I don’t expect Israel to notice me. But his head turns my way while I am still taking pictures, and he stops. Smiling all the way from across the empty road, he leans with nonchalance against his tractor and readjusts his straw hat, happy to strike a pose. Then he beckons – come, cross the road and join me.
I’d hoped I’d been too discreet to attract attention. However, my kids assure me, with a synchronised roll of their eyes, that I’d stood out like a true tourist type, and it was nobody’s fault but my own.
True, but the yellow peaches draping the fields all around, so abundant and easy to pluck, have caught my eye. And each morning at daybreak, peach pickers have been waking me, in an almost musical way, their sonorous calls and laughter backed by the beautiful soft beat of peaches plumping into crates.
Thud thud, thud thud.
And though I don’t understand what the workers say (sing), I can hear the changes in tone – the questions, the teasings, the doubts, and the robust responses shooing them away. I envy them their shared endeavour and easy camaraderie. And we all become a little intrigued by them.
So when Israel’s peach-laden trailer slows through town to pull up right in front of us, in the small town of Benalúa, 60km east of Granada, it’s time to find out more.
Israel speaks Spang-lish – as do I – so we understand each other perfectly. It’s August, and Israel is grateful for a break in the shade. Soon, he says, he will take lunch and a siesta. Wiping his brow, he gestures upwards towards the fiercely bright sky. Later, he will work again, when the sun begins to tire.
Israel tells us that he’s stopped by his father’s house (he indicates a handsome building behind him), and that his yellow load of melocotones is on its way to the industrial estate.
A yellow load minus an armful or two, which Israel invites us to take as if they are just stones on a beach.
I’m curious about the peaches’ onward journey. Israel explains – they travel east to Murcía where they are sorted and packaged ready for distribution to places where the sun shines with a quieter passion – Galicia, France, the UK. (And where we buy them in ugly plastic boxes).
Israel says that tomorrow he will be working the fields next to the caves we are staying in. It will be his turn to manage the irrigation channels.
The peach farmers around here work in a co-operative, and with Andalucía’s hot, arid summers baking the earth dry, the smooth running of the dense network of irrigation channels is a crucial part of that. The waterways have been here for centuries, at least since the Nasryd dynasty ruled over Granada (although the crops they’ve served have changed through time).
Israel apologises for his schoolboy English. At university he studied teaching and administration, but he left the teaching profession a few years ago in order to turn his hand to farming. Now he works in the open air, growing peaches on the land surrounding his home town, far away from the city. He says it’s a good life.
With sun and water and love, it’s no wonder the peaches are so plentiful they can be given away for free.
By now it’s midday and the sun is ferocious. Israel needs to get his peaches on their northbound path, and once we’ve said goodbye, the children and I seek shelter in a nearby café.
We sip drinks under the cool blast of an air-conditioning unit until we see chairs being stacked onto tables, and realise it’s siesta time. Taking the hint, we make to leave. But before we do, a bulky bag is placed into our hands, yellow peaches straining heavily against the thin white skin of the plastic sack.
The owner tells us he can’t use them all today – he has enough already.
How can we say: gracias, but so have we.
Benalúa seems a million miles from the edgy city streets and graceful, mysterious beauty of Granada. This is a slow-burner of a place. It’s not obviously pretty, and it doesn’t have endless tapas bars. It wears a forgotten-about feel, and in a way, it has been left behind.
Yes, the sun shines, the land is generous, and its people are too. But dig a little deeper and there is more to discover – from how the cave dwellings came to be, to the history of the beautiful old sugar refinery (Azucarera), now abandoned but still visibly dominant, and witness to the town’s gradual decline.
Life here can be hard, and winter comes with a wet and cold shock. It’s not always as peachy as it has appeared at first blush.
Nevertheless, these melocotones amarillos, picked at sunrise by people working in harmony with each other and the land, do taste of paradise.
NOTES FOR PEACH GEEKS
Peach trees are relative newcomers to Benalúa. They have replaced the traditional grain crops and hemp, as well as sugar beet (cultivated from the early 1900s when the sugar refinery was founded until the early 1980s). Poplar tree plantations are now also a common sight, and are treated to the same irrigation techniques as the peach trees.
Peach trees themselves are believed to have been cultivated since as early as 6000 BC, and still grow in the wild in China (their original home). But the name (Prunus persica) is from Persia, whence they were introduced into Europe.
Part of the rose family, the peach is produced in hundreds of varieties, with ever more coming on the scene. Spain ranks fourth in terms of world production (after China, Italy and the USA).