The harvest has been reaped across Castile in central Spain, 2016 turning out to be a bumper year by all accounts, with some farmers reporting upwards of ten tonnes of grain per hectare. Bar the occasional dazzling yellow field of sunflowers, which will not be taken up until late September, or the waxy green of a vineyard, the sight that greets the traveller on his or her journey across the Iberian Penninsula’s Meseta, or central plateau, is that of stubble fields — by definition straw coloured.
Around Zamora in the north-west of the Meseta, where I’ve been doing a bit of biking lately, the sea of straw reaches to the horizon in all directions, only interrupted here and there by the washed-out green of fallow fields or the dun (or sometimes blood-red, for the soil in these parts can be rich in iron) of those that have received an early harrowing in anticipation of mid-autumn’s setting of seed. With the grain having been dressed, dried, weighed and hauled to the silos that are found in almost every good-sized village in Zamora, it is not only the visual landscape that has been changed by these past few weeks of dawn-to-dusk frenetic farming activity: the countryside also smells different.
As a man from a beef and dairy farming part of the west of Ireland, not only had I never seen a field of wheat or barley until my first visit to the part of Zamora they call the Tierra del Pan (Land of Bread), but I had never even known the smell of these cereals. Fifteen years of visiting the Tierra del Pan, though, has more than rectified this deficiency. I can now smell a field of wheat or barley at a distance of miles, a skill I impressively demonstrated a couple of years ago in Wexford, the one part of Ireland where tillage reigns supreme. Up until harvest time in the Tierra del Pan, the smell that masked all other smells as I biked around its gravel and dirt roads was the dry, dusty, toasty tang of wheat, but since the giant slug-like combine harvesters, cutting swathes through the fields to guzzle up all available grain, have moved off to other climes, other smells have been allowed their day in the sun.
I would not have believed until this summer that a copse of pines could shed its rich, resinous smell hundreds of yards downwind, but it is true. You are pedalling into the calid Castilian wind and your nostrils catch a whiff of a complex, elusive perfume: there’s lavender in there, maybe linalool, geraniol, something spicy, something sweet, as well as components you can barely perceive and definitely cannot name. Then, as you draw closer to a stand of pines, their barks scaly, darkly reptilian, and their needles fine-combing the breeze, you realise that it is these visually unprepossessing trees who are putting on the equivalent of a fireworks display for your nostrils. You stop your pedalling and pull up, close your eyes and take long, deep draughts of this intriguing perfume. No matter what, no matter how much time you spend appreciating (in the technical sense) this invisible assault on your senses, you cannot pin down or parse the smell. It’s piny no doubt, but there’s much more to this scent than your “pine fresh” floor cleaner, which is laced with just one of pine’s essential oils — pinol. You give up and pedal onwards with a newly acquired respect for the Pinus genera, and perhaps thinking about re-evaluating your prejudice: deciduous good (encourage wildlife, the recycling of nutrients), coniferous bad (acidify the soil, sterile birdless boughs).
There is nothing unprepossessing about the other common tree found in this pancake-flat corner of the Meseta — the poplar. From miles off, lines of these slim, lofty trees can be seen snaking along watercourses. Most villages have a park or picnic ground down by a stream or river and under whose poplars bunting is strung and fiestas and romerias celebrated. Poplars give off a strange musty, papery smell. It is not unpleasant, but one cannot imagine flavour and aroma chemists devoting their lives to capturing poplar’s particular combination of terpenes, aldehydes and esters in order to formulate a world-beating essence-of-poplar cleaning product.
Outside the Castilian village, usually on elevated ground, one finds the cemetery, whose high, whitewashed walls demarcate the boundary between consecrated and profane ground. Spanish cemetery’s are unwelcoming, unvisited places. Their gates are only left open on the occasion of a burial or during All Saints’ Day. Even though at home I would tend to pull into a “new” graveyard to spend a few quiet minutes perusing the headstones, I never feel like lingering before a Spanish cemetery’s locked gates. The cypress is the traditional tree planted in the Spanish graveyard, and as I chug past the dazzling white walls I perceive a musky, resinous aroma with elements of sandalwood and something curiously smoky.
Bar the odd, isolated holm oak, or willow weeping into a shallow, murky pond, that is all this Castilian landscape has to offer by way of trees. Other plant life, however, is capable of shooting a surprise into the olfactory bulb of the passing cyclist. We have fennel, which grows in abundance in roadside ditches and fills the air with its liquorice aroma at the merest hint of rain. There are man-sized, triffid-like thistles which grow in colonies in fallow fields. Get close enough to them on the right day and you’ll be surprised by the clover/like, minty smell they produce. Passing a field of young sunflowers is similar in effect as walking into a florists: your sense of smell is knocked for six by the powerful assault of a scent that lies somewhere between chrysanthemum and tiger lily.
And lastly: the fresh aroma of the melonar. During August in Castile it is common to find one corner of a field which has been ploughed for planting in Semptember/October to be temporarily given over to the growing of melons, watermelons, gourds, cucumbers and other cucurbits. This is a melonar. Some are elaborately laid out and meticulously cultivated. Others are shambolic and neglected seeming. Regardless of how they are tended (for melons are their brethren are hardy and drought-resistant), if planted in late May, your cucurbits will be yielding their swollen fruits by July. A melonar containing ripe fruit will smell, well, melony to the passing biker or hiker. And with temperatures reaching the mid-thirties by noon, one is often tempted to help oneself to the cool and moist contents of a watermelon to help one on one’s way. It happens a lot at this time of the year!