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In their
own sweet time

For 500 years, the young men of La Gomera have

been harvesting palm sap to make a special local
“honey”. But the days of this industry are numbered.
We went to meet the last of the guaraperos
Words⁄Andrea Montgomery  Photography⁄Joseph Fox

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or centuries, the palm tree has been one of the Locally it’s a highly prized liquid that’s drunk raw as
world’s most important plants for humans, a juice, likened to coconut milk; used to make wine and
both practically and symbolically. As well as vinegar; and – most famously – boiled down into a rich,
being a religious sign and motif of relaxation, sweet syrup known as miel de palma, or “palm honey”.
it provides shelter from the sun, animal fodder and This syrup, which is imbued with a rich mineral
fruits, including coconuts, dates, betel nuts and acai. content and completely pure, is called “the queen
On La Gomera, one of the seven main islands of of the kitchen” for its adaptability. Islanders drizzle
Spain’s Canaries, the trees also provide a vital livelihood it over everything from goat’s cheese to salad or
for the young men known as guaraperos. For the last five fresh fruit, and use it to make desserts such as leche
centuries, they’ve been scaling the Phoenix canariensis asada (an egg and milk pudding). It’s even accorded
(Canarian date palm) for its sap: guarapo. medicinal powers, and used to cure sore throats. »

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“Imagine this is
your profession:
you have to work
at a great height,
it’s hard work and
Previous pages,
from left⁄
Preparing a palm at
La Encantadora, near
Vallehermoso; miel de
palma is used in traditional
leche asada pudding
Clockwise from left⁄
Kevin Santos Ossorio, of
Royal Palm, working in
Valle Gran Rey; guarapero
Sergio making final
preparations to a palm;
rope holding a bucket,
which will fill overnight

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From left⁄
Tanausú Chavez works
as a guarapero, but also
has his own trees in
Vallehermoso; axes are
used to carefully remove
the young leaves of the
Phoenix canariensis palm

It was once made across the Canary Islands,

but today production is confined to the fertile
Vallehermoso area of La Gomera, AKA the Honey
Triangle. Here, above the dense foliage and deep
barrancos (ravines), young guaraperos still climb up
to collect the sap from the tree tops, in a process that
has remained unchanged for 500 years.
Now, however, the future doesn’t look so sweet
for these producers. Many of the old guard have
“The trees are in grown too frail for the work, or left the island for
Tenerife, lured by the prospect of easier jobs in the
limited supply and tourism sector; and few young people are interested
in spending years training to tap the trees without
are vulnerable to killing them, so many of the agricultural terraces have
been left to go fallow. Watching guaraperos climb the
many factors...” trunks of tall palms on a series of stakes placed at
intervals, as if they were climbing a ladder to clean a
window, you can see why it’s a hard sell.
“Many people have a fear of heights,” says
Sebastian Ramos from Miel de Palma Encantadora
in Vallehermoso. “Imagine then if this is your
profession, it’s impossible. You have to work at a great
height, it’s hard work, and dangerous.” »

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From left⁄
Guarapero Sergio makes
his way down a very tall
palm; and he scrapes
away the flesh of a palm
to reveal the glistening
sap beneath

As a guarapero for 17 years, Ramos understands

only too well the demands of the job. The sap has to
be extracted from the youngest leaves of the palm,
the ones at the very top of the tree – up to 27 metres.
After climbing up, they cut away only those leaves
necessary to reach the crown itself, then stand astride
the leaves to tap the bud, and insert a bamboo shoot.
When the sap rises at sunset, it trickles into a waiting
bucket before being collected at sunrise.
One of the most important parts of the job lies in
picking and choosing which trees to harvest each
season. Each can only be tapped for one season of a
few months and then must be allowed to lie fallow
for three or four years. This husbandry isn’t just
necessary for ensuring the future of their craft but
also of the island.
“It’s very important that we take care of the palms
so no harm comes to those we work on,” says Kevin
Santos Ossorio, who’s been employed at his father’s
Royal Palm business since he was 16 – 10 years. “To
guarantee the future of the palm honey business, we
must ensure the survival of the Canary Islands, which
is our raw material.”
One of his major frustrations lies in the fact that
the guaraperos can’t control climate change, which
has seen higher temperatures and less rainfall on the
island. The drier conditions affect the production of
sap, making it more difficult for them to determine
which trees to tap. »

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Other foods that
require bravery

The treasured
goose barnacles
grow on sheer
coastal cliffs in
Galicia, Spain.
Collectors – who
are lowered on
ropes or jump on
to the cliffs
from boats – risk
being smashed
against the rocks
by the surf.

“Although the Phoenix canariensis grows naturally Swiftlet nests

in the wild in the Canary Islands, it’s in limited supply Used to make
bird’s nest
and is vulnerable to many factors,” laments Ossorio. soup, one of
“The droughts we are facing lately, and the pests that the world’s
affect the species, mean we have to take special care.” most expensive
As if they weren’t facing enough issues, recent EU these nests are
legislation prevents producers from using the term formed from
“honey” as it’s not a bee product. Bottles are now swiftlet saliva.
Collectors in
labelled sirope de palma (palm syrup), which causes Malaysia must
confusion among buyers and has led to falling sales. scale caves up
to 150m high to
It angers the guaraperos, who see it as another nail in
retrieve them.
the coffin for the industry.
“It has been called palm honey all my life,” says
Ramos. “My father called it that and, I guess, my
grandfather too, from generation to generation.
I don’t understand why it has to change now.”
But for all the hard work and sacrifice, neither
man would consider giving up their lofty craft; for
them, this is a way of life worth preserving. As Ramos
From top left⁄
says, “The best thing about being a guarapero is that Sirope de palma bottled
Sea snakes
and ready to be sold in a
not only are we responsible for developing a unique shop in El Guro; Royal Palm Fishermen use an
product but we are also passing on all that tradition to guarapero Ivan, working in electric bulb to
Valle Gran Rey; bamboo is light their way,
those who buy and use it.”, used as a funnel to direct and bare hands
pg/mieldepalmalaencantadora/about the guarapo into a bucket to catch these
La Gomera is an hour’s ferry ride from Tenerife; deadly creatures
during night-time
Norwegian flies to Tenerife from nearly 20 destinations. fishing in the
Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at Gulf of Thailand.

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