14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 18 September 2019 — Like ants gathering for the winter, a family from the El Brujo community in Pinar del Río goes out every day to tour the pastures, the trails and the banks of the roads in search of those guavas that still grow almost wild around their little village. With a sack on the shoulders and machete at the waist, they go up and down the rocky hillsides. In the afternoon they return loaded, to the house: the main anthill.
“Ana! Wash the bottles and dry them,” says the mother. The other daughter must prepare the molds where the mixture of guava and sugar will be placed, after cooking for a while, to become the popular “bars” that will later be sold on the roads, the the stands of the self-employed, or at coffee shops with a piece of bread or cheese.
The telephone coverage does not reach there. Few things betray that the family is living in the 21st century. The scene seems to a hundred years ago, when technologies did not dominate everyday life and people still talked face to face, without mobiles or WhatsApp.
“The well water is only for cooking and drinking,” warns the patriarch of this family of Los Brujos, which has been affected by the drought for months, a problem that has also reduced the amount of fruit available. “At the beginning we did this for personal consumption, but we were creating conditions and now we can even sell it,” says Miguel Martínez, one of the sons and agronomist.
El Brujo is a small community gathered around a Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS) dedicated to coffee and fruit production, where almost all the residents are cousins, siblings or have some degree of kinship. The town borders La Comadre, another settlement of about three or four houses whose jurisdiction is disputed by Bahía Honda and Candelaria.
The family, consisting of father and mother, and six children (two women and four men) and three granddaughters, dedicates at least two weeks a year to producing these products that are then sold among the neighbors, at a peasant fair or to the houses in Soroa rented to foreigners.
On the roads and paths that connect the towns in the area, it is common to see informal vendors offering guava bars, the livelihoods of dozens of surrounding families. Although some state industries also process the fruit, most of the products made from this fruit are produced and marketed outside the state network.
Most of it is fabricated with very precarious and handcrafted infrastructure and few of the processed products have labels or a family brand that distinguishes them. However, consumers know how to distinguish if it came out of the hearth of the Gonzálezes or the Piedras.
“This year there was little mango because of the lack of rain, but we have more guava. Each member of the family has their function. Some peel the product, after discarding the ones in poor condition, others count the plates and bottles, until finally they place the cauldron on the firewood,” explains the mother.
While the guava boils under the care of the men of the house, the women take care of lunch or prepare some home remedy that they distribute — on request — in the community to alleviate some ailment. The nearest pharmacy is 25 kilometers away and the only means of transport they have is a Willy jeep that has deteriorated over the years and is used only for emergencies.
“Years ago some Brazilian nuns taught us to work with natural medicine, so from time to time we women get together and make tinctures, ointments and remedies with medicinal plants,” says one of the daughters.
In the backyard, there’s a bunkroom for the youngsters of the house and there is a machine, that they manufactured themselves, that helps in the process of pulping the fruits.
“This brings us work. Grinding in a blender and straining by hand would take a lot of time,” says Angel, the mechanical son who likes to carve wood, paint and sculpt. “Geographical fatalism took me. For a young man like me, it is very difficult to get from the countryside to one of the capital’s art schools,” he laments. Still, he managed to work with a craftsman on his own and comes from Candelaria to help his parents and siblings process the guava.
Once the seeds are separated and the rest of the fruit is beaten, the preparations are separated. One part is going to be bottled for juices and compotes, and the rest is mixed with sugar, lemon juice to preserve it and the occasional secret ingredient; and placed on the fire.
“Now the difficult part comes,” says Juan Antonio, father of the family. “Once it begins to bubble it has to be stirred constantly so that it does not stick and curdle until it reaches a consistency thicker than the jam, but a little less than the bar to which we are accustomed.”
In each batch around 70 pounds are processed, between the guava and the sugar. They work in shifts of ten or fifteen minutes, each for two and a half hours, to alternate in front of the fire. Staying there longer is almost impossible, because the ambient heat added to that coming from the coals make the task a real torture.
The smell of burnt wood and of the guava boiling with sugar to the point of making jam flood the whole place and capture the attention of the few passers-by who dare to get close to where the barking of the dogs who have captured a hutia (a large rodent) intermingles with the song of the birds and the crowing of the roosters. On a wooden shelf, two plates with their spoons are an invitation to taste the final product from previous batches.
David, another of the sons, puts on his sunglasses, to avoid the smoke getting in his eyes and, on a stool next to the cauldron, he settles down to start the first shift. In the afternoon, the father of the family collects the heard of goats while confessing that he once dreamed of becoming a great producer of milk and goat cheese. “They say it is very good, and well paid, but the investment is also very large,” he laments.
A broken refrigerator serves as a warehouse for the membrillo — the quince paste — distributed in plastic casseroles, buckets and small bars, while the bottles with pulp are stored in sacks or in the plastic boxes themselves. “Now we just have to wait for the guava and mango season, and people come for our products or we take them to them.” Nature sets the pace in El Brujo.
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