Watercress springs in San Anton, singular gastronomic landscape of Firgas

 
Farmer works with high rubber boots and a large knife, he is cutting watercress of artificial springs in San Anton (Photo report: Yuri Millares).

Farmer works with high rubber boots and a large knife, he is cutting watercress of artificial springs in San Anton (Photo report: Yuri Millares).

FIRGAS. The smallest municipality in Gran Canaria (about 15 square kilometers) offers to the cuisine of the island two of the most unique of its cookbook: Firgas water (the most famous of the mineral waters of the Canary Islands) and watercress (one oldest vegetables consumed by humans). Both products have a close relationship with the ravine of the Virgin (“barranco de la Virgen”) in the heart of the municipality of Firgas. Its course has no the splendor of past centuries, as the water does not flows freely in the same amount as before. Today water is a precious product, limited and necessary in agriculture, and is collected and stored for use. But the watercress that grew in these waters have not disappeared: now is a culture that has settled in the neighbourhood of San Antón, located above the same ravine along a winding road. It is the road to Barranco de las Madres and through it pass large trucks carrying bottled water. And vehicles that carry the precious watercress to the markets, an ingredient in traditional Canarian cuisine that new generations of chefs transformed into new and tasty recipes.

Minerals and vitamins

Traditional canarian watercress salad, with watercress from San Antón (Firgas), tomatoes and fresh cheese from La Aldea, lettuce from Guía, Agüimes marinated olives, and extra virgin olive oil from Gran Canaria (Photo: Y. Millares).

Traditional canarian watercress salad, with watercress from San Antón (Firgas), tomatoes and fresh cheese from La Aldea, lettuce from Guía, Agüimes marinated olives, and extra virgin olive oil from Gran Canaria (Photo: Y. Millares).

Watercress is a plant that grows wild in streams of clean water from various islands of the archipelago. Originally from Europe and Asia, has spread throughout worldwide and is widely used in salads, in addition to a variety of other elaborations (in the Canary Islands is an ingredient of the popular watercress soup [“potaje de berros”]: read on and find the recipe below). Besides being a food rich in minerals (iron, iodine, phosphate) and vitamins (A, C, E), also has healing properties (it is tonic and purifies the blood, diuretic that promotes urine, expectorant for the lungs).

San Anton is a neighborhood of a few houses where a dozen families live. Its landscape is easily identifiable by the shape of houses that climb on the mountain above the road and pools on the terrace where watercress are cultured under it. There are some pools here called “springs” and also extend along the bed of Barranquillo [little ravine] de Cuevas de Mato at the foot of these terraces. A family of farmers and ranchers, the Pérez from San Anton is at the origin of this unusual landscape created by human hands.

Water on two centimeters of soil

Moray at steamed watercress, with a gratin of eggs moles, one of the new creations of Canarian cuisine with watercress. See recipe on this website (Photo: Yuri Millares).

Moray at steamed watercress, with a gratin of eggs moles, one of the new creations of Canarian cuisine with watercress. See recipe on this website (Photo: Yuri Millares).

“Two centimeters of soil and water it needs. And after leveling. Then put the watercress”, explained one of the Pérez brothers how are the watercress springs (“manantiales”, they are also called “tajos” in spanish) where they have the crops. “It must be with garden soil that is sandy,” says another Perez. “It’s a hydroponic irrigation, water in and out continuously. It’s like a closed circuit, when it comes down a pump sends water to the upper pool”, he adds.

Watercress production does not stop at this farm, all year round there is watercress. To get them, they come with care on the ponds (“tajos”) wearing a high rubber boots and carrying a large canary knife. Should be cut every day, rotating between the different springs, so there is always fresh watercress in the market.

“If successful, the plant gives 18 days later, and if not 25 or 30 days. In winter weather takes a little longer, in summer soon because time helps”. So explain how long the cut watercress growing again. The same plant is regenerated again and again, whenever you cut: “You have to let the eyes of the ground, because if not, can not be reborn. If you cut one down below, remains in the water. The plant that we left in the water should be green. If it is yellow, is that it has been cut below the eyes and you can not grow watercress again”. If we make a new planting, rooted watercress soon. “It takes little time to be born: eight days”.

San Anton gardens and cultivation of watercress into springs of masonry forming terraces.

Watercress springs, located on the cliff, the ravine at his feet.

Watercress in the bed of little ravine Cuevas de Mato.

Walls of the springs to watercress.

Watercress cut fills boxes with 40 and 50 kilos that are kept cool in the farm store. Here are washed with plenty of water and prepared five kilos bags for shipment to market.

A little of history

San Anton gardens and cultivation of watercress into springs of masonry forming terraces.

San Anton gardens and cultivation of watercress into springs of masonry forming terraces.

Before creating these pools of watercresses, the Pérez raised and milked cows, morning milk were sold for consumption and the evening milk was kept to make cheese. They replaced the cows by watercresses, and the caves of animals were converted to store of the machinery and seeds.

“In the Barranco de la Virgen we had cultivation of watercress, there was the beginning. As we saw growing in pools of masonry began to plant here”, said one of them. Thus, from the watercress in the bed of the ravine they passed to a cliff at the foot of San Anton, that transformed “little by little”.

The history of cultivation of watercress places it in the oral testimony of neighbors in the first third of the twentieth century and has the ravine as the protagonist. “We had a berrera [watercress cultivation] in the ravine and had the property leased to an old man who died many years ago. This man was from La Angostura, Pepito Esperanza, which was the beginning of the watercress here in this ravine”, explained Pedro Pérez, one of the farmers who created this landscape of watercress springs of San Anton, in an interview. He placed this activity in the decade of the 30 of the twentieth century. Because the death of Pepe occurred around 1943, when Pedro was 8 years old.

Watercress springs, located on the cliff, the ravine at his feet.

Watercress springs, located on the cliff, the ravine at his feet.

“Pepito came here because in the Barranco de las Meleguinas [Telde], when the ravine had water he planted watercresses there. But he came here because this ravine dried when collected all waters. And here the ravine always had water and in fact it still has. So Pepito came here and started planting watercress. These watercresses took them himself to the market of Vegueta [Las Palmas] and there sold them”. Up from the ravine to the road shoulder with watercress “and put them in a truck of Agua de Firgas, to have it transported to Las Palmas”, with Pepito Esperanza in too.

Watercress in the bed of little ravine Cuevas de Mato.

Watercress in the bed of little ravine Cuevas de Mato.

Other neighbors of the area also worked to cultivate watercresses and cut at that time. He carried in baskets and sacks to the market of Arucas. That load get out from here [in San Anton] at three o’clock. Then came fathers, sons and Holy Spirit, all laden here to there. They used the path of Pedregal to the Huertecilla, after the Cruz, Caldera, to La Goleta to the market of Arucas. People with the load at shoulder of all that they had to sell: watercresses, cabbage, celery, zucchini, pumpkin. And I remember when my father paid rent for the ravine, five thousand pesetas a year. That was a lot of money in those days! Because the notes were of five pesetas”.

And the recipe for watercress soup

Walls of the springs to watercress.

Walls of the springs to watercress.

The Pérez Suarez Brothers left the bed of the ravine after building the springs. Their pools are filled with well water that circulates permanently, as watercress needs water to circulate clean and fresh. And in their houses as in the houses of many other islanders, watercress is an ingredient of a traditional Canarian soup. Pedro Pérez, one of the watercress farmers of San Anton says the recipe: “To make a good soup there is to make it big, and put the watercress that leads”, says first. He continued: “For five kilos of watercress, yam take four kilos, four kilos of zucchini, at least three kilos of green beans, four kilos of pig meat into small pieces, eight or ten corncob and a few potatoes. That must be done to simmer until it is well cooked, and you’ll see”. The meat has to be: pork belly and some ribs. “And then, when done, if you see does not thicken much, you have to grind a few yams and added into it. Then the soup is creamy and good. We have to eat accompanied with gofio and cheese”.

Bottling and storage of Agua de Firgas in the Barranco (ravine) de las Madres, head of the Barranco de la Virgen in the heart of the Rural Park Doramas.

Further information:

Bottling and storage of Agua de Firgas in the Barranco (ravine) de las Madres, head of the Barranco de la Virgen in the heart of the Rural Park Doramas.

Bottling and storage of Agua de Firgas in the Barranco (ravine) de las Madres, head of the Barranco de la Virgen in the heart of the Rural Park Doramas.

The Barranco de la Virgen has been praised by visitors from various countries that explored in previous centuries to the twentieth century and wrote his impressions in various travel books:

–French anthropologist René Verneau (Cinq années de séjour aux Îles Canaries, 1st edition in French in 1891) traveled to Firgas (“amid the mountains, one of the most beautiful town on the island”) for the ravine that offered him “a very lush vegetation,” “an infinity of birds” and “an excellent water flowing from a rock”.

–The English traveler Olivia Stone (Tenerife and its six satellites, 1st edition in English in 1887) highlighted of Firgas “its invigorating climate, its sparkling mineral water, nicer than anything I’ve ever drunk, and the exquisite beauty of the ravine neighbor” (this refers, of course, the Barranco de la Virgen, “a place of dreams” whose “sheer walls are covered by a perfect carpet of vegetation”.)

–And preceding them and other travelers who visited the north of Gran Canaria in the nineteenth century, highlights the presence in the eighteenth century Scottish George Glas, who described these places of the ancient jungle Doramas: “The streams that irrigate these shady groves, the murmur of the breeze among the trees and the melody of birds canaries, are the most delightful of concerts” (The History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Canary islands… to which is added, A Description of the Canary Islands…, 1st edition in English in 1764).

 
Louis Cox