Lanzarote comes complete with its own very special colour aesthetics. There are the whitewashed houses; the red and black hues of a landscape that, at its harshest, has a real desert-like quality; and then, inevitably, there are the Atlantic waters which shade from sea green to ultramarine.
“I arrived here in ‘76. It was the 19th of April,” says Modesto Perdomo. “That year it hadn’t rained and the harvest had already begun.” There’s a hint of nostalgia in his voice, as he ponders the salt lagoon at Janubio. For over 40 years, Modesto has worked diligently in all weathers at the salt pans.
Today, the wind comes in heavy gusts, sweeping down off the Montañas del Fuego ‘Mountains of Fire’ (also known as Timanfaya) away to the north-east. The great volcanic eruptions of the 1730s created those hills. Modesto is a stocky, tanned, white-haired man, who understands the details of these uncompromising landscapes. He looks up towards the barren summit of Timanfaya. It’s easy to understand why the great artist, designer and environmental activist César Manrique claimed that Lanzarote was “the most beautiful place on earth.”
Modesto sees the art in the Lanzarote landscape. But he discerns much more. He sees a key economic asset: salt.
“Over a period of about fifty years, starting in 1895,” explains Modesto, “this great coastal lagoon was managed to promote the development of the salt industry. It grew to become the biggest area of salt extraction in the Canary Islands.”
“It was my grandfather Florencio who sketched out the layout of the salt pans, working for Don Jaime Lleó who was the owner back then,” adds Modesto. “My father worked here too.” Modesto is as modest as his name implies, but one detects a hint of pride as he, now on the brink of retirement, reflects on his status as master salt maker and foreman of the Janubio salt works. Modesto shifts his gaze, and looks east towards the slopes of the Los Ajaches massif. There in the distance, the sun reflects off a scatter of white houses — mere dots on the hillside.
The hamlet of Las Breñas, Modesto’s birthplace, like other villages in this south-west corner of Lanzarote, has always provided labour for Janubio.
“The whole area of Las Breñas, La Hoya, Maciot, Femés,” says Modesto, “almost everyone in those places worked here. And they would walk here. There were no cars.” Modesto has a vivid way with words, conjuring up scenes from the past, and sketching out details with an evident passion for history.
“See it like this,” he says. “Say 70 years ago, when up to 70 people would work in the salt flats, from dawn to dusk, Monday to Saturday. Just imagine, over there a crew collecting salt, another team drawing up the pools, yet others loading salt. There was a lot of manual labour. All the rocks needed for building and maintaining the salt lagoons all had to be brought over with camels and donkeys. And they had to be crushed manually.”
“But life was surely not all work,” suggests Modesto, who explains how even remote Las Breñas has a literary claim to fame. “Víctor Fernández Gopar, known by all as El Salinero, the salt worker, was also born in my village.”
Gopar’s honest, often scathing poems highlighted the social injustices in Lanzarote life at the turn of the 20th century. The El Salinero road in his home village recalls the poet. The island’s theatre in the capital Arrecife is also named after him.
A changing market
Walking over the salt pans, the wind still sweeping in mighty gusts down from Timanfaya, Modesto reflects both on his impending retirement and on the changes he has seen at Janubio during 40 years working there. He explains that, casting back to the very start of the last century, salt was a key player in the island’s economy.
“Once there were 25 salt plants around the Lanzarote coast. But only two remain, Los Agujeros in Guatiza and us here at Janubio.”
“The island of Lanzarote was nothing before the tourists arrived,” says Modesto. “Life revolved around fishing, mainly out on the Saharan Bank, livestock and agriculture.”
It was one 20th-century technological innovation which brought the tourists: the jet engine. But it was another technological innovation which signalled the downturn in the Lanzarote salt industy: refrigeration. No longer was it necessary to salt the catch, whether for export or to preserve the fish for local use. With the advent of the freezer, demand waned.
“Our Janubio salt has always been of the highest quality,” says Modesto. “It was even used by the Basque tuna fleet.” But production has slumped from 10,000 tons a year when Modesto first arrived to work at Janubio. “These days it’s not much more than 2,000 tons,” he notes.
“But back in the old days… well, then, the crystal-white of the salt, the blue sea, and everyone busy… now there’s just five of us working here.” His words falter and fade.
The wind shows little sign of abating so Modesto suggests we take refuge in a dilapidated stone building.
“That’s the Casa del Motor,” says Modesto. It’s a piece of typical Canary Islands two-storey architecture.
Stepping inside, I see it houses a long-disused piston pump, which bears an enamelled badge showing it was built by a company called Ruston in the English city of Lincoln. There are a number of rusty pipes connecting the pump with the lagoon. A long wooden counter serves as a reminder that the building was also used as a shop selling salt and other goods. There is graffiti, an abandoned van, and a boat too, as well as grindstones which farmers in the vicinity used to mash their gofio, or toasted cereal, as well as the straw to feed their animals. Modesto explains that, in the past, the salt water was obtained from the lagoon at specific intake points, and pumped by four windmills, rundown but still standing in their sentinel-like positions around the lagoon.
In the fifties, petrol-driven motors replaced the windmills.
“Look, I can show you how the system works,” says Modesto.
So he turns on the modern pump. The water shoots up a pipe to the caño, an aqueduct of sorts which circumvents the salt flats, feeding water as necessary into the salt pans. Only about ten per cent of the full extent of the salt pans at Janubio are in use today— just a fragment of the wider spread of square pans which once fed a buoyant salt industry. The sea water pumped to the caño is fed to upper basins called cocederos, where the action of the sun initiates evaporation, heating the water but ensuring that it never exceeds 25 degrees in temperature. From these upper pans, water with an increased salt concentration discharges to lower basins, where further evaporation takes place. The process is repeated up to five times over the course of fifteen to twenty days, the brine travelling down the sloping terrain and eventually running into tajos where the salt crystallises into an unusual blueish-white deposit, ready for harvesting.
“So, in that process, the overall concentration of the salt in the water increases tenfold, reaching 300 grammes per litre,” explains Modesto.
Modesto is a technician, but he is certainly not immune to aethetics. We step out of the building and admire the minimalism of the geometric beauty of the scene. It is a striking landscape shaped by human intervention. In the distance, rows of identical salt mounds conceal the movement of three salt workers. It is late September and the salt harvesting season, which began in April, will continue for a few weeks yet. Just like in agriculture, salt has its own annual cycle, and the zafra, or harvest, takes place in those months when days are longer and sunnier and the breezes, which aid evaporation, blow stronger. The rest of the year, when wind and sun are not as intense, Modesto and his men carry out maintenance on the infrastructure. They clean the pipes and the bottom of the basins to help ensure that salt of the highest quality is harvested in the future. And they perform restoration work on the salt pools, handpicking specific rocks and stones to replace those damaged in the walls and tajos.
“The six months of rehabilitation are just as important as the time when we are harvesting,” notes Modesto. “Anyhow, let’s go and look at what the guys are doing over there now.”
New opportunities at Janubio
Modesto parks his van not far from the spot where the three men have been busy working since early morning. Wearing straw hats and wellies, and standing ankle-deep in the salt pools, the middleaged salt workers barely glance at us. Here are men working with all the meticulous zeal of an avid gardener. They beat the water with a rake, thus breaking up the salt, and then combing and collecting it from the bottom of the pool — without stirring it — and then gently gathering the salt at one corner of the basin.
“The system has always been the same, it hardly changed in a salt flat like this,” Modesto explains. “It is work for a rake, a shovel and a wheelbarrow,” he emphasises.
The salt is gathered in the Bodega de la Sal, a two-storey stone building which was restored in the mid-nineties. This building also houses the grinding and packaging machinery.
“These days, a lot of the salt is sold here in the Canary Islands as table salt,” says Modesto.
The death four years ago of the owner of Janubio, a local doctor called Francisco Padrón Viñas, prompted questions over the future of the operation at Janubio.
“But his son, Carlos Padrón, seems keen to continue,” remarks Modesto with evident pleasure. “Carlos is keen to open up the area, so that visitors can come and understand this most traditional of Lanzarote industries.”
So there’s an emerging new vision for the future at Janubio. As the latest member of the Padrón Lleó family to run the salt works, Carlos Padrón sees Janubio as a place where the history of salt production in Lanzarote can be explored and communicated to visitors. For there is more than lineal beauty and blinding colours in this place on the very edge of the ocean. There is part of the culture of the Canary Islands.