Shopping for jams in the supermarket, I little expected to find Angela Linskey and much less the discoveries I would make when visiting Naera Haundi where the conserves are made.
Naera Haundi is a four hundred-year-old farmhouse officially in the Basque town of Abaltzisketa, though in reality located down a steep path on the side of a valley at the foothills of the Txindoki mountain, an ideal spot for spending a few days if, as the website says, it is peace and tranquillity you are after.
It is more than 30 years since Angela and her Basque husband Jesus Mari decided to leave San Sebastian to “try the rural lifestyle of a traditional Basque farm.” While perhaps happy to escape the increasing buzz of the city, however, it was a different concern that encouraged this couple to make such a radical change:
“We started getting a bit worried about the food we were eating. We read a book called Your Daily Bread by a woman who had been around a flour-refining factory where they were gassing the flour to make it whiter. We started reading more about what we were eating and it just went on from there. The only clear idea we had was that we wanted another kind of life and it had to be in the sphere of organic farming.”
Naera Haundi is dedicated to growing, processing and selling only organically home-grown fruit jams and jellies. “We make between 12-14,000 jars (of “Nahera” jam) a year. About 75% of that is currently from our own fruit… And the whole process is here – we don’t have any machinery, it’s literally spooning it in.”
The decision of Angela and others like her to pursue organic farming coincided with a growing trend for alternative farming during the 1970s and beyond (though still almost unheard of in the Basque Country) among people disillusioned with conventional methods or routines: “Most of us who started that way are from small or large towns… It was a revolution you see – not just going out and shouting in the streets – to go back and work on the land.”
From trend to trendy
Though organic products continue to have a rather middle-class image, Angela staunchly defends their dietary value: “If you’re eating organic, you’re generally eating very healthily – people eating organic food are not often at the doctors… If you take into account the hydrogenated fats and pesticides in conventional foods, what is that costing a country in its health service?” (Interestingly, the UK’s Soil Association recently published a report confirming the nutritional value of organic to be significantly higher than non-organic foods).
Since their compromise with organic farming over 30 years ago, Naera Haundi have taken steps to broaden their commitment to global issues such as climate change. “We have an installation with photo-voltaic panels for producing electricity… Next to them are thermal solar panels for heating water. We heat water for up to 10-12 people.” (Enough for the maximum 8 people they can put up in two apartments plus themselves).
Then there are the two wood-burning stoves: “Wood- produces the same amount of carbon dioxide as a rotting log,” she explains. “We use the ash – potash – as fertilizer and chip the wood we can’t use for compost.”
I point out that in Vietnam, fishermen on the Mekong recycle everything, including rice husks, out of economic necessity: “I think we need to be poor again,” she concurs. “The amount of things that people throw away.. (My generation) were brought up to think throwing food away was a sin.”
One is reminded of a by-gone era at Naera Haundi and not by accident. The modern obsession with packaging is one of Angela’s major grievances: “It’s just so unnecessary,” she says. She confesses to feeling “out of place” in her hometown of Birstall, West Yorkshire, partly due to the demise of high street shops. “It’s so disappointing – there used to be small shops, the dairy etc; now there’s (sic) just the two supermarkets – it really depresses me.”
Almost forty years have passed since Angela and her sister left Birstall to embark on a hitchhiking holiday in France, deciding on impulse to come this way. She expresses curiosity at an English woman working for (the inherently Basque) EITB, but Angela’s integration after four decades is profound: “To live on a farm in this country, to understand the Basque culture, you have to speak Euskera… So when we came to (Naera Haundi) we decided we would use Basque all the time.”
The entire eleven acres of Naera Haundi, Angela and Jesus Mari planted themselves; trees include apple, quince and pear, though a recent cyclone in the Basque Country blew down fifty in total, twenty-seven of them pear trees, an all too poignant reminder for the couple of the possible effects of climate change. A massive problem, though possibly with a small solution?
“We just can’t continue with the way we’re consuming now,” saying Angela, “eventually we’re all going to have to go back to the 1950s – and that will be a good thing, not only for the planet, but for people’s health, physical and spiritual.”