Sunday, 4 September 2016

Three sparse cultures

England is very rich. By which I mean not that GDP is high or that everyone's got millions, but that it has a very rich and diverse flora and fauna almost everywhere. Look around Norwich and you'll see flint, brick, thatch, tile, wood, all used in different ways on different buildings; look at traditional foods and you'll see cheeses, meats, different vegetables and cakes and breads. Lots of diversity. France, where I spend a lot of time, is the same; around us in Eure-et-Loir there are huge fields of wheat and barley, but also miscanthus (for biofuel and compost), beef and dairy cattle, goats, colza (for oil) and strips of apple trees (traditionally for cider). Variety is the spice of life.

Sparse cultures are very different. They grow up in marginal lands, where the terrain or the climate (or both) prevent there being such a rich variety of foodstuffs and building materials. Sparse cultures have a very strong flavour; and I rather love them. They're under threat, sometimes from globalisation and the introduction of a cash economy which doesn't match traditional life, sometimes (as on Formentera) from high property prices which make a traditional lifestyle with its small scale agriculture uneconomic.

Formentera is a marvellous island. It's rocky and sandy, hot, dry, has no snakes (only tiny iridescent green and blue lizards), is less than 20 km long. It was an island contested between Arabs and Catalans for years, and Arabia has left a few influences - notably the mixture of mint and sugar in the traditional flao (cheesecake).

Of course there were always fish - hung up to dry on driftwood poles. The smaller boats were run up little wooden slipways into ramshackle boathouses. Inland, farming was only made possible by engineering the land so that rain runs off from rocky bare areas into cisterns, one for each house - tiny whitewashed cubes that are one of the characteristics of the island. The houses, each with a little porch, sometimes with towers, are also whitewashed; rarely more than a single storey high, and rough-hewn in their looks.

In a sparse culture, things have to do double duty. So the fig tree is not allowed to grow as it likes, as it might in the South of France, and just produce figs. It's trained into a huge umbrella, with its branches supported on planks, so that livestock can shelter from the sun under its fragrant shade.

Unfortunately Formentera is now becoming an overspill for Ibiza. People are building ranch-style, chalet-style, horrible Eurotrash houses and demanding that the traditional house gets made over into a hotel-style apartment with eau de nil accents and a spa-style bathroom. But some of the local residents still manage their small mixed fields of tomatoes, potatoes, onions and (next to the house) flowers, and the prickly pear still grows wild, though somehow, I've never managed to be on the island for the prickly pear season.

Ladakh is all about making oases in the high altitude desert. Fields are scooped out of river valleys; sometimes terraced, but never in the extreme way you'd see in the Philippines or Indonesia - this terracing is just about making the best of gentle slopes. Willow and poplar grow around every village and are the main building materials apart from rock; tamped willow rods form borders around the top of the wall, while the poplar provides beams. There are apricot trees, and dried apricots are one of the staples; otherwise, it's grain, with a short growing season, and whatever you can get to grow in the vegetable patch. And there's yak butter - milk doesn't keep, I suspect - to put in your tea, and there's beer made with fermented grain, and that's about it. It could get very boring. But somehow there's an intrinsic joy to Ladakhi life that stops it becoming monotonous.

Oman is the last of the three sparse cultures I've visited. Rocks and sea and sand; that's about it, unless you go as far as Dhofar with its frankincense trees and dripping khareef monsoon season. Rocks and sea and sand, and mostly rocks.

The traditional Omani building material is dirt. Huge forts were built with mud brick walls, and a new coat slapped on every few years to protect the fragile material against wind and (infrequent) rain: where buildings have been left uninhabited and unaided, they start to slump and sag, and eventually become just piles of dirt.

Roofs and ceilings are made of palm tree branches and palm leaves. Dates make oil as well as being a staple snack. The palm tree, omnipresent in every oasis, is used in every way possible, for building, eating, even for killing your enemies by pouring boiling oil on them from the fortress battlements (although no one does that any more).

The oasis uses the palms to shelter lower growing crops; but a lot of the space is used up growing greens for livestock. A system of waterways, the falaj, carry water from the high mountains down to the oases, and sluices give every field and every farmer fair division of the water. (Many of the falaj are now being replaced by black plastic tubing, but the system remains pretty much the same.) High efficiency, dense agriculture, but limited in its scope and locations.

Then there's coffee, which doesn't grow in Oman but is every Bedouin's invariable beverage. Three cups to welcome a guest. Always kept in a big thermos, to be ready for guests at any time. Coffee with cardamom - because Oman is a sparse culture with a surprise: it was on the trading routes from India to East Africa, and even, at one time, owned Zanzibar, so spices became part of its DNA.

And, for perhaps the same reason, or perhaps because there are so many Indian and other subcontinental guest workers in Oman, the national dish of choice nowadays appears to be chicken biryani.

By contrast, India is another rich culture (obviously, with the exception of Ladakh). Whatever it is, India has a diversity of it - religions, languages, climates, styles, foods. And yet... it's still India, still indefinably, inevitably, unmistakably India. But I'd better leave that to another post...

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