I firmly believe that no-one, ever, says, in anticipation of breaking the night’s fast, “Yum, yum. I can’t wait for my musesli this morning.” Although I am told I’m wrong in this.
Museli is something I tolerate, in the absence of a tastier, healthy alternative. However, having inherited a huge jarful, and finances being bleak a while back, I decided it was waste not, want not. Austin had also left a quarter packet of gofio, so I tossed that into the jar and gave it a good shake, also in the interests of waste not, want not. To my surprise, the gofio gave the dour museli that missing kick it needed, the je ne se quoi. I scoffed the lot, without a grimace, inside of a week.
What is this miraculous stuff, that can transform something which tastes, essentially, like sawdust into a tasty treat? Gofio is best described as a type of flour, made from toasted grains and seeds. A simple bag of it may contain only wheat, or it may contain, these days, up to seven different components, such as barley, rye, chickpeas, maize or different local seeds.
But, more than foodstuff, it is, I’ve been discovering during my wanderings, a link between the islands of this chain, a constant, a comfort, a slice of island history. Local author, Marcos Brito wrote a book about it, “Sabers y Sabores: El Gofio” (Gofio: Wisdom and Flavor)* which reads like an ode to something loved, and which he describes as a tribute to “the men and women who live in harmony with nature.” Gofio is a tangible link to the past, and the story of the working man.
Its exact origin is lost in time, and we can only go as far back as when the conquering Spanish set foot on the islands in the 15th century. In Tenerife, the Conquistadors found a people, the Guanche, living in caves, mummifying their dead, and living what is generally refered to as “a Stone Age existence.” There are some variations from island to island. In Fuerteventura, where there were less caves, they created homes by digging holes into the ground and lining them with stone, creating a cave like dwelling. Guanche origins are still uncertain, but it is generally accepted now that they came from the north of Africa, that they were Berber, and possibly that there were different waves of emigration. There remain a lot of unanswered questions, but it has been fairly easy to work out their eating habits, and amongst the evidence of seafood, goat, fruits and even cacti, it is known that they ground seeds into a type of flour, using crude stone handmills.
The Guanches used all manner of wild seeds to make gofio. In Fuerteventura they say that the creeping red cosco (mesembryanthemum nodiflorum), which I never see without thinking of “War of the Worlds,” was used, but other versions say this plant was imported after the conquest. As usual here, consensus concerning history isn’t easy to find, but what does seem certain is that the ingredients now mostly commonly used, wheat, maize and barley were brought over by the Conquistadors, and the habit of toasting the grains continued. This was done to preserve the grain, and the custom spread from here to various South American countries with the various waves of Canarian emigration over the years, so that countries like Venezuela and Cuba also have traditional dishes made with toasted-grain flour.
La Gomera is perhaps the island which continues the tradition more than any other. In Hermigua, where I have been staying, there is both a working gofio mill and a gofio museum. Many mornings I stepped over my threshold to be greeted by the toasty, comforting aroma of freshly-made gofio. I called into the mill with a friend who wanted to buy their unique 7 cereal flour, and we chatted a while with the guy who was running it, whilst he fed us warm, newly popped corn, and attended to a neighbor who arrived with a couple of bags of dried maize to be ground. I’d been seeing maize strung from balconies, and across roof terraces and fences since my arrival in early October.
Although I wasn’t allowed to step behind the counter, the mechanics of production were open to view, and I could see that nothing varied much from the machines I’d seen a few months before in the museum in Valle Guerra in Tenerife. The large vat into which the grains were poured, and the chute from which the finished product oozed seemed identical.
Exploring Fuerteventure, traditional windmills loom on plains as you approach, reminders of gofio’s importance on this island of sparse resources. This landscape and windy climate were perfect for this traditional method of milling. Over the years the architecure changed from the conical, stone and mortar ones we associate with Don Quixote, and known by the traditional name molino, to a squared, squat structure, called molinas. Many windmills have been carefully restored and maintained, though I came across as many which have been allowed to disintegrate too.
The same goes for the threshing circles of La Gomera and Tenerife. Hiking Roque del Conde which towers over Tenerife’s Arona/Adeje coast, you come across an abandoned era (threshing circle), perched on the mountainside, leaving you pondering how on earth threshing was carried out at that altitude and steepness: whilst in the La Gomera municipality of Santiago a shady space has been created around 3 eras, forming a memorial to the early agriculturists who brought their crops to this communal area for processing. In Tenerife several municipalities, most famously El Tanque, now have festivals celebrating the harvesting and preparation of grains which became the staple ingredients of gofio after the Conquest.
Gofio was a nourishing foodstuff in days when there was precious little else on some of the islands. Those of us who know the islands well constantly remind those who tend to generalize that each one has a very different character, topography and even climate. That the lushness of La Gomera exists within an island chain which also encompasses the barren plains of Fuerteventura still fascinates me personally. Whilst lack of water has characterized life in Fuerteventura almost from the beginning, La Gomera has the sort of warm but humid (in most parts) climate which encourages rapid growth, yet lacks the open spaces more suited to cereal crops. The secret of gofio lies in its versatility, the mix of ingredients possible.
It provided nourishment throughout the day. In the morning, goat’s milk was added to make a sort of porridge. I know people who swear by this today, as a great way to begin the daily grind. This porridge could be made thicker, just as the Scots thickened their oats, in good times perhaps adding sugar, so that it could be taken by workers to the fields to snack on whilst working. Returning home workers would eat gofio to add texture and taste to soups and stews, which had rolled with water into balls to accompany meat or fish, or simply dip fruit or other foods directly into the powder. Finally, it could be added to milk at bedtime to encourage a good night’s sleep. It isn’t difficult to see how fundamental it was to Canarian life over the centuries.
The history of gofio runs parallel with the history of the Canary Islands. Used by aborigines, transformed by the Conquistadors, and falling into decline over the years as so many people abandoned the agricultural terraces for a better life far afield. The last big wave of emigration in the 50s, followed by the beginnings of tourism in the 60s sealed its fate. Gofio is still available, still used, but it is no longer the lifeline of the working man.
Ironically, as so often happens, along with other traditions it may be tourism which is keeping traditional recipes alive. Gofio can now be found in souvenir shops and supermarkets throughout the archipelago, and in Tenerife traditional bars proudly serve escaldon, a thick kind of pate made with gofio and stock of whatever is served in the establishment, fish or pork most commonly. We can buy gofio ice cream, or feast on mousse de gofio. Innovative Canarian chefs are coming up with new ways to celebrate the traditional.
Last year I took some slices of what I know as masa de gofio, which is the flour mixed with honey and almonds, to some friends in France, one of whom is Berber, and immediately he tasted it he recognized the familiar. In the region from which he comes, it is made this way, and given to women after they have given birth, as a nourishing source of vitamins, protein and fibre.
Next Friday, May 30th, marks El Dia de Canarias, the archipelago’s celebration of all things Canarian, especially the historic and traditional. Street parties will happen in villages throughout the chain, and many will feature huge “cakes” of masa de gofio, some moulded into the shape of a fishing boat or a timple or other ancestral item, and slices will be served to residents and visitors alike.
If you visit one of these fiestas, remember that not only are you eating a slice of cake, but also a slice of island history, not the history of the Conquistadors, nor the landowners, nor even the merchants who all contributed to the fascinating mix which makes up the modern Canary Islands, but the history of the farmers and working men and women, who survived largely thanks to gofio. There is no better way to finish this piece that to quote from Marcos Brito’s book again:
“Food is placed on the table, mostly arriving from the nearest surroundings, with no grand ceremonies, with no luxuries, and no complications that disguise the great austerity of what is going to be eaten.” (Official translation by Maria Magdalena Mendez Gracia)
*Saberes y Sabores: El Gofio” Translated by author as “Tips and Tastes: The Gofio (The basic nourishment of the Canary Islands)” by Marco Brito 2004 Llanoazur ediciones.