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30 Days of Christmas

January 10, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 17

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Christmastime, though most people are unaware of this, is actually broken up into two main periods: Advent and Christmastide. The former is the four weeks that lead up to the day that represents the birth of the Christian savior and the latter constitutes the twelve days from December 25th until the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men come and pay homage to the Messiah. Both seasons have existed in the Christian calendar for centuries but, as time has passed, different cultures have centered on one or the others.

     Most northern European countries and North America emphasize the weeks prior to December 25th, which is not to say that old tradition hasn’t taken into account the other time. Carols like the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are proof that way back then, the stretch of days at the end of December and early January were very important. It also shows that as early as 1780, when the tune first appeared in print (though the song is probably older), present giving was intimately associated with the yuletide and, in passing, suggests that back then, men were as hapless at knowing what women liked as a gift as they are today. The intonation of the melody itself makes it clear that he only got it right on the fifth day.

     All the same, for as long as living my memory can recall, it’s Advent that stands above the other in most Anglo-American circles. That’s why we have Advent calendars, hold all or most celebrations before Christmas Day, sing Christmas carols, watch It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and A Charlie Brown Christmas no later than December 25th, though preferably on the 24th, and pretty much sigh with regret, or relief depending on your perspective, the night of the 25th and say, “Well, that’s it.”

     Everyone knows New Year’s Eve is a big event around the world, quite possibly the most global holiday on the planet, and there are those that suggest this represents the former Christmas Octave, a tradition that went from the 25th through January 1st, but I highly doubt that. It is generally an afterthought in comparison.

     Spain, as usual, was a different story. Not very long ago, this culture put far more emphasis to the Twelve Days. In fact, one often didn’t get a sense that the holidays had really started until the night of the 24th, or possibly the morning of the 22nd, when the lottery was announced. People went about their business, thought about some plans here and there, and especially lined up at the markets to buy traditional Christmas treats: turkeys, lamb, chickens called pulardas, roast beef, filet mignon, codfish, jumbo shrimp, Swedish lobsters, goose-neck barnacles, elvers, hake, and dozens of other delicious items, many of which soared in price for the holidays. They still do.

     But true to the Spanish spirit of not being outdone in the fiesta department, the country has now incorporated both and embrace these periods with the greatest of verve. Coinciding with the loathsome Black Friday (this too has been added in custom and vocabulary) the holiday season kicks off at the end of November and doesn’t let down until January 6th. Yes, that’s about 40 days all said and told. Yes, that’s about 11% of the natural year devoted to a single holiday season.  There may not be a dozen days of constant partying going on, that would be foolish to affirm.  What the Spanish do to keep spirits high and the festivities rolling is eat.

     With that in mind, suffice it to say that on the eve of Christmas Eve, far from reaching the finale of festivities, the climax of the celebrations, the summit of Mount Crumpit, where we would go for that one concluding push, that last sprint down the stretch to reach the finish line of the Christmas eating race, there was still plenty of gorging to be had.

     In fact, some would say it had hardly just begun.

30 Days of Christmas

January 9, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 16

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I was hungry. But for something else. I had dreamed about the winning number. Well, at least the last digit of the winning number. It was the number 7. The other four figures had escaped me, so I was still at a pretty big disadvantage. At best, if right, I would get my twenty euros back, because if the final number on your ticket is the same as the final number of the jackpot prize, then you are reimbursed. It’s of little comfort because most of my tickets did not end in seven, so I just had to wait and see.

     I was beginning to believe in my powers ever since I predicted through my dreams that one of my guinea pigs would get stuck in between the radiator and the wall, and such an event actually did happen. The little guy waited patiently for me to extract him from the predicament, which I did before returning him to his cage. So, there was hope yet.

     There is no question that Spain is a country of deeply ingrained traditions. But even so, it would surprise more than one newcomer to this culture that one of the oldest and most beloved customs is not decking the halls with boughs of holly (it’s a protected species here and you can get thrown into jail for it, just so you know), or caroling in the streets, or carving a turkey on Christmas Eve, or toasting to the of the holiday season, but rather legal gambling. That’s right, going down to the local agency and purchasing a ticket with your hard-earned money.

      But there is more to this than meets the eye. The Lotería Nacional de España is the oldest lottery in the world. Its roots go back to the 18th Century, and the Christmas drawing itself started up in 1812. Let’s put a little perspective.

     That’s four years before “Silent Night” was composed, eleven years before The Night Before Christmas was penned, 31 years before A Christmas Carol was published and the first Christmas card was made, decades before Christmas trees became really popular, and a century before Santa was habitually suited up in Coca-Cola red the way we know him today. By the way, the soft drink company did not invent the tone, but it did know how to cement the image and, in passing, make it an effective way of associating their product with such an omnipresent yuletide personality.

     So, you could argue that the Spanish Christmas Lottery is anything but a modern creation of a dubious holiday nature. It’s an ancient creation of a dubious holiday nature, but one that gets grannies and children alike involved…and from all over the world. I won’t even begin to touch on how it works, but suffice it to say that the reason why this is so popular is not the astronomical jackpot, the amount is 4,000,000€, which is paltry compared to what’s out there today, but rather how widespread the winnings go. There are thousands of prizes, 70% of the total amount paid goes back to the players, and you have about a 5% chance of winning something. Those are excellent odds all things considered. This gives you an idea of how good they really are:

    Powerball: 1:35

    Mega Millions: 1:15

    Euromillions: 1:13

    Lotería de Navidad: 1:7

    28 million people usually win something. That makes for a lot of happy individuals just hours before the celebrations get going.

   It would appear, however, that my ability to foresee the future of my rodents outperformed my talents as a visionary in nationally backed gambling. The children, yes they use underage boys and girls to pick up the balls from the oversized bingo cage, sing out the winning numbers for four hours straight. There are over 2,500 winning numbers. I wasn’t one of them.

      It wasn’t a very good day for Joe Cocker, either. He passed away leaving an unforgettable legacy and just picked up and departed. I flipped through YouTube for a few songs and then went about my day trying to get my shopping in before it got too late. I guess I was feelin’ alright.

30 Days of Christmas

January 8, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 15

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Rice was not the only thing that we had the previous night. Naturally. The guest could also find plates of Spanish potato omelets, bowls of ensaladilla rusa, which is a kind of Spanish version (with a Russian name) of the potato salad; cheese and cold cuts, finger sandwiches and dips. None of these, like the rice, are especially particular to Christmastime, but they are fiesta mainstays. The Spanish omelet stands above the rest in popularity. Known as the, tortilla española or de patata, they should not be confused with those unleavened disks that you use to stuff your tacos with. To anyone unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine, tortilla in Spain means “omelet”, and the French version, the tortilla francesa, simply translates as “plain omelet”. When prepared for a party, they are usually thick and and wide as a frisbee and then are cut into bite-sized squares.

     So, you could say that, despite dancing until four in the morning, we didn’t go home hungry. Yes, we danced. I know it’s hard to imagine that ever happening back home an apartment, but the Spanish, despite their famous “sentido de ridículo” don’t really have any qualms about getting up from the couch in the living room and dancing with five other people. And no one else has an issue with this. Maybe there are parts of the United States where people engage in this activity frequently, but not in my hometown. So between that and dressing as if you run a three-card Monty scam in downtown Madrid seem hard to differentiate. Oh well.

     I didn’t stay much longer and was home by a respectable 4:30a.m. The next day was low key since there wasn’t much to do, the way Sundays can and should be, and also because we needed to rest up for we still had another meal lined up for that evening.

     Carla told me that dinner was supposed to be a light affair, something to “picar” for the holidays, and proceeded to read off the list of items the different components of the pot-luck supper were planning on bringing, and act she did not complete until a full three minutes had passed. “Do you think we’ll have enough? Marta is bringing five different items. We’re only bringing three.”

     A new angle was entering the scene: pride. How were we going to only bring two pounds of shrimp and a cheese cake? To alleviate the situation, and noting that the meat department had been neglected in the list, I suggested we make miniburgers, sliders as they are known back in the States.
I don’t want to be presumptuous here, but there is a little known fact in this country and that is that I, myself, introduced the slider (la minihamburguesa) into Spain and so humbly let the knowledge propagate until it was widespread…and all without saying a single word. I would pack the little guys with different flavors and then take them to friends’ houses for all to admire. One year later, there were whole restaurants were popping up all over the place mini-burgers were sold in markets in, lo and behold, different flavors. I’ll just have to accept it with dignity.

     But even though the culinary idea was no longer novel, I went ahead a contributed an American food verse to the poem of Spanish eating at Christmas. The great thing about sliders is that you can add just about any taste you want for them. I chose a boletus mixture, a basil, oregano and garlic combo, a barbecue sauce blend and honey-mustard version. Carla worked away at the cheesecake that morning, and it was chilling away in the refrigerator.
We arrived at 8:15, to get things started early. The consensus was that it was Sunday evening and that those not pertaining to the education sector needed to be present at their workplaces the next day. I sheepishly obliged.

     That was the reasoning at least. We didn’t sit down until 10:00. In the meantime, we chatted and organized what would constitute this light meal. Minutes before sitting down, I regarded the layout of the table we had set before us and would be the source of our satiation for the next two hours.

     On the table was: One shrimp from Huelva, a pound and a half of jumbo shrimp, Manchego cheese, Galician tetilla cheese, Canary Island cheese, Iberian ham, gulas, pickled egg plants, foie gras, salad with pomegranate berries, smoked salmon, sweetened egg yolk thread, vegetable pate. We didn’t get through all of it, but sure as hell tried, filling our bellies and stretching our skin to new limits, and, here’s, the thing, complaining the whole way. If taken out of context, you would the meal was awful.

     “Oh, this is too much, but we can’t let it go to waste.”

     “I can’t have another bite, at least, I shouldn’t.”

     “We really overdid it this time. God bless you!”

     “We’re crazy to eat this much for dinner, but it’s Christmas.”

     “No thanks, I can’t eat another blessed thing. Well, okay, but just a little.”

     “This is sinful.”

     And it was. For the love of God, we hadn’t even gotten to the main course to get around, the miniature hamburgers with four different flavors. After that, then came the dessert, cheese cake, and wrap up the meal, a tray of turrón, polvorones, and such. Water, wine and cava kept the gullet lubricated.

      It was a delightful time, and though I was a tad beat from the night before’s discotheque, it was a perfectly pleasant evening. My guess is that we would be out of there by 12:30, based on their original forecast. But as the evening wore on, spirits rose and before we knew it, it was past one, the host was pulling bottles of liqueur out of the chest near the table. That tacked on another hour. I was at ease because all I had to do the next day was some shopping. Such is the life of a teacher.

30 Days of Christmas

January 7, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 14

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Many of my friends were turning forty this year and celebrating it as if they had no plans of reaching forty-one. On top of that, each and every one had to be greeted with a surprise party to the extreme that my daughter finally told me, “For the next friend, if you really want to surprise him, don’t have a surprise party.”

     Of course, she was absolutely right, but that reasoning was of little good to the rest, and this was the final one of the group, and a Saturday night event was scheduled. My friend’s wife had requested we take a brief video and send it to her so she could put them all together in a large movie. She had begun to remind us a month in advance of the party. She re reminded us several more times till the point at which she said, approximately ten days before the event itself, that she would no longer admit videos beyond this point. I decided to send mine off that morning, of the party that is, with the faint hope that my contribution would be accepted at such a late hour. After all, this was Spain, and things like this were not unknown heard of. Plus, I had been so overwhelmed with work those weeks, I was sure they would understand.

     I also made the most of the morning to try and get some Christmas shopping in.

     I stopped at the corner of Goya and Velázquez, a very artistic meeting point, if you think about it, and gave up. Too many people at the crosswalk waiting for the light to turn green. This can be done at a different time.

     The party had an additional surprise for those of us who were doing the surprise. It was a theme party. A 1970s party, I think, or an amalgamate of the 1970s in the U.S. and the 1980s in Spain. Both equally legendary periods. For Spaniards, the early 80s marked Spain’s big cultural liberation. Actually, it had begun a few years before right after the death of Franco, but things got up and running during the same years Reagan was pulling in the reins and turning back the clock on America. Madrid was in the midst of its now classic cultural explosion known as the Movida Madrileña, which initially refers to the frenetic nightlife that turned the city upside down, but went far beyond that in almost all forms of art and music. The hairdos and funky clothes might be something Spaniards in their 50s and 60s might look back at now and cringe, but once they open their eyes again, they sigh and recall it all with nostalgia.

       I had no plans to dress up, but remembering I had one of those funky white pimp hats at home, don’t ask what it was doing there or why, and, starting there, created a character who would have fit in nicely at Studio 54’s 1979 New Year’s Eve party or played a bit part in the movie Shaft. Though I was hoping for the contrary, it came as no surprise to me that most of the other guests didn’t engage the challenge of the fancy dress motif with the verve that I had. In fact, I have a feeling many didn’t even give it a second thought. And I, being the oldest at the party, came to the conclusion that one of two factors came into play: either I was the only one with a spirit of youth, or the lame crony at the fiesta who no longer had a sense of shame.

      This should have come as no surprise since the Spanish aren’t always willing to go the extra mile for a little laugh of their own dignity. They often refer to this inaction as “sentido de ridículo”, which is used quite often in a derogatory manner to describe their inability to behave foolishly in front of others, but it just as easily be interpreted as a safeguard against acting like an jackass in public. Seeing me at the party pretend I am a member of K.C. and the Sunshine Band merely reaffirmed their faith in this measure of self-imposed prohibition.

      I was comforted by the thought that maybe some of the other males there fidgeted and felt they hadn’t done enough to impress the crowd. Either that or I had suppressed the notion that their wives hugged them on the way home and said with comfort, “I’m sooo glad you aren’t a teacher. Let’s hang out in the living room and watch some Walking Dead.”

      My new guise did no prevent me from performing previously unassigned kitchen duties. I offered, they accepted, and they stuck be in front of the stove and said, “We need you to make some risotto. Now start dicing.”

      Making risotto isn’t necessarily a trying task, as long as you know how to make the dish. I didn’t but made it up as I went, and pretty much got away with it. We actually had two versions lined up. One was a traditional recipe which included all kinds of mushrooms. In Spain they are divided into two groups “champiñones” and “setas”, the latter being the more highly prized, I guess because they grow on higher quality dung, and because they can be picked out in the wild. Apparently there is only one rule that all must obey: use a real wicker or woven basket to ensure the spores of the fungi cant fall out and spread.

      Picking setas is a popular activity in the fall here, and I know dozens of people who engage in it. I don’t because I know I will be the one who picks the kind that kills you within minutes, and no one wants that burden on the CV.

      The other risotto was made with carrillera meat which is a very tender slab of meat. It’s a the flesh off the cheek, which would not make it far in today’s market expressed as such, but that happens to be the truth.

      Both were delicious. Both were a hit.

30 Days of Christmas

January 4, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 13

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There is nothing like a free school lunch to bring out the animal in a staff member. All those years of spreading the importance of generosity and sharing to their students is, in a flash, left at the door the minute the faculty walk in the lunchroom for the annual Christmas buffet lunch. As soon as the pastor has blessed the meal and everyone says “Amen!”, the fight of the fittest is on. There is a rush for the bar to grab the free botellín of beer or glass of wine, hipchecks are allowed, and a dash for the plates at each corner of the main tables. This is not a buffet in the sense that one waits patiently in line as service on the other side fulfills your wishes with a smile and you smile back and say thank you…a lot. Here, it’s every educator for themselves, and I get the feeling that perhaps after all those months of unreasonably insisting that 10-year-old children act like candidates for canonization, teachers have an irresistible need to behave like greedy humans again, and vent that built-up frustration right next to the shrimp salad platter. The table is set with a dozen different delicacies:

  • Ham (surprising good for being the mass served stuff)
  • Lomo
  • Octopus in vinaigrette
  • Shrimp
  • Manchego cheese
  • Dates wrapped in bacon
  • Chicken salad
  • Green salad (bla, too healthy)
  • Fruit salad (even worse)
  • An assortment of canapés
  • Salmon and other goodies

     The food can be accessed from all points, so the impression one gets is not that of a quiet group of civilized professionals filling their plates with the utmost etiquette, but rather a tribe of ravished Comanche warriors surrounding a chuck wagon convoy. Somehow everyone gets a plateful of victuals, but it ain’t easy. The only person in the room who is unhampered by the onslaught is the headmaster, since he is the person people least want to talk to during these events, lest they should have to return to a acting in an inhibited demeanor, and is free to pick and choose as he pleases.

     Then we all sit down to gobble away, delighted by the free grub before us, and comforted by thought that we will not have to deal with school children for approximately 20 days. More if you are the cheeky teacher who mysteriously falls ill the night before the new term commences and bites off another week of vacation.

     At some point during the feasting, four large paella pans are sleekly slid into the ends of the two buffet tables. No mention of their arrival is announced to the general public, and those who are new to the game will naturally miss out. But the veterans are on the ball, and once the tree-trunk sized dishes have emerged, they are up and running for more plates. You see, four paella pans, albeit large ones as they were, are suitable for maybe 40-50 people. There were over a hundred of us, so the, “I’ll wait a few minutes before I go up” approach will only have you end up munching on a sandwich at home an hour later.

     The key at this stage is to stock up on a bowlful which you plan to serve to a group at the table. It’s important to remind others of this when you are piling the rice on so high you can no longer see the person in front of you. You laugh dumbly and say, “It’s for the table you see.”

     Paella is in no way associated with Christmas in Madrid. In fact, it doesn’t even have a relationship with the capital at all. At least in its origin. It comes from Levante, the eastern part of the country that also churns out the turrón, but it has now become anchored in local gastronomy all over the country. In fact, you can find some excellent paella in the heat of the city. This was sort of run-of-the-mill stuff, but we weren’t complaining.

     As we gulped that down, the waiters came by with additional food. In fact, they were mostly waitresses, , as they were the school catering service. It came to me that, when the school holds more formal events, those waitresses suddenly turn into waiters. And the same could be said of weddings, first communions, gala dinners, etc. Isn’t that funny that in a country which has come so far in terms of overcoming machoism, elements of that mentality can still be found in the oddest places and situations.

     The last round of tidbits included fried black pudding (yes that’s slices of sausage filled with blood and rice and other spices and grilled on a skillet), mini-chorizos so tasty (but so greasy they slid off the plate on a flat plane), and battered fish bits (that is, deep-fried seafood, not some poor haddock which was been pummeled to a pulp). Then the assortment of cakes, a cup of ice cream and a glass of cava, Spanish sparkling wine, Spanish champagne.

      But it’s not champagne. Nor is it even Spanish, some say. Few matters in Spain are left unscathed by the heated political controversies that wreak a scourge on this land. Crisis, unemployment, financial and political scandals (not the juicy sexual ones that the British often are embroiled in, the Spanish couldn’t care less about them, but the ones that really get their goat – embezzling and money laundering – in other words, stealing.), and nationalism. Wine, in some cases, is no exception. Cava, as I have just mentioned, is Spain’s most famous version of sparkling wine, and many readers have probably tried worldwide brands such as Freixenet. While the winemaking method is essentially identical to that used to produce champagne, since it does not come from that region the name cannot be used. Ironically, in Spain, where most wine regions are regulated and given names that refer to a specific geographical area, cava is actually made all over the country because it’s the in which it’s produced, not the place, which allows for it to be called cava. As long as it’s approved by the regulating board.

     But that can be a good and bad thing. Cava is predominantly a Catalan drink, and, as such, inextricably associated with that region which, in the hopes and minds of not such a small minority, no longer wishes to be a part of Spain. Over the years, cava producers from that northeast region (they would prefer to be called a nation) of the country have felt a decrease in sales in the rest of Spain, mainly due to a rejection towards Catalan products. So, they go elsewhere, and find solace in toasting to a better life and health by using a drink from another part of Spain.

     The thing is, cava is a name so often identifiable with Catalonia, that many consumers don’t realize that the drink can be elaborated in areas outside that land, so they eschew the product altogether. That is why some bodegas prefer to call their product vino espumoso and avoid the issue and confusion.

     Cava is still the main sparkling wine in the country, and one of the biggest producers in the world. As a standard champagne, it’s quite good, but very dry too. You need to like it.

     The biggest I have with the drink is not its origin, but the moment in which it is imbibed. In Catalonia, they wisely drink it early on in the meal, often with seafood, but in the rest of the country it is poured into cups at the end of the meal when the stomachs are full and there is little room for a glass of highly carbonated wine. That, in my opinion, is why people so often have a conflict with champagne and say that it doesn’t agree with them. They aren’t lying. They are just misguided in their search of a culprit. The ten kilos of food that they have ingested minutes before probably have something to do with it.

30 Days of Christmas

January 3, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 12

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A report was recently out saying that up to 25% of all the money flowing around the country is under the table, dinero negro, as they say in Spanish, and even the biggest companies are culpable of such dastardly deeds. That’s right, 25% of Spain’s GNP is hidden somewhere out of reach from governmental hands. That’s about the same percentage that represents, according to official sources, the level of unemployment in this country. Of course, that figure is also under scrutiny, as anyone can tell you.  Just how it’s possible for a country to survive this crisis with 1 and every 4 out of a job, let alone have time to frequent tapas bars, is beyond belief. And it is. That’s why we shouldn’t be startled when we discover that as many as 1,000,000 of the reported 6,000,000 workers on the dole are actually receiving wages on a regular basis.  On the side.  This isn’t just the result of slyness on the part of the employee, though some may be collecting unemployment benefits and then tacking some on surreptitiously, but it is also a testament to the pitiful practices performed by companies where if you want social security and other basic labor rights coverage, you’ll just have to find a job elsewhere. I can personally attest to the fact that services will continually give you the option to pay with or without IVA (sales tax).

     One thing is for sure, if economic recessions trigger anything, it’s cunning behavior as people, fearful of their situation getting worse, try to horde as much cash as possible without anyone knowing.

       Regardless, the underground economy is nothing new to this country, and if anything, was probably even more rampant years ago. When I first started out, language schools habitually paid you on an official level for far fewer than you were ever making. I am writing this with the full knowledge that I am confessing to fiscal misconduct, but hoping that Spain’s statute of limitations does not extend beyond 20 years here.

     “I’ll pay you for ten hours a week.”

     “But I teach thirty. What about the rest?”

     “I said I’ll pay you for the ten hours a week, if you get me.”

     I got the message. “Won’t the Treasury find that suspicious?”

     “Nah! Don’t you worry them.”

     And no one did. Especially when Spain was just entering the digital age and it was a lot easier to make things just kind of disappear. Plus, when you were young and didn’t care about those things, the way you didn’t care about smoking, drinking, graying, aging, dying, etc. You didn’t care about pensions or unemployment benefits. Moreover, you were an English teacher in Spain, and English teachers are never out of a job.  They are like the professional antithesis of an actor.

     The school I work at now has its own language school which was a separate entity back then, and conditions were hazardously similar. As a young man, I didn’t fret about those matters, but it was a reckless way to live and irresponsible on everyone’s part. But one little perk entailed an invitation by the business officer to a Christmas dinner in the lunchroom. That may not have had an appealing ring to it, but bear in mind that drinking and smoking were still permitted on school property back then, so a full-fledged adult meal was allowed. In fact, and this will surprise more than a number of readers, wine was served at lunchtime. The staff table was in the same room as with the students and large 1-liter bottles of standard wine stood like mortar shells on the surface. And teachers were known to stroll through the halls during breaks with smoking a butt casually and telling kids to go out to the playground to get some fresh air, for the love of God. “It’s good for you!”

     So, that wasn’t an issue. Nor was the food itself. It was one thing what they slopped on your plate on a daily basis, and another thing what the school business officer was going to tolerate at Christmas. And I tell you he wasn’t going to foot for meatloaf. Normally there were huge platters piled with seafood, with a representative of nearly every major kind of shellfish: baby shrimp, shrimp, jumbo shrimp, Swedish lobster, clams, mussels, crabs, even the coveted goose-neck barnacles. Yes, these black rubbery species of what is scientifically known as a pollicipes has the appearance of what I imagine the toe of a three-toed sloth would look like, and is one of the most highly prized fruits of the sea. Part of this has to do, once again, with the scarcity of existence at the market, because this is not something you can scrape off your neighbor’s schooner at the marina, but rather an unusual delicacy which is harvested by brave if not temerarious fishermen who reach remote surf-battered rocks on the coast and scour them off the stone between crashing waves. The percebeiros, as they are known up in Galicia, risk life and limb to ensure your holiday is a little more festive. And they do it because they are paid handsomely for it. Which is also why a kilo can cost up to $100.

     At least that’s the way they used to be done. Now they are also cultivated in controlled conditions. But the real pricey ones, the ones they say taste the best and that, if you ask me, is seasoned by the perverse thought that some poor sod has nearly been killed in order to see to it your Christmas is complete.

     In any event, once that business officer retired, the seafood fests disappeared. At least as we knew them. Our salaries were finally made official, which meant we made less monthly but were contributing to social welfare and earning points towards our retirement down the road. The Christmas dinner moved off campus to a nearby restaurant, and was no longer compliments of the school. This new variety continued for a few more years until it finally fizzled out altogether. With a new boss at the helm of the language school, the custom was reinstituted, and with the added bonus that the meal was courtesy of the company. Life was good again.

     Life wasn’t lobster. But it was good again. We went to a nearby family Italian restaurant called Pinocho which featured tables with beer taps in the center so that the customers could serve themselves. Consumption was displayed in tenths of a liter on a TV screen above for all to see, and this playful addition is a source of plenty of jokes. We were also served freshly made pizzas, mussels cooked in sauce, chopitos (tiny fried squid), cheese, white asparagus, and some jumpo shrimp called langostinos. Pinocho, in addition to Italian food, is also known for its sliced beef which is heated on a hot stone, but we didn’t go that far. It was an informal, easy-going affair. I guess we were happy that we had jobs with salaries and full coverage. I guess we were happy to have jobs at all.

30 Days of Christmas

January 2, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 11

In many ways I was psyched to get back to work to take my mind off of eating. Forced labor was the best way to keep gorging down to a minimum and to assistance in resisting temptation. And I had plenty of work, mind you. With final reports and Christmas pageants to organize, I barely had time to ingest anything, let alone a whole turkey, six cakes or a kilo of shrimp.

     That’s where the school headmaster came in to ensure I didn’t lose my momentum. Every morning before the staff straggled in, he would dump loads of Spanish Christmas goodies on a platter for us to snatch up whenever we wanted. I wanted often.

      I haven’t devoted much time to Christmas sweets, candies and cakes in this country, but I should because the subject has enough material to cover volumes. Probably the most famous sugary treat is the turrón, which might not say a lot to many readers who are unfamiliar with Spain. The Italians supposedly have a version known as torrone. But it would appear that it is a truly a Spanish invention and specialists generally point to the town of Jijona in Alicante in the east of Spain as a place where the original turrón came from. By original, I mean the version most often associated with the product, though not necessarily the most popular. This is the hard turrón, which is a flat brittle nougat mix of honey and almonds and sandwiched with two thin wafers. Those are classic sweet ingredients for Mediterranean cooking, especially where the Muslim influences was strongest. The hard version is a sturdy item, easily capable of keeping reserved for months if not years.

       But that is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg, so I will summarize with a list just what you can find in many or most households:

  • Hard turrón
  • Soft turrón (made with an almond paste)
  • Chocolate turrón
  • White chocolate turrón
  • Almond turrón
  • Three-chocolate turrón
  • Turrón with pineapple
  • Puffed rice turrón
  • Yema tostada turrón
  • Truffle turrón
  • Sugared jelly fruit
  • Polverones
  • Chocolate polverones
  • Mantecados
  • Roscas de vino
  • Chocolate mantecados
  • Cocoanut mantecados
  • Marzipan
  • Pan de Cádiz
  • Macaroons
  • Candied almonds
  • Marquesa cakes
  • Glazed egg yolks
  • Glazed chestnuts
  • Figs
  • Dates
  • Dried apricots
  • Walnuts
  • Chestnuts
  • Panettone
  • Pan d’oro
  • Chocolate stuffed fig chocolates
  • Liquor filled cherries covered in chocolate

And it really does go on. And it really doesn’t end there.

     Those got me through the morning until I was able to make it home for lunch, where I had another round of fabada. Everyone knows fabada tastes better on the second day.

30 Days of Christmas

January 1, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 10

Sunday was supposed to be another feast-free day, but the temperatures were dropping and I had a hankering for a fabada asturiana. The fabada is to Asturias what the paella is to Valencia. This will make sense to you if you are in any way familiar with Spanish cuisine; if not, just skip it.

     It’s a hearty bean stew which, when made in the right amount, can provide nourishment for days on end. Just where the fabada came from is a matter of debate, and the truth hasn’t ever been fully established; if it ever is. Slow cooking is prevalent throughout most of the central and northern parts of Spain with an untold number of variations made with a whole slew of ingredients. Some say it was introduced into the local gastronomy via the French who were making their pilgrimage to Santiago to Compostela. The reason for this being that the region around Toulouse is known for its famous, because everything the French do tends to end up being famous, cassoulet. This dish is also elaborated with beans and a wide stock of game and pork and other creatures that provide a fatty flavor. It has also occurred to others that maybe the wind blew in the other direction. Maybe it was the religious Frenchmen who discovered the dish during the journey through Spain and brought it with them to their homeland. It just could be. It would be the first time the neighbors from the north ran off with the fame of others’ doings. Mayonnaise, often cited as a French sauce, the spelling helps cement that view, is actually said to have been invented on the Spanish Island of Menorca in a town called Mahon then taken to France in the 18th Century after they expelled the English from there. At least that’s the story.

     One thing is for sure, the fabe beans, the long white runner beans, are originally from Central America, so their consumption can’t have gone back that far. In fact, there is no mention of the dish until the turn of the 20th Century, so, despite its rapid rise to fame and the urge to make it more venerable than is reasonably possible, this dish is actually quite recent and probably not a true rural dish but something concocted in the cities.

     Having said that, today it holds a special place in the winter diet. What goes into the fabada? Naturally the faba bean (known as fabe in Aasturian), which is so dry that you need to soak it in water the night before to ensure it acquires the right softness. You also add thick slabs of bacon, paprika-packed chorizo, and the sturdy Asturian black pudding (not any kind, like the Burgos version, will do). Then you slow cook it for hours and hours. Add a few cloves of garlic and a bay leave for more flavor.

     Then, buy some fresh bread, and eat it next to a window so you can enjoy the hot meal with a view of winter outside. Unbeatable.

30 Days of Christmas

December 31, 2014

The Thirty Days Of Christmas 9

Saturday should have been a day off from the festivities but I had to stock up for the weekend. Plus, by now, I was taking in so many calories a day that I kind of needed to keep going or else my body would begin to waiver for lack of nourishment. I picked up chicken, then some ingredients for a fabada, pork loin and some fish. Oh, yes, and some ground beef and potatoes for a cottage pie, which I erroneously called shepherd’s pie, but no one seemed to care.

     On the slightly healthier side, I grabbed a bag of clementines because I like them and because the guy in the fruit section said I should.

     “Why?”

     “Because they’re good.”

     “They seem good to me every year.”

     “But especially good this year.”

      That was fine by me. I was such an easily persuaded man.

      If there is one kind of produce that’s available wide-scale in this country at this time of year, and costs a dime a dozen, its citrus fruit and, in particular, oranges, tangerines and clementines. Spanish oranges are universally famous, or at least they should be. If you don’t know this, now you do. They are traditionally grown in the eastern part of the country, in a region called Levante, which is a geographical strip of land along the Mediterranean coast. It gets its name from “levar” which means “to rise” and refers to the sun coming up – i.e. the East. The climate is mild and humid making it ideal for this genus of fruit.

      Tangerines are known as mandarinas in Spain, meaning different country disagree on their origin. In English we award Tangiers with the honor, while the Spanish attribute their existence to the Mandarin Chinese. Different cultures, same fruit. Tangerines are abundant at this time and sweet but generally have a thinner skin which is not always easy to peel. Clementines are a version of tangerine and its rind nearly breaks off from the fruit at the touch, and as a rule, is seedless. They are also genrally more succulent and cost a little more.

      Although not many people can say exactly why, this threesome is inextricably associated with the yuletide, especially in the department of stocking stuffing. Getting a large sock filled with goodies was once the extent of your treasures for the holidays, and a yearly mainstay was a piece of golden fruit. “Gold” here, seems to be the key mineral. One tradition has it that Saint Nicholas would bring golden balls and leave them in the stockings, and given the obvious lack of prime material to fulfill such a promise, people would substitute them with fruity orbs of a similar color…as a symbolic gesture, you see. There certainly may be some truth to that, but I can’t help thinking that the fact this fruit reaches the height of its harvest in November and December and was probably not widely available in northern European countries a long time ago, somehow made it a kind of delicacy back yonder in time. A symbol and a special treat all at once.

     Orange production is still big business here in Spain. This country comes in at around 6th in overall world production in terms of total kilos, and makes up half of all the 27 European nations produce together. The Spanish are also important consumers.
The United States, on the other hand, out-picks Spain by more than two to one, but is only 6th on the list of consumers.

      In the tangerine/clementine category, China blows away the competition, giving credence to the Spanish belief that the oriental nation really is the home of the fruit, with annual production of about 10 million metric tons. In 2012, it actually boxed 13,600,000. A metric ton equals 1,000 kilos, to give you an idea of the quantity we are talking about. Then, if you multiply it further by 2.2, you get the astronomical figure of about 29,920,000,000lbs of tangerines. Spain is runner up, but a distant second, I’ll have you know. Its output is around 1,800,000MT, which is a respectable volume all said and told. That partially explains why you find so many crates of Spanish clementines at the supermarkets in the U.S. at this time of year.

      I did my part of reducing the surplus population of citric fruit and picked up two kilos of clementines, as the guy at the grocery store suggested. The good thing about clementines is that they go down so easily. Before the day was out, my daughter and I had erased a kilo and a half. I wasn’t sure if this was healthy anymore.

30 Days of Christmas

December 29, 2014

The Thirty Days of Christmas 8

Oh, I forgot to mention that dinner went down well. They even treated us to some freshly sliced ham at the bar before we sat down.

       The first courses were a combination of classics and innovation. The Bonito con Pimientos Rojos translates into English as tuna fish and red peppers. But let’s get down to details. In Spanish, tuna fish is commonly called “atún” and is sold in the familiar flat cylindrical shaped cans. But bonito tuna is a different fish altogether. It is captured in the Bay of Biscay up off the northern coast of Spain. Its ventresca meat, which is the light, lean, delicate piece on the underside of the fish, is highly prized in this country and popular in salads. It goes especially well with the roasted red peppers that are also a mainstay in this country. They are also most typical of the north of Spain, in the Basque Country and Navarra. They are slowly roasted and pickled in jars. A newcomer to the product might find the slimy exterior a little off-putting, the flavor is terrific and it goes well with dozens of dishes.

       The codfish was going to be the second round, another legendary ingredient, but that was canceled. Cod has always been a major product of the sea in Spanish and Portuguese cuisine. Traditionally the fish was cured through extreme salting and sent inland where it could be preserved for months. Then, when it came time for consumption, it was desalinated in cold fresh water, often several times, before use in a dish, thus avoiding a cardiac arrest. But that was neither here nor there, as we weren’t going to be having the dish. Instead, we were given several plates of broad beans. Broad beans are most commonly dried and later used or bean soups. I’ll get to that at a different time. But these were fresh and sautéed in a bit of olive oil and bits of ham to give it that unparalleled Spanish flavor.

        Then came the third round, which was pulpo, or octopus. That eight-legged (apparently they are arms) cephalopod which in places I grew up in would produce the kind of bodily reactions you wouldn’t like to appear at the dinner table is actually a delicacy in Spain. It took me a great deal of pre-action mental prepping and a large glass of water by my side before I could actually muster up the nerve to put one of those suckers in my mouth. Now I love it.
In its most widely known version pulpo is boiled (apparently after having been previously beaten soundly to soften it up, and then frozen), snipped up into tiny pieces and smothered in olive oil, paprika and chunky salt. It also comes in a vinaigrette form. But recently for some reason, chefs are preparing it on the grill and the results are a somewhat drier but savory version. Of course, this is octopus I am talking about, so not everyone will be able to relate to me.

         The main course was a classic choice: steak or hake. Hake is the main white fish in Spain and the kind you are most likely to encounter on Christmas dinner menu. And the steak, the entrecote, is also standard fare at these meals. Men usually pick the latter while women prefer the former. We were lucky and served a rib-eye. It took half an hour to finish mine. The hake was accompanied by gulas and shrimp. I don’t think I need to expound on the second ingredient, but the gulas have a story of their own to tell. They are essentially fake baby eels.

       Why anyone would want to eat a real baby eel let alone go to the extreme to ask for and digest a fake one needs a little explaining. Real young eels (called elvers, if you need to know) are known as angulas, and they are prized in Spain that a mere kilo (2.2 lbs.) will fetch as high as 1,000€. Restaurant portions usually weigh in at 125 grams, so a plate, albeit tiny one, of these slithery critters can go for something like $150.00. And that’s just tidbit. The main cause of the astronomic figures is, as usual, scarcity.

        So seeing that most people are unwilling to go to those lengths to dine, surimi has done for the consumer what mother nature could not: provide cheaply. They are generically known as “gulas” and the designers of the faux-eel have even bothered to insert two dots of squid ink as eyes. Everyone knows it’s not the same, but lightly cooked in a bit of olive oil, garlic and cayenne pepper, and you have a tasty treat for 5.00€ per 250 grams. That may sound more than reasonable, but 20€ for a kilo of processed pressed anonymous fish is still pretty steep.

       Anyway, that’s what you get these days at a Christmas dinner. We had no complaints. Plenty of laughs, which are always free.