Next to my cast-iron, wood-burning stove, sits a basket where I keep the logs. It is made of woven esparto grass and I bought it in 2003 from a small shop in town, one of the old family businesses that in the last few years have closed down, giving way to food and drink outlets or souvenir shops aimed at tourists. The couple who owned it must have been born in the 1930s, perhaps during the Civil War. They would have known the hard times of the 40s and 50s when many families survived by gathering esparto, a kind of needle grass, from the sierras and crafting it into baskets or other products. Now, they told me, it was their son who made or commissioned from local villages most of the products crammed haphazardly on the shelves and floor of the shop.
Working esparto is a craft that goes back thousands of years. In 1857, over fifty mummies were found in a neolithic cave in Albuñol, south of Granada. The carefully worked esparto baskets, rugs and clothing discovered there show that the skills and techniques for crafting esparto have scarcely changed in nearly 7,000 years. The southeast of Spain (Andalucía, Murcia and Valencia) where much of the esparto grows was given the name Campus Spartarius by the Romans. Both they and the Phoenicians who preceded them on the Iberian peninsular used it for rope-making, the Spanish boat ropes being highly respected throughout the Mediterranean. For the Arabs of al-Andalus, halfa – the Arabic name for esparto – was also considered an important product.
Conchar is a village in the Lecrín Valley not far from Granada where until recently, esparto played an important part in the local economy – so much so that esparto plaits were even used as currency in the local shops. In fact it was a whole way of life, occupying everyone in the community, children included – especially on rainy days when work in the fields was impossible. Those too old to work might spend the entire day making esparto plaits.
The tough, fibrous esparto grass that grew wild on the hillsides was pulled up using a small stick. A sharp tug would extract a bundle of it and the ends were rolled up on this. When about one and a half kilos (a maña or manada) had been collected, it was stretched out in the sun to dry. This unworked esparto was referred to as esparto crudo. It could be used ‘raw’ in the same way as wicker, but generally it was submerged in balsas or ponds for a month to ‘cook’ it – a fermentation process that eliminated the cellulose fibres. After being taken out and dried in the sun again, the esparto was beaten with wooden hammers called mazas to loosen the fibres, making it easier to work and preventing it snapping. When the crushed grass had been raked, it was twisted into plaits of a standard length. With practice, a plait could be made in an hour.
To be worked, esparto needs to be dry. However, drying it became a problem during the 40s and 50s when no raw materials were imported due to Franco’s autarky policy. Esparto was needed in the factories to make clothes and sacks so despite it being a centuries-old tradition, gathering esparto on government or private property was declared illegal. Ronald Fraser, writing about the village of Mijas in Málaga province, interviewed local inhabitants who spoke of the Civil Guard searching homes for contraband esparto. It was easy to detect because while the official esparto from Málaga was white and dry, the fresh illegal stuff was green. Spreading it out in the sun was obviously impossible with the authorities on the lookout for illegal picking.
In my forthcoming novel The Red Gene, there is a scene in the mountains of Jaén where Rose and her lover are hiding out after the Republican defeat in the Civil War: ‘Occasionally they came across villagers gathering esparto, the tough grass used to make baskets and alpargatas, but today there was no sign of human presence.’ And another scene where Consuelo’s family in Antequera are visited by a couple of Civil Guards: ‘They took off their shiny tricorn hats and talked about the problem of peasants stealing esparto grass from the countryside. Even putting them in a cell for a week didn’t stop them, one of the men said.’
The uses for esparto baskets in SE Spain were multiple. Different kinds – each with a distinct shape and plaiting method – served for collecting snails, for pressing the olive paste in almazaras or olive mills, for bringing fish from the boats… For example, the plaits could be sewn together in spirals for some kinds of basket, for others they were twined. Nor was esparto used only for baskets. Items as diverse as rope, wood pulp, paper, hessian for plaster, matting, water-carriers (proofed with pine pitch), donkey harnesses and panniers, cheese moulds and coverings for demijohns of wine, as well as a corduroy-type fabric for clothes, were made out of esparto grass.
Rope-soled shoes were the most common form of footwear in the countryside and are still worn. In Spain they are usually known as alpargatas but they have sometimes been referred to as esparteñas. In northern Europe, the French name, espadrilles, is more commonly used. There are several mentions of alpargatas in The Red Gene. Miguel’s uncle was the alpargatero in his village and taught his nephew how to make them. But as Consuelo observed, some were too poor even for alpargatas. They would go barefoot or wear rubber albarcas made from discarded car tyres.