There are a handful of people living in the remote valleys of northern Spain who continue to make charcoal the old-fashioned way. The work is hard and labor-intensive, and the only people who buy the charcoal these days are restaurants and private households; most people buy commercially produced charcoal. But a few “charcoal cookers” remain, plying their trade. Associated Press photographer Alvaro Barrientos sought them out to tell their stories.
One of the charcoal cookers Barrientos met was Miquel Lander. According to Barrientos, Lander knows the days of making charcoal the traditional way are coming to an end, but he persists. Barrientos describes the process Lander, and others, goes through to make charcoal: “The carbonization of the wood comes from slowly choking the logs at a constant temperature, keeping most of the oxygen out. In Viloria and other hamlets in the shade of the limestone ranges of Loquiz and Urbasa, that’s achieved by covering pyramids of wood with hay, dry leaves and a layer of insulating soil.
“The fire is lit through a chimney in the center of the pyre. Lander then climbs up on a wooden step to dig air vents in the volcano-like structure in order to keep a steady combustion, which can go on for weeks.”
The pyramids of logs Lander starts with are composed of 1.5 tons of holm oak. Although this might seem like a lot, Barrientos spoke with another charcoal cooker, 78-year-old Emilio Galdeano, who remembers when the output used to be much higher, a time when “charcoal pyres were part of the landscape, and mystery shrouded the charcoal makers who, before vehicles could bring the wood all the way down to the valley, spent weeks or even months up in the mountains tending the firewood piles.”
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
More on In Sight: