Trundling toward Seville with a bootful of booty – a creamy blue cheese from Galicia, a jar of blue cheese cream from Asturias, a jar of apple jam, a jar of orange jelly, a jar of strawberry jam, a jar of quince and orange paste, a jar of quince and lemon paste, a jar of chilli chutney and a small bottle of nispero liqueur, the maker of which didn’t so much recommend to us as warn us about. Two bottles of hand-picked olives in deep brine and three bottles of Extremaduran wine, a fridge magnet, two porcelain beer mugs and, wrapped up carefully in a straw hat, the most delicate cargo of all: six eggs from the finca we’ve just left and the chickens we’ve just waved goodbye to. Now all we have to do is get them home, just over four hundred kilometres away.
The project does not have an auspicious beginning; after just a few minutes we drive through a small town so sleepy and rural that even the main street is cobbled. Mis huevos, I complain as the car rattles through. We stop afterwards, outside a mammoth industrial complex of some kind that caught my eye on the way here yesterday – four huge silos and more at the other end next to a concrete dome the size of a small moon. At least half a kilometre in length, the plant consists of enormous pipes and ramps, a thousand stairwells, chutes and chimneys in all sizes and the constant noise of process. I have no idea what they do here and from a distance it is certainly a carbuncle in an otherwise pastoral landscape, but give me a tripod and a couple of days and I could get some beautiful images from this. I could fill an exhibition space with them and make jewels of all this metalwork and cement that would sparkle in their new setting. Today though, the sun is too bright but the brief stop gives K a chance to rewrap the eggs individually, inside an old t-shirt which she puts back into the straw hat, which sits on top of the cheese, which sits on top of a bag of melting ice.
All a far cry from the finca. We were only there for one night but we had the place to ourselves (not even the owners hung around overnight) so we could sit in a state of fantasy on the covered terrace that overlooked a vegetable patch and a river – a scene from a receding Spain, from my childhood, from our daydreams of the future. We let the bats swoop around us and the lizards call from the wall behind, until there were too many bugs and we retreated indoors. Precious time doing nothing together.
In the day the owner’s son had given us a tour of the nearby pueblo, taking particular pride in the four great and highly ornate church towers and treating us to snippets of the town’s Templar past. On noticing my distraction and perhaps a lack of enthusiasm for what he considered the main attractions, he asked me what it was I was looking for.
“Mira, soy fotografó. Persigo la luz. No la iglesia, no la historia – solo la luz. Nada más. Me entiendes?”
I pointed at the nearest tower which from one side was bathed in the glow of the last hour before sunset. What he valued most was luminous in what I valued most and, understanding me at last, he helped me spend the next half hour digging for gold light before returning to the campo to play with a puppy we christened Patch, for obvious reasons.
The pueblo, called Jerez de los Caballeros, is supposed to be the big draw around here but we got more value from the quiet out in the country, the call of birds and frogs and the whisper of foliage, particularly since the town was swarmed with an infestation of communions that day and in any case, I have a deeply ingrained indifference to churches. I was much more interested in the coins that F, the aforementioned son, showed me in the car on the way back – a Roman one and one from the reign of the Reyes Catolicos but especially a Caliphate coin which was so shiny it might have been minted the previous day, and all this buried in the ground on their land, waiting with the patience of the inanimate to be found.
We’d come to the finca from Zafra, where there hadn’t been much to do, and that had suited us fine. It’s a handsome little town that didn’t make much of an impression on us initially, but where we sank into a soft, relaxed state, and where from a roof terrace on the main square we watched the palms sway and flutter in a rising breeze, one of them hoarding a football in its fronds, and I wondered if the child had forgotten about it, or came here still to see if the tree would give it back its prized possession. Zafra is where the fridge magnet came from – we hunt fridge magnets wherever we go – though we didn’t need to get as far as Galicia, on this occasion, for the cheese.
When our friend, S, told me about a fair held each year in Trujillo (a gorgeous old conquistador town already known to us) and devoted entirely to cheese, she had my attention – it just so happens I like cheese. Very much indeed. We arranged to be there and also to take S and P up on their kind offer of hospitality for the night; having parked at theirs, the four of us went together, enjoying a beautiful lunch before hitting the main square and the fair, which turned out to be a considerably more bacchanalian affair than I’d envisaged but where we did manage, amidst all the bustle and music (youngsters-in-aviator-shades-throwing-dance-moves-I-shit-you-not), to get hold of some cheese.
On the way back, K slept in the back of the car beside me, her head nodding and her toes propped against my leg as though I were a piece of furniture. The wine “samples” we had at the festival will have helped, no doubt, but there was something more – she looked genuinely at ease in a way that doesn’t happen often enough for her, a joyful little smirk on her face as she dozed that I felt joyful looking at. A proud piece of furniture.
Back at S and P’s place, peace on the verandah. Olive groves and eucalyptus forests, a white Extremaduran village and islands on the lake, a castle on the hill, a setting sun and a rising moon and above all, the silence. We love coming here and, if truth be told, envy them a little. If there is one thing that gets in the way of our enjoying the patch of earth they have claimed for themselves and on which they grow their fruit, it is our desire to claim our own one day. We have to catch ourselves and pull ourselves back, allow ourselves to enjoy the now.
We left in the morning, laden with jams and olives and a couple of days later as we pull away from the industrial monster we pass a house at the side of the road that they had told us about. Some local character’s idea of Gaudi-like architecture applied to a semi-detached. Apparently he didn’t even have permission but there it is. It must have been a dream for him. It must have taken some drive to complete it, as well as nerve. The result is pretty horrible, but I’m still glad we have these people among us, and their follies. Looking at it, gleaming in the sun, it’s that much easier to believe I’ll get to put my own up.
I wince at every pothole, speed bump and flaw in the road surface on the long drive home but when we pull up to the house at last the six eggs, miraculously, are intact. I will use them to make a tortilla with potatoes from Sanlucar de Barrameda and caramelised onions. The wine goes in the rack and the jams go in the fridge along with the cheese. The magnet goes on the fridge door and, having enjoyed a few days of internet-free living – a thing of inestimable value – I log on. J’s face is popping up on Facebook today and, since I don’t do dates, I’m taken by surprise. Then I see that it’s been two years since we lost him and I’m reminded in the strongest possible terms that real treasure is never, ever the things we’re after but always, always the people we’ve got.