One of the striking things I have learned in this Basque farming hamlet of Ameztia, is just how much of daily life is affected by the moods of the weather and the cycles of the sun and moon. Amatxi, (our adopted grandmother of 83), always says that the full moon heralds a change in the weather. Yesterday there was a sense of urgency among the neighbours in Ameztia as we joined in to help her son, Isidro, bring in the hay. ( A quick note here about Isidro for those who maintain that only women can multi-task: Isidro not only runs one of the farms but is also the local Justice of the Peace, official grave -digger, pig slaughterer and board member for one of the local banks). The sun scorched our skin, the red kites swooped low to hunt mice, the dogs barked at the tractor wheels and the scene was Van Goghesque. With sore hands and chafed skin we finished around 7pm and joined Amatxi back at the farm, Zubialdea, for a merienda of jamon, tocino, chistora, sheeps cheese and quince jam – all washed down with Txakoli, a light dry sparkling white wine from the Basque coast, and a Navarran red. “Did you notice the full moon last night?” asked Amatxi, “tomorrow the weather will change”.
Today, as I sit on the terrace, with the rain clouds racing in overhead, I attempt to record all that Amatxi, Atauxi and Isidro told me about farming by the moon. Not only are certain crops planted during certain phases of the moon, but the moon also seems to affect the decision when to cut firewood, sheer sheep, kill pigs and conceive babies! It appears that most vegetables i.e. potatoes, tomatoes, beans, chard etc. are planted during a waning moon so that these plants can first spread outwards before putting energy into growing upwards. When it comes to the cutting of trees for firewood, Atautxi said that the shape of the leaves makes a difference as to which trees are cut when. Trees with smooth, rounded leaves, such as beech and walnut, should be cut on a waning moon whereas trees with leaves with separate protruding fingers (for want of a more technical word) are better cut when the moon is waxing. This would include woods from oak, chestnut and ash trees for example. He continued by saying that if you cut beach during the wrong phase of the moon, you will find the wood more pinkish in colour and more humid, making far less effective firewood than the whiter, drier, version of beech wood that you get if you cut it at the right time. As for cutting hair there are notably more customers at the barbers during a waning moon which is supposed to stop it growing back more quickly.
When I asked about the sheering of sheep, (remembering a time when, to my horror, I went to pick up my daughter, Marion, and found that she had been shorn along with the sheep – a week short of a photographer arriving to take ‘pretty’ photos of us for an article in Living Spain Magazine), it appeared that they too are shorn on a waning moon.
One of the main ceremonies here in the late Autumn months around the date of San Martin (11th November) is the matanza, the annual ritual of killing the pig, where all the parts are used to make conserves for the winter months. The whole family congregates to make jamon, (ham), lomo (pork cuts), morcilla (blood pudding) and chistora (a spicy Basque sausage – made with a sort of sewing-maching-like contraption with a snout on the end (not unakin to Marion’s Plastercine shape-factory) onto which, condom-like, pigs intestines are inserted). Pigs trotters and intestines are all salvaged. Luckily for me the pig’s liver is also saved. Fried pig’s liver with onion and parsley was once considered a speciality; an honour served up for almuerzo, brunch, to the head of the household (i.e. Atautxi) on the day of the mantanza. As no one in Zubialdea really likes liver that honour is now saved for l’Inglesa; Amatxi hovering by the window to catch me on my way back home with an enormous frying pan simmering on the stove.
During the mantanza, the whole extended family comes over to help and the day is spent washing intestines and mixing strange parts in big bowls. (Sagrario, my neighbour on another farm, Sumbillanea, admits that it is the worst day of the year for her as the house and yard are slowly covered in blood and gore.) Nevertheless, this is an important moment and (happily) it is not everyone who is imbued with the skills of slitting the pig’s throat and so one man may be asked to ‘do the honours’ at several farms. I remember a complex phone call to Isidro last year trying to coordinate as many matanzas on as many farms as possible during the phase of the waning moon in November. The waning moon here seems to have a positive effect on how the blood binds together with the spices to form good solid chorizos ( I am a bit lost with the other explanations).
And then, just as we were clearing the table after the merienda, Atauxi came up with one of his favorite subjects. Did I know that if you conceive a child during a waning moon it will be a boy, and during a waxing moon it will be a girl? Given all the other work supposedly going on during a waning moon (and the fact that Amatxi and Atautxi have 5 sons and just I daughter) it gives the impression that Atautxi may have reneged on some of his other duties.