Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain by Jason Webster

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Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain by Jason Webster

Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: An informative, literary account of a year learning self-sufficiency on a traditional Spanish smallholding halfway up a mountain. Earnest, respectful, sometimes lyrical writing about the land and its inhabitants.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 349 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099512943

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Jason Webster and his partner, Salud searched and bought forty acres of valley and mountainside halfway up the Penyagolosa Ridge in Southern Spain, complete with two derelict sets of farm buildings. These mas, or smallholdings, formed the backbone of Spanish agriculture until young people abandoned rural life for towns in the mid-twentieth century. The agro-economics of the EEC enforced obsolescence of the mas system. As old timers retired or died, their farms were abandoned, leaving most of the land returning to wild.

Self-sufficiency was a huge change from city life in Valencia for an English writer and his Flamenco dancing girl friend. This is a record of restoring cultivation and renovating buildings fit for human habitation. In the trying, the couple developed resourcefulness and perseverance alongside connectedness with the landscape and respect for their neighbours.

Each month of their first year is prefixed by information from the Kitab al-Falaha, a twelfth century agricultural handbook which became Jason Webster's trusted resource for instruction in the art of subsistence farming. Fortunately he was clearly a nice but ignorant chap and very willing to learn from more experienced farmers. The remaining masovers proved a welcoming bunch who offered practical help, advice and support to the newcomers. The trials and travails of everyday are interwoven with eccentric local characters who bundle them off unexpectedly to celebrate traditional local customs. The couple not only survive, but their self-sufficiency flourishes in their first year on the land.

In recording what they learned, Jason Webster provides a compendium of rural life. Look no further for directions about how to select, clean and cook snails … recognize and cook wild asparagus … pick and market olives for oil … plant or prune trees … prepare truffles in the kitchen. The most important lesson for Jason Webster was learned about the slow rhythm of the seasons, the satisfaction to be gained from working with the earth and acceptance of the vagaries of a harsh climate.

I loved the folk tales preluding each chapter. Interestingly, the traditional mix of handsome princes, lovely princesses, all-powerful kings, evil queens, wicked witches and innocent maidens are surprisingly akin to our own fairy stories. Warring Moors and Christians from the Crusades and Saints from all ages augment the cast.

In reviewing, I think of myself as a general reader, which means I'll have a go at anything that catches my interest. In real life, I buy a local book, fiction or non-fiction, when I'm visiting a new place, which somehow cements my relationship with the landscape. I don't know inland Spain at all, and I think that's probably why I didn't really make a connection with this book. Conversely, of course, I'm sure it will be of great interest to travellers in the region.

My overall impression remains of a lyrical watercolour wash. I wanted to nail down this particular location but found it quite difficult to pinpoint. Even with the map, it somehow evaded my capture. So also with the hero of the story, the author himself. Jason Webster tends to remain the impartial reporter, whereas I prefer books which allow the personality of the writer to seep through, warts and all. I have a mental picture of his lovely, gentle, practical partner, Salud – but only a blurry image of Jason Webster himself.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

On the Iberian map, here at The Bookbag we liked Jose Saramago's Small Memories of his childhood in the Portugese countryside and Lisbon. We loved The Shadow of the Wind, in superb translation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's novel, set in Barcelona. We also loved the self-explanatory A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain by Paul Richardson.

Turning to a memoir of self-sufficiency on a British allotment, we like self-effacing first-timer Robin Shelton's Allotted Time: Two Blokes, One Shed, No Idea.

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Buy Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain by Jason Webster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain by Jason Webster at


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