Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

La Matanza

Garlic, salt, paprika and ground pork never looked so pretty!

This will be the third matanza we’ve attended with our friend Isaac, a surgeon from Extremadura who befriended us via his cousin, and Paloma, his wife whose has a voice I envy.  

Turismo rural Los Cantos: The charming place we stayed at in Alburquerque
Click here to see Los Cantos' Facebook page

matanza is, literally, a “killing,” from the word matar, to kill.  At this matanza, four huge black Iberian pigs were the victims. Just about every Spanish person I spoke to knew what a matanza was, and the comment was always the same: Estamos perdiendo esta tradición.  We are losing this tradition.  It is why Isaac and Paloma continue, each year, to slaughter and butcher their pigs, and to invite a whole bunch of friends to celebrate this rural tradition with them.

José the cerdo surgeon

It is only mildly uncomfortable for me, a biology teacher used to dissections, and Todd, a general surgeon, to be part of the butchering.  They are huge animals, black-hooved behemoths, and they came apart with astonishing rapidity under the skilled hands of José, el carnicero.   The first part of the process involves burning off the hair—which is surprisingly abundant—and then removing the entrails.  

A very matter-of-fact process, and remarkably fast

Pig organs are remarkably similar to human ones, Todd and Isaac tell me, and I was fascinated and only mildly squeamish.  Then off come the limbs, and then the fat, and the animal is quickly dismantled into easily-recognized cuts of meat. 

Working the tenderloin
Why watch this butchery, you might ask?   There is blood in huge vats, the smell of burning hair, organs slung over clotheslines, the slightly odd sweet smell of fresh meat that the cold afternoon air cannot quite dampen.   

Colorful organs and belly fat
For me, it is important to connect with our food source.  I am definitely not a vegetarian, and as I tell Tia and Sasha, listen, for us to live, something generally has to die.  That’s true with animals, and with vegetables, grains, even eggs.  The only things I can think of that may not fit this truism are milk and honey. 
All those packaged treats, like bacon and baby back ribs and ground pork, come from this animal

So watching the butchering, and then the coarse preparation of the chorizo and patatera, a fat-based spread with only some meat ground in and supplemented with potatoes, helps me see where those nicely-packaged pork cutlets and the delicious sausages come from when we buy them at Mercadona.  

Sausage, chorizo, and patatera, left to right

It is a reminder that for me to live, these animals died, and therefore I can enjoy their delicious fat-tinged secreto iberico (a fatty muscle hidden under the armpit) and our favorite, jamón bellota.   It’s somber and a bit sad, but also delicious and extremely interesting for a science teacher like me.

There's a certain beauty to the secreto iberico: doesn't it look like an artsy fish?

And then there is the fiesta!  Isaac is a marvelous singer and plays the guitar with abandon, knowing well how to light up a party.  He invites his friends who appreciate a good song, and he orchestrates the performances, inviting in all of us aspiring músicos.  

King of Song
Early on Todd and I sang our acoustic versions of Vale That hits, which was lucky, because the three brothers from Jerez—Rafael, Paco, and Gabriel, along with their cousin, also Gabriel—took center stage, singing sevillanas and rumbas to the delight of the guests.  They vied for center stage with Isaac, as well as Paloma, whose enchanting voice filled in the quieter moments.  

Ah, to have a voice like Paloma's...!
Click here to hear some singing and see some dancing!

Two French guys living just over the border from San Sebastian, Curro and Laurence, drove all the way from Bayonne for the weekend and sang some great flamenco, giving Isaac a much-needed break so he could attend to the chores.

Isaac, Curro, and Laurence: singing buddies

A multitude of entertainers
We arrived that Friday afternoon to watch the singeing, butchering, and meat-grinding, along with the weighing of ground pork and spices, the chorizo-mixing in huge tubs, and the barbequing of fresh pork delicacies (like my favorite, secreto iberico). 

Grinding the pork meat in huge quantities
Mixing in the potato to make patatera
Adding salt by the kilo!

Tapas and drinks came around, and once folks were fed and watered, the singing started.  We sang, danced, and snacked until late, then went to sleep it off at our turismo rural, Los Cantos.  “That’s just the pre-party!”  Isaac laughed.  “Tomorrow is the real party!”

The real party: Saturday-night celebration amidst the freshly-made sausages
And sure enough, that’s how it was.  We sauntered in around noon to help Paloma and the others with the sausage-making; the intestines had been thoroughly cleaned and soaked in lemon water overnight, and were in the process of being stuffed.  

Expert sausage-makers
I tied and wrapped for a good hour or so, but I was probably more nuisance than anything else, having to ask how to do this and that, splitting the intestine at one point in my enthusiasm to tighten up the casing, and tying off one sausage for every three or four sausages that my table mates completed. 

Total novice

Guests continued to arrive, and by the afternoon the arroz was ready.  This is the hearty country-pork version of paella, rice made with pork broth, chunks of tender meat and liver.   It is delicious (even though I am not a liver fan and tend to pick around it).   

Country-style arroz
Everyone brought side dishes, and the weather cooperated, the bright sunshine bringing the temperature up to a cozy 15˚.  After lunch, out came the guitars, and we took turns singing, dancing, eating and drinking until, as the crowd dwindled and the fire in the hearth died down, we returned to the turismo.  The next day, we stopped by to say good-bye and left with a bag of fresh pork cuts to enjoy at home.

Gorgeous weather for a delicious almuerzo
I learned a lot this weekend: the renewed gratitude for animals that are so tasty and sustaining and the efficiency that the Spanish show in utilizing every possible pig part; the grace with which Isaac shares the stage and involves everyone who wants to sing; the unhurried, off-line unplugged pace of life in rural Spain and the way it allows connection to grow; the importance of repetition and the year-after-year enjoyment of a tradition (this is the twenty-something-ith matanza).  Thank you, Isaac and Paloma, for making us a part of your world. 

A couple who knows how to have fun and who value friendship

Saturday, January 2, 2016

¡Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año!

Crosses on Basque hilltop, December 2015
This Christmas season was unusual here in El Puerto.  Instead of the biting, humid cold we had last year, the weather stayed temperate and at times downright summery, inviting us to the beach for several outings!  That was a relief to Suzi and Ethan, who requested that we spend Christmas Eve in a house that was warm. 
The ayuntamiento of Puerto all dressed up for Christmas

Expecting the damp cold we’d had the year before (which drove my stalwart German relatives out of our palace and to a nearby hotel), we booked a renovated farmhouse in Bilbao, complete with fireplace and excellent heating.   Suz and crew arrived mid-December, and we fiesta’ed around Puerto for several days, giving me a chance to dance in the multiple zambombas that continue throughout the month.

Click here to see me dance in a zambomba!

Christmas lights of our street, Calle Larga in Puerto

Then off we drove to Bilbao.  Suzi and Ethan flew, but we’d waited too long to buy affordable tickets, and so opted to rent a car (cheap!) and stay overnight in Salamanca on the way there, and in Toledo on the way back.  Salamanca is a magical university city built of sandstone, and it continued to please, although it did rain on us a little (to be expected).

Stunning sandstone in Salamanca
Our farmhouse in Northern Spain was nothing short of spectacular.  Luis, the owner, is an art restorer who turned his talents to the family home just outside of Durango, nestled between Bilbao and San Sebastian.  Every board of flooring, every outline of paint around gorgeous stone windowframes, every iron railing had been lovingly cleaned, restored, and protected to bring out its full beauty.  

An inviting living room and toasty fireplace

Decadent dining room for Christmas dinner

The detailing was painstakingly perfect and spot on
Luis and his sister Carlota have an impressive decorator’s eye, and the pieces of art, the impeccably refinished antiques, and the delightful details at every turn and in every corner made our stay in this old farmhouse a dream come true.  And it was deliciously warm to boot! 

Click here to see more photos of the beautiful old farmhouse.

Caroling by the fire
Simone arrives!

We picked up sister Simone in Bilbao to bring the three sisters together at Christmas for the first time in several years.  And the farmhouse was perfect, the weather was glorious, sunny, and warm (for Northern Spain), and the food scrumptious. 

The Guggenheim Bilbao and funny Scotty Dog plant sculpture

Browsing through Bilbao
We visited the Guggenheim and downtown Bilbao—my favorite of the northern Spanish cities.  San Sebastian was beautiful turn-of-the-century quaint, but the sloping hillsides and Bilbaíno riverfront got my vote.  But everywhere were the amazing pintxos! These little snacks substituted for a regular meal on several of our days there.

A pickle sandwich!

We celebrated Christmas with our traditional singing, a delicious meal of capón (giant gelded rooster) and Heidesand (our favorite German Christmas cookie), and walked the mountains around Durango on Christmas day.  To our delight, we were serenaded by Basque Christmas carolers! 

Click here to see and hear the Basque carolers

Joy to the World

On our way home to El Puerto, we stopped through Toledo, a fabulously medieval city just south of Madrid.  Unbenownst to me, it was named one of the two most important places in Spain to visit by Fodor’s Guide, and indeed, I was enchanted.  

One of the seven gates of Toledo

Set on a hill overlooking the curve of the Tajo River, which surrounds it on three sides, making it an excellent defensive site, Toledo enchants with stone and brick walls (the brick as well as the alcázar and a mosque a tribute to its Moorish past), tiny meandering cobblestone streets, a striking Cathedral, not one but two synagogues, and the best marzipan (made by nuns) that I’ve ever had.  

Gothic glory

Turrets and towers everywhere

All types of marzipan, but my favorites are the delicias--with egg yolk in the center!

No matter that one of the synagogues was named Santa María de la Blanca, there was more sense of a Jewish quarter here than in any other Spanish city I’ve visited. 

Synagogue St. Mary the White in Toledo
Lights to mark the Jewish Quarter

Street signs also mark the historic Jewish center

Click here to see a Christmas band play in Toledo

Once home, we had just a few days to rehearse before our three-sister and four-kid premiere at Bar Milord.  Our friend Juan, the proprietor of Bar Milord, was again taking a chance on us (and our kids) to bring in the crowds.  

Vale That in the house


And we did, and rocked the night away with an all-friends, all-family concert.  Introducing Tia, Sasha, Rivers, and Gonzalo!  And the three Rico sisters on harmony!

Rocking the crowd at Milord's

Click here to hear Tia sing Shake It Off!
Click here to hear all of us sing Country Roads!

And that was just the warm-up act for the New Year’s Eve party at the palace.  Joined by mostly Americans and French (the Spanish celebrate with their families and sometimes make a cameo appearance at 2 am, if at all), we celebrated with fireworks and a disco ball until early morning. 

Getting the disco ball going for New Year's Eve in the palace

Me in my Charo New Year's outfit with fake diamond eyelashes and friends Angeline and Ebru

Fancy ladies
Dancing with friend Paqui
Happy New Year!

And of course there was the obligatory dip in the ocean on New Year’s Day.   This time we hung out at the lovely chiringuito overlooking Las Redes beach, which has surprisingly delicious food for such a beach operation.  Now that we are all clean, we are ready for 2016!

Ready to rumble

Washing away our sins