Looking for an Andalucian farmhouse – and I don’t mean a grand cortijo, but the kind of house that comes with a field and a mule – you quickly notice one thing: in terms of house space, animals, cereals, firewood, old tractors, and livestock feed get the better deal.
Ah yes. The best room in the house? It’s the open plan second storey, a room traditionally used for storing grain and drying jamón rather than by people, hence the shoulder-height horizontal beams of head-whacking fig trunks, and small knee-high windows (ham does not need a view). Often, if the house is backed up to a bank, there will be direct wheelbarrow access through a sledge-hammered opening from the back. The next best room belongs to the donkey: a south-facing ground floor double opening directly into the field. I think the hens are next in the pecking order; they tend to have an indoor-outdoor thing going on, with a little sun, a little shade, and access to the garden. The tractor shed has the high ceilings, though.
As for people, they get the dark bit downstairs: small rooms that can be closed off in winter, with small windows to keep out the sun, and all tiled for easy sluicing. If there is a bathroom, it will be a recent add-on, and maybe squeezed in beside the kitchen. If there is a kitchen. Mostly, there’s a range by a big open fire, and a tap.
Now, that doesn’t sound very nice on the surface of things, but you wouldn’t catch an old Andalucian farmer in the kind of farm porn places I sigh over – the ‘traditional’, ‘rustic’ Andalucian farmhouses done up by northern Europeans and advertised as holiday lets – because although, yes, they are white, THEY LET IN THE SUN. By the time farmers get home, they are sick of the sun (although from my experience of January and now February, I can not believe that is always the case) and they’re bored of the views. They won’t use a pool. What they want is a nice firm dining chair in a nice dark room and football on a circa 1979 TV, with a glass of sherry.
Anyway, we went and looked at Fernando’s farmhouse with Fernando. The car broke down – not ours, this time – but we got there eventually. Fernando’s wife of 60 years has dodgy hips, and he’d suffered a heart attack some time back and was now on 14 pills a day, so they’d moved into an apartment in town some years back and were now selling their old country place. His property was pretty much as described, except with an immaculate kitchen and bathroom, with all the bits for human use immaculate and well-maintained. As we left, I realised we’d missed half of it. It was an area you could only access via a plank from the bank at the back, the pig-boiling room. It was big; big enough for a guest room. Fernando kicked a big tin bath and hit my leg with his stick to get my attention. ‘You can keep that,’ he said. ‘get it with the house. You know how to boil pigs? You don’t know how to boil pigs?’ he looked at me, eyes twinkling, and hit me with his stick again. I was going to tell him that I did know how to castrate lambs, but he’d already moved on and was pointing out something else.
There were old pictures of Fernando’s family on the wall, along with lots of saints of this and that. Fernando was happy poking about his old home, hitting things with his stick. He was happy poking around the next place we went to see, too – even asked the owner for a nice glass of Rioja. And the one after that. In fact he seemed to thoroughly enjoy what turned into a 6-hour excursion for him. Anyone fluent in the language of euphemisms will know that ‘he kicked the bucket and we bought the farm’ doesn’t sound good. The property was probably fairly priced at €50,000-ish, and I could almost imagine it as it would be when I’d won the lottery and finished turning it into an impractically hot, bright inferno, but it was in a funny little hamlet, and it wasn’t Zahara.