Buildings and houses in La Mancha (and for many parts of Castile for that matter) can be so wanting in style and elegance, so heavy on plainness to the point they border on utterly dull, that a visitor may reach the conclusion that Cervantes’ decision to have his main character lose his mind, burst out of town and seek thrills elsewhere, be they as disturbing as impaling windmills in full motion, was not a stroke of genius but rather an understandable and premeditated determination to seek mental relief taken by any half-reasoning human being from those parts. It can be just that stark.
But it also makes it equally deceiving.
For within the thick walls of many of those dwellings lie interiors which belie their austere shells. Take Javi’s family’s place, for instance. On the outside, it is actually a step up or two from the average, being a handsome stately home in the town, but little would suggest the beguiling settings on the other side. A respectable front hall which leads directly to a covered atrium, clad in marble, well populated with plants. And furnished with wicker chairs and a couch and plump cushions, a wrought iron table topped with glass. It’s also considerably cooler than the outside.
This leads to a strategically dark living room, a perfect den for watching TV and taking refuge from the heat, with a fine wooden dining room, next to a large kitchen for Spanish standards, with a bead curtain in the door that takes you outside to a covered porch, equipped with a spray to chill the air and followed by a patio with a large pool, wood-fired oven for baking barbecues, and a grill. In short, a veritable luxury. Once inside the walls, there seems little need to go anywhere else.
Jav’s place was by no means an exception to the rule. Dozens of homes in that town boasted similarly impressive decors. Nor was La Fuente special in that sense. If you penetrate the town line of La Seca in Valladolid, your first inclination is to execute a three-point turn and depart as soon as possible. On a Friday night it can appear so desolate that you might think that the place was three deaths away from becoming a ghost town. What most newcomers don’t realize is that they are parked above one of the nation’s largest white wine reserves, and taking a jack hammer to the pavement would most likely provoke a golden-green tinted gusher a hundred feet high. The town is practically floating on vino. This is the home of the evermore popular Verdejo white wine of the Rueda region. Here, many residents may give the appearance of modesty, they often look just a notch above a homesteader, but they are so filthy rich they don’t know what to do with their money. The fact that their homes have a tendency to look like county jails rather than mansions has more to do with the fact that the Castilian mentality is not fond of ostentation. A stroll around the El Escorial palace built at the height of Spain’s empire should help illustrate that. It also helps keep everyone in the dark on just how much you have.
In any event, in search of some bread as well as a little culture, Julia and I walked up to the tahona. The streets of La Fuente de Pedro Naharro, like so many of these towns, have little to offer the tourist aesthetically, at least on the surface. Yet, it is the very simplicity of the walls, entrances, windows, colors and pavements, it is their almost total lack of charm which, in my opinion, gives them a charming authenticity that is worth taking a second and third look at. I just find these town irresistable. When I say these things, people sometimes look at me the way they do individuals who sit on street corners an bark like a dog, but I can’t help it. La Mancha is so alluring it’s almost hypnotizing. Javi would later ask me why I take pictures of tired tobacco stores and weathered frameless windows, and I told him, “because this is the invisible Spain I love so much. These are the minor details that are so much a part of this culture that we, and especially you, see every day but no longer bother to see anymore.”
That tahona as a business, on the other hand, may become truly invisible if things don’t change soon. Unfortunately, it may be the fact that they do change that makes the threat all that more real. A tahona, we may as well get to this point, is nothing more than a place with a large oven where goods are baked, especially, bread, which isn’t necessarily the place where they sell it, known as the panadería. That’s the technical difference, but in modern times, things have become vaguer. Many panaderías now use small electric ovens designed specifically to finish baking half-baked (if you’ll excuse the word) dough in order to serve warm and fresh loaves which have become so popular in Spain these days. Are these tahonas? Not really. There are also places where they actually prepare the bread from scratch and bake it on the premises, but owners call it a panadería, not a tahona. At least that’s what happens in a city or large town.
The fact is, the term “tahona” appears to be slowly falling into disuse, but it’s in a village where things tend to be treated differently. Here they are almost like miniature factories, and the goods they produce may be dispatched directly from the shop itself or distributed to grocery stores, or other outlets.
In keeping with the surroundings, the tahona in La Fuente is so unassuming you wouldn’t even know it’s there. A small stairway leads up to the ubiquitous bead curtains draping from every door in those towns. Inside on the left was a small room with a counter and empty shelves, as if I had just entered a market from a former soviet state.
The two men at the looked uncannily like a comedy team. One short and, well, robust. The other taller and, while not thin, certainly lower in weight. And he wore glasses which gave home a distinguished air, no easy feat considering he was surrounded by glossy balls of dough. The tall one ably took the spheres and with one thumb managed to mold them into ribbed doughnuts, not unlike French crullers, with an ease and precision, it seems hardly possible that any machine could best him.
The shorter man led me to the oven a kiln so large it sailed up to the ceiling. It was covered in white tile except for the mighty iron mouth which read “Juan Ferré Matheu”, the name of the manufacturer. The company started production in 1893, but it has since ceased to operate. Fired by wood, the baker swears “it’s been on continuously for fifty years.” I wasn’t sure if this was a bit of an exaggeration, but after a long look around the place it would seem that very little else had changed since 1966, so I could see no reason for their extinguishing the embers for the sake of novelty.
“And we can’t turn it off.”
“Too dangerous?” That made me step back a little. Why? Had years of nonstop usage turned the kiln into a nuclear oven? Would failure cause the grapes in the nearby vineyards to glow at night?
“What would happen?”
He shook his hand ominously. “I don’t want to think of what would happen.”
In the meantime, they just kept on baking. Behind us was a wooden shelf with a pile or two of French-bread style loaves which customers could walk up to, pick out and pay for. Next to that stood a tall cart, twenty or more levels high, stacked with black metal trays, all bent out of shape, laden with rows of oblong cookies.
“So, you make those too?” The question was obvious.
“Yeap. About 70 to 80 bags a day. The doughnuts too. Look.” He opened the door to the hearth and inside was a large plate which could be rotated to maximize space. “Then I use this wheel,” located on the outside, “to turn it. That’s all there is to it.”
“I can make cookies, cakes, bread, even pizzas. Even roast, but we aren’t supposed to do it. Affects the flavor.”
“He also cremates dead bodies for a cheap price,” joked a customer as he passed by.
“Don’t listen to him! What a comment!”
Everything about the bakery teams with craftsmanship, and technology appears to have very little place there, no matter how rudimentary it is. The thermometer to the left was busted and my guess it hadn’t been in operation since the days Franco was alive. Accurate temperature readings are normally vital to baked goods. How did they do it?
“How? That’s easy. I just open the door to the oven, stick my hand in like this,” he demonstrated it personally in case I didn’t understand. There must have been something about the look on my face that suggested to him I needed visuals.
“And I wait for a few seconds. If I have to pull it out, that means it’s very hot and less time.”
Well, there was no argument that logic fully supported his technique. It also probably explained the wide range of toasted cookies. But that was the fun of homemade products.
He took us around back to a room which served as little more than a playground for people who suffer from Diogenes syndrome. A solid two inches of myriad crap blanketed the floor, but there was one item of interest at the back…a projector.
“This used to be the where we would hold community events,” the ‘used to’ part was self-evident. “This was the local movie theater. You can see where the holes for the projector came out of on the wall. They’ve been sealed since then. Can you see them?”
I could, even though most people no longer did. “What will become of this place when you retire?” It didn’t take a lot to see that day was not far off for either of them.
He shrugged his shoulders. “God knows.”