Letter from The Canaries – June 2018

Since my last missive, we’ve sung, dressed up, danced traditional dances, eaten and drunk too much, and generally enjoyed Canaries Day, as we do every 30th of May. It’s a celebration of all things Canarian, marking the Canary Island Parliament’s first session, which was on May 30th, 1983, since which time the islands have constituted one of Spain’s autonomous regions.
The then Provisional Parliament had to choose a date for Día de Canarias which: “Has an historical, but at the same time contemporary, significance, with a future focus” (!) This, understandably, created lots of argument and near fracas for the fledgling parliament. Commemorating the date of the first Canarian Parliament then saved the day. Politicians like a bit of immortality.
Día de Canarias has become an institution, featuring national dress that’s rocketed in popularity over the last thirty-five years, with each island boasting its own. There are romerias, fiestas, sporting events, concerts, school parties, performances of Canarian legends and history.
To mark the date, worthy Canarians are awarded the Canarian Gold Medal. The list of winners is long and dignified, but let’s skip to the: “Los Guaraperos de La Gomera, for keeping alive a five hundred year old tradition” award.
These guaraperos, (palm sap tappers), climb tall, swaying palms to work with sharp tools at the top. It’s risky. The award, sadly, comes too late for father-of -three Jesus, a leading guarapero who was found dead under a palm tree in March.
“On the islands, the indigenous population made honey from palm trees. This liquid looks like cloudy lemon water and has a very agreeable flavour. When concentrated by boiling, it produces a syrup known as miel de palma (palm honey) used in the confection of desserts and sweets,” said A.J. Benitez in Historia de las Islas Canarias.                                                                    
When the Spanish arrived in the fifteenth century, the native populations of all seven islands were tapping guarapo and drinking it, or boiling it down to make palm honey, and had done so for millennia. Since then, the practice has disappeared everywhere but La Gomera.                      The guarapero climbs to the top to clean off greenery and expose the crown. He uses a chisel to gradually form a hollow there, inserting a horizontal length of cane to drain the guarapo off into a bucket suspended below. Early next morning, it’s collected and filtered. Once a palm’s been tapped, the delicate, exposed area needs protecting from sunlight. New fronds quickly sprout. The palm mustn’t be tapped again for three or four years. The guarapero’s work is sustainable. Palms aren’t harmed. Today, guarapo’s poured into stainless steel cauldrons, slowly cooked for several hours and gradually becomes thicker, darker and sweeter. When a thin, continuous string of boiled guarapo falls from a spoon, it’s miel de palma and is left to cool before bottling for sale. Try some if you can get it. It’s delicious! Congratulations to all Canarian Gold Medal winners, especially Los Guaraperos de La Gomera. Rest in peace Jesus.
Barbara Belt. barbarabelt@gmail.com EWN June 2018.
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