pair of fixed vertical stones, allowed the entire assembly to be lifted.
Relief: Worm screw connected to one end of the ‘ragua’ and with a wheel in the milling room, allows the ‘ragua’, mill axis and millstone to be lifted. This mechanism did not exist in olive oil mills.
Sluice: metal part used to divert the flow of water away from the blades and thus stop the mill. It is operated by a shaft in the mill room.
The other type is the millrace. This replaces the tank with a channel in a squat pyramid shape. This type of mill was built in flat, level areas; there were several along the Mill Route on the edge of Padul Lake.
Water mills were replaced at the beginning of the 20th century by electrically powered mills and traditional stone mills by the invention of hammer mills, which were efficient and smaller. This meant that flour mills disappeared from our area, being replaced by the so-called ‘flour factories’. The last operated in Talará until the mid-1990s.
The largest extensions are on Albuñuelas plateau, Padul and Pinos del Valle, then smaller in other areas and none at all around Melegís. Crops traditionally cultivated on dry land are cereals, with the wheat/hops combination, wheat in the richer soil and hops in the rest, following the fallow-legume rotation pattern to allow soil recovery.
Since the seventies, almond trees have been cultivated intensively on dry land as they require little rain, and have been enormously successful, extending their cultivation area thanks also to EU funding for almond production. There are two industrial shelling outfits, Almendras Alhambra Cooperative in Dúrcal serving the province, and a private company in Talará. There is little olive cultivation on dry land, although some new groves have been planted.
The most interesting cultivation is the vine. The Valley vineyards have been famous for centuries, in Moorish times not only for raisins but also for wine production with vineyards in Pinos del Valle, Cónchar, Nigüelas, Dúrcal and Padul. The vineyards have been devastated by phylloxera at different periods, the worst episode occurring in the 19th century and resulting in the depopulation and ruin of some villages such as Pinos del Valle. The most important vineyard today is Señorío de Nevada in Cónchar(24), which produces high quality wines. There are family wineries that continue producing the pale wine typical of the area, using better production techniques learnt through oenology studies.
We set aside a separate chapter on traditional occupations in the Valley to the transport of goods between the area’s different villages or between these villages, the coast and Granada capital. Goods were moved until well into the 20th century on pack horse trains, sometimes of up to thirty animals. The most significant were the Pinos del Valle trains, transporting wine and spirits produced in its anis and spirits factories; those of Nigüelas and Dúrcal, transporting oil, soap, coal and seed potatoes; and mule trains from Padul which distributed straw fodder for working animals. In Padul and Dúrcal there were important centres of esparto grass work, producing rope and woven items for the surrounding villages. This trade was about setting off laden and returning hopefully not empty handed, and we must note that our area lies on the natural route from the coast and the Alpujarras to Granada. Farming animals were used for this trade when they were not being used for seasonal ploughing, and in this way our forebears were able to supplement their meagre income.
This is a historic cultivation, since our area and that of the Alpujarras and Murcia were the largest producers of silk, particularly sought-after due to its high quality. It was an industrial cultivation requiring a large labour force for tending the mulberry trees, in addition to the winding, dyeing and weaving of cloth on the loom. All these tasks were carried out during the winter months when there was less farming work to be undertaken.
White mulberry tree (morus alba), bushy trees reaching up to 15 m in height and well suited to dry conditions. They produced a large quantity of leaves and the caterpillars eating them spun cocoons producing lower quality silks, termed “cadarzo” from trees on irrigated land and "raerzo" from trees on dry land.
Black mulberry tree (morus nigra), shrub-like and with thicker leaves with a higher latex content producing higher quality silks, called "mercadante", for export abroad. The fabrics made from this silk were famous throughout Europe. They were exported by Genovese traders from the Alcaicería area in Granada.
Red mulberry tree (morus rubra), medium sized trees whose fruit was used to make jam, rather than as food for silkworms.
This industrial cultivation was replaced by sheep farming for wool by incomers from Castile. The last three silk looms in the Valley were located in Béznar, Albuñuelas and El Padul, recorded in the middle of the 19th century.
Turing this natural fibre into useful woven items and farming implements was an activity that ran parallel with agriculture and was carried out in the winter months. The esparto grass centres in Padul and Dúrcal were famous, until plastics and rubber appeared. Esparto grass weaving, for which Padul was renowned, was a manual task divided between men and women: the men would collect the grass and the women would weave it. The same occurred in Dúrcal and to a lesser extent in the other villages, producing ropes and cord and ‘herpiles’: large woven nets for transporting straw, and baskets in Dúrcal and Nigüelas: typically a net sack for carrying mountain potatoes. Farmers would beat the esparto grass with mallets after it had been macerated, “cooked” in water to make it flexible enough to be woven. The greatest specialisation in this kind of work was in Dúrcal, with the industrial production of rope using distaffs which employed a large labour force well into the 20th century.
Autor: Francisco Rodríguez Gutiérrez