Francisco, the husband, goes up there from Friday to Sunday in the season to hunt tordos, the thrushes they slaughter wholesale round these parts. They blast them with shotguns, or sit for hours in hides in the treetops behind gossamer nets slung between two poles. The excuse used is that the little birds eat the olives. As they hardly bother to gather the olives any more, it seems a flimsy excuse. This must have been going on for quite some time. There’s a recipe in Apicius (the author of De Re Coquinaria, the only record we have of Roman Cuisine) for Turdos, Latin for Tordos. What a difference a vowel makes.
The first thing I did when we got to the top of the mountain was to sit in one of these hides for an hour. I must say it’s a very peaceful way to hunt. The view stretched down across the antic antics of the folding valleys, over a dark green carpet of orange trees, past the next hamlet to the market town in the bowl of the valley, and then all the way to a water-colour strip of Mediterranean. About the only sounds were the singing of robins and sheep bells randomly composing John Cage symphonies on the nearby hillsides. I could see the attraction.
Gregorio was my hide companion, a friend of Francisco’s. We chatted easily about the weather, the tunnel being ripped through the mountains to ease the trip to and from the capital, thus destroying forever this solitude, politics and, inevitably, taxes. The fact that I can chat easily in Spanish while seated in an olive tree waiting for thrushes is something of a miracle. Like most miracles there is a simple explanation.
Gregorio’s first language is the local language, Mallorquin, a variation of Catalan. But when he went to school, he learnt Spanish, because Franco had banned the teaching of all languages used on the Iberian peninsula other than Castellano – what the world knows as Spanish. Subsequently, and almost as a matter of regional pride in these post-Franco times, his spoken Spanish is almost as bad as mine – although he has trouble reading the language he speaks fluently. Dictators leave contorted legacies.
We didn’t see any tordos until we took the net down, and one flashed past. Gregorio and I decided the little bastard had been waiting since eight that morning for that moment. It amazed me how quickly I had changed sides.
On the way down the hill we met Guillermo, another hunter who had been sitting behind a net further up the mountain. He hadn’t had any luck either. He asked me, point blank, within minutes of meeting me, if I was a verde – a green. The local green action group (curiously enough the old amateur ornithological group who’ve spread their wings) have been lobbying successfully against this thrush hunting, to the point where it is now illegal to sell them in shops or serve them in restaurants. Rather rashly, I said yes, but added that I knew little of the problem of the thrushes, and would trust the hunters not to do anything so silly as to cause their extinction, as had happened in the past with most of the native animals, starting with the Myotragus, the prehistoric island deer, which dropped off the map not long after the appearance of the first man. He assured me they wouldn’t. My answer must have mollified him, we remain friends to this day.
We went back to the farmhouse where Francisco’s wife Aina and my wife had been preparing lunch. This hunting of thrushes is man’s work. The kitchen is one of the most beautiful rooms in a very impressive old farmhouse – around 400 years old, I’d guess. It’s constructed of metre thick walls of rammed rock and the local honey coloured cement, whitewashed throughout inside. From a courtyard covered by a pergola cascading with pink bignonia, it opens onto a cavernous, flag stoned entrada through an arched olive wood double door.
Turn right at the entrada door for the kitchen, or walk straight through a door at the back past the well (filled with rain water collected from the roof, the only water) to the old olive press, not used for thirty odd years. Since the tourist boom started in the ‘60s, they don’t see any point working the olives. The tourist boom is over, and I keep telling them that the future for olive oil is bright, and it depends firstly on how you make it, and secondly on how you sell it, but they spit at the ground and shrug. Interfering foreigners, what do they know?
I’d like to take a little time to describe this old press, because they’re rapidly disappearing, ending up in bits in restaurants or museums. The new olive press in the cooperativa is all stainless steel and precision gauges. This one’s built around a massive piece of granite, hewn into a conical shape, sloping in towards the centre, surmounted by a smaller conical piece on it’s side, with a pole sticking out of it. This pole was attached, at first to a donkey, and later to a steam or internal combustion engine, and turned. Olives poured down a chute were crushed between the two stones. The oil from this first crush ran into a collection pot from a channel on the stone; that was the free run oil, usually reserved for the crusher’s table. The leftover olive paste was collected between round flat bags, woven of esparte, a grass that grows in Murcia and Andalucia. They were piled on top of one another, into a column under a long beam.
Through a hole in this beam passed a single piece of solid oak, about three metres long, hand carved into a spiral and connected to four horizontal bars. The bars were turned, and the beam pressed down and squeezed the paste until no more oil would come from it – that was the cold-pressed oil – then hot water was poured over the bags to help separate the last of the oil from the fruit – the hot pressed oil. Men (later machines) turned the screw and the oil ran out into a groove in the floor, from where it flowed into earthen ware jars.
It took three hours to crush the olives through sixty of these espurtines, bags of woven esparte. Good oil is still made this way around here sometimes, but only for private use. You can only buy it from friends, a kind of `moonshine’ olive oil. The father of my friend Tomeu still operates his own private press. You might remember that big scare with the olive oil sold round Madrid that killed people. It wasn’t olive oil, it was industrial rapeseed oil, and it was sold in unmarked bottles as olive oil. Because of that, it’s now illegal to sell unlabelled olive oil.
You can take your own olives to have them pressed if you know someone with a press, but there was a time when you’d take your bottle to the local shop, and they’d fill it with rich tasty oil from a nearby farm. Gone, gone, gone. The past is turning into fly blown photographs on cafe walls.
Upstairs in this old finca are the bedrooms, big rooms with views opening out onto the mountains, each with its saggy mattressed double bed (birth, death and marriage beds), a rough chest and a wardrobe, the walls whitewashed, the fine concrete floors scattered with sheep skin rugs. There was no bathroom, so Francisco built a modern one at one end of the entrada – he’s a tiler by trade.Now when I said this finca is beautiful, I didn’t mean it in a glossy magazine kind of a way; no wicker baskets full of wildflowers, pretty paintings hanging from pastel walls. Not a bit of it. Guns and cobwebs, prints of Saints (George is big) and faded family portraits on these flaking walls – if anything.
No one lives here anymore. They only stay for weekends in the winter, especially during the hunting season. Francisco, Guillermo and Gregorio come up Friday night, Aina comes up with the children on Sunday. Friday night is bloke’s night. They rip hunks off the leg of a country cured ham hanging off the kitchen ceiling, slice chunks of butifarron – a local delicacy, a blood sausage- and slap it on hunks of bread smeared with squashed tomato and olive oil. Afterwards, they sit around the open fire place drinking the local brandy, and smoking black tobacco.
But now in the kitchen, underneath the half-devoured haunches of ham, strings of tomatoes and garlic, sobrasada (a Mallorquin sausage of raw minced pork cured with lots of pimentón), and branches of laurel and rosemary hanging from hooks, Aina is cooking garbanzos. She’d already soaked them, and loaded them with their water into a fat, fire-blackened earthenware pot. They simmer with chopped up butifarron, slivers of lamb, and slices of spicy chorizo. She adds chopped skinned tomato, thinly sliced potato, and a couple of bay leaves. She puts the pot on a metal stand on the open fire, cooks it for a half an hour, takes it off, and lets it stand to cook, with its heavy lid on, off the fire another hour or so.
The light in this farm kitchen comes in low from a north facing window, augmented by the flickering open fire light. It’s another functional room, dominated by a long wooden table spread with a white oil cloth spattered with red roses. Next to the fireplace is a fuel stove, a sink, a butane gas stove, a mesh covered pantry, and an old kerosene fridge that works well enough.
Well enough to keep a chill on the bottles of Galician Ribeiro and Rosado from Binnisalem we drank with lunch. We sat around the fire eating olives from the surrounding groves, some not even pickled, just picked up from the ground, cured and dried a wrinkled purple-black by the sun, others young, green and bitter, pickled in brine (how much salt do you use? I asked the shepherd who gave me a bag of raw olives from his grove, this is what he told me; fill a jar with water, drop in a that-day-fresh egg, and pour in salt until the egg rises to the top) with chillies, and fennel. We cracked peanuts, and spoke of country matters, “ Who makes ends meet, who’s taking the knock,/ Government tariffs, wages, price of stock”  except they mostly talk in Mallorquin, so I just sit and watch the light playing across the bearded faces of the men, wishing I had a camera, knowing that even if I did I wouldn’t use it.
Lunch is served. It’s wonderful. Smoky from the fire, tangy from the spiced sausages, rich with all their juices and the floury texture of the garbanzos. Afterwards we drink cups of coffee laced with brandy, and chew on pieces of toasted almond turron. The sun is falling, the fire is flickering low, and the meal, the wine and the brandy have all conspired to leave languid gaps in the conversation.
After lunch we walked through the olive groves. Young Cisco, Aina’s eldest son, was excited to discover a dead sheep, the smell of it fanning out across the countryside. The sun had dropped behind the mountains, a light evening mist was rising and now the olive leaves were grey shadows, like the mountains above us. There was a desolate look to these groves. Aina and Francisco own around 50,000 square metres of olives, a sizeable hunk of land. Now, here and there, the dry stone terraces that crawl around the mountainsides are crumbling. The they say the Moors taught the locals how to build these walls a thousand years ago, and they encircle the entire island, an architectural feat, when you come to think of it, comparable with the Pyramids.
But if the olives aren’t being picked, then the trees and the terraces are neglected. Francisco’s place is better than most, he enjoys working the land, feels responsible for it. And he comes for the tordos. Elsewhere, it’s lying fallow, going to ruin, being cut up and sold in small parcels to foreigners (like us) who pull most of the trees down to build their fake rustic houses. The face of the valley, the pattern of a thousand years of man and nature intertwined , is changing.
We came to a deserted farmhouse, smaller, with a view right down the valley. Who owns it I asked? A woman in the village. She doesn’t want to sell it, it’s been in the family for hundreds of years, but she can no longer live here. It doesn’t pay to work it. It looked like they just locked up and walked out one day. Through the window you could see kitchen utensils in the kitchen, and the woodshed was full of wood. You could move in there tomorrow. Someone like me probably will.
We walked back, the chill dropping down from the mountains now, our breath turning to vapour. We clambered over a low fence, a detour to avoid the rotten sheep, bundled the child into the car, and said our farewells. You must come hunting again, said Francisco. As long as there’s a lunch like that I will. Next time, he said with a lopsided smile, we eat tordos. It was a smile I’d seen before.
It’s a pity there isn’t anything more substantial than these little thrushes to hunt, and that every year there are less and less of the beautiful creatures stopping over on their way north. But I understand the nostalgie de la bosque that sends men up to the top of the mountain at dawn, crunching over the rocky paths through the mist rising over the silver-green olive trees, clambering up the slippery steps set into the terrace walls, breathing out the bitter cold of the morning, the camaraderie of weapons and stealth, the tools of the hunter. It goes back beyond even the arrival of the thrush – right back to the first islanders, their ancestors, bashing the Myotragus on the heads with flint axes. The pathetic little tordos, once killed, are handed over, in an offhanded way, to the wife to pluck, gut and cook. It’s not the point, is it? If only green were black and white.
I hope so, I said, and offered him my hand. He took it, shrugged, and clumped back into the house. How long will you stay on the island Aina asked just before we got into the car in the failing light. I don’t know I told her. At least two years. It depends if I can make enough money. Claro, she said.
In Latin, the little bird is known by the to us inelegant name of turdo. Below is a recipe from those times. I like the juniper berries, which could be used in the tordos con salsa
Make a stuffing for the thrushes as follows: grind pepper, laser and laurel berries, then add cumin and fish-pickle (use nuoc nam or even blachan). Insert this through the bird’s throat then stitch up the hole. Stew the thrushes in oil and water seasoned with salt, aniseed and leeks.”
From Apicius: cookery & dining in Imperial Rome
Tordos con salsa
(Translated and adapted from the Spanish of Coloma Abrinas Vidal, Cocina Selecta Mallorquina
You can substitute three quail split in half for the six tordos – tordos are a little hard to come by.
6 tordos or three split quails.
1 finely sliced onion
a small glass of milk
a large glass of water
½ a cup of brandy (preferably Spanish)
½ cup of almonds
Scant handful of finely chopped parsley
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic
6 slices of pan mallorquí or pane di casa
Place a large non reactive pan or fireproof earthenware dish on a medium flame with the EVOO.
Fry the finely sliced onion until transparent.
Add six tordos and cook until browned all over
Add the small glass of milk, the large glass of water or stock and the half cup of brandy.
Scald a half cup of almonds, then peel them and fry them in a small pan over a low flame with some EVOO. Shake them and remove them fro the fire when they have lightly browned.
Put the parsley, garlic and almonds in a mortar and grind them to a fine past – add a little EVOO to facilitate this.
When the tordos are cooked – check by skewering to see that the juices run clear – remove them from the pan, and place them, covered in a warm place to rest.
Add the almond and garlic mixture to the pan juices, stir through and leave for five/ ten minutes over a low flame.
Serve each bird on a slice of fried bread, pour the sauce over them.
 From Phillip Larkin’s poem ‘Livings’ in High Windows.