You know, you can say what you want, but I still can’t figure out how in God’s name the Dutch ever reached the conclusion that St. Nicholas spent most of the year in Spain. It’s probably not half as baffling as the assertion that the Netherlands is the world’s second biggest exporter of food, but that’s another story. The first story doesn’t quite add up. Most Spaniards don’t know this anecdote, and when I tell them they are greatly amused. The ones who are history buffs will often muse for a second and say that it must be because “Spain occupied Holland for decades.” (twelve decades to be more exact). While this might explain why the Dutch have traditionally had a disliking for the Spanish, and maybe gives us more insight as to their violent performance in the 2010 World Cup Final, but just why relationship there is between divisions of lance-wielding soldiers oppressing a nation and a gifting-giving bishop bringing joy to children.
Then 300 years later, the Dutch got back at them by sending Santa Claus, via the United States, to contaminate their age-old traditions. There also exists the figure of the Niño Jesús (The Baby Jesus) whose gift of eternal life is symbolized in the form of dolls, balls, and Xbox One. This has always seemed to me like a Franco-period solution to the appearance of St. Nick, who, by the way, was not from Spain but rather Turkey. Nor was he an elf, and his feast day, by the way, falls a full three weeks before his worldwide tour. The Dutch apparently give him a few weeks to work his way around the country and complete his job, which I strongly feel is a much more reasonable target time than what the rest of the planet expects of poor guy. The Dutch have always stood out for humanistic ideas. For their human ideas.
So, regardless of who is charge of the present delivery system, and how long it takes them to perform their tasks, the gifts came…they came all the same.
Now, if there is one area where American eating habits decisively outclass Spain’s, it’s in the breakfast department. Oh, they will sing wonders about their toast spread with natural tomato sauce, olive oil and a little salt, and God know there is something Mediterraneanly healthy about that, but the fact remains that when you place your average Spaniard in a full-scale hotel breakfast buffet, all those hang-ups about butter, pancakes and greasy bacon fall apart and they essentially turn into famished hyenas. They hate to admit it, but it’s true.
Christmas breakfast in the U.S. is a truly momentous moment, and the Americans really know how to flex their culinary muscles in this respect. The stacks of hotcakes, the mounds of muffins, the buckets of scrambled eggs, all make for an ideal way to celebrate that special morning. I must admit I miss it when I’m not there. I miss not being able to look out the window at the bright morning winter sunshine coating a thick blanket of snow and enjoying nice, hot breakfast. Instead, I was limited to a standard fare of orange juice, coffee and maybe some cookies. Ironic, isn’t it? All that healthy eating that’s bragged about in this land and one of the most popular ways to start the day is with a big bag of Chips Ahoy. I opted for neither and offered a daddy classic: toast with an egg, more commonly known as egg-in-a-basket. I discovered it in Moonstruck and never looked back. Friends consider it to be one of my finest attributes, and I believe it’s why their my friends at all.
We munched away silently as we regarded our presents, then turned on the TV, a few rerun episodes of Criminal Minds, just to get into the holiday spirit. The show almost always features psychopaths who slaughter children. It would seem wholly inappropriate, but my kid seemed to like it. Funny the things that bring people together.
I usually go for a quiet, often solitary walk in the Retiro around six in the evening. It is so peaceful at that time of day. The cars cruising around the perimeter of the park sound far away and harmless; the way they do after a fresh snowfall. Then, on the way home, I pop into a nearby church, which I never attend the rest of the year, just to see the nativity scene they have inside. A little time to myself to contemplate life, the year behind, the one ahead. The simple and silly things a person does from time to time.
Then it was time to get dressed and move on. My daughter and I got into my car, a 15-year-old Renault which has been on the verge of death for the past three months, but somehow resists its final calling. Actually, it has been flirting with the scrapyard ever since I had bought it two years before. What could I expect from a secondhand vehicle which was older than my teenage children? But it was my first purchased automobile in Spain and it showed. I can never remember the model, Megane something, I have my license plate number saved on my cell phone to remind me, I can’t even get the color right. Nondescript is hardly a descriptive word, but how else can I classify its tone. It changes depending on the time of day and the amount of sunlight available. And I don’t think it was done on purpose. The closest I can come up with is something like “tarnished bronze with hues of sulfur here and there around the fringes”. I kind of like its uniqueness, I just have trouble fitting all that on a form.
Every time I stick the key into the ignition a softly implore divine intervention, “just one more time”. There is always as three second pause as the engine turns and turns, but as a rule it always revs up. I breathe a sigh of relief and tell my daughter as I pat the dashboard,
“Don’t you just love this car!”
“Papi. I can’t feel my fingers.”
“That’s just the heat. It’ll come.”
It always does, but usually by the time I’ve reached my destination. Christmas Eve is a tricky time to travel because everyone in Madrid is in a hurry to get to wherever it is they have to stuff their faces, and parking can dreadfully at that time. This was because the general public would take advantage of the extremely lax about enforcing the laws for where you could leave your vehicle. On four-lane avenues people would simply create a new strip of parking spaces right smack down the center of the road. That was until the local authorities decided it was no longer permissible and informed the residents through a personalized message commonly known as the parking ticket. A few very fortunate souls even had their cars transferred to a large carpark in the center of town where they could retrieve it and get a 1-to-1 interview on how to improve circulation in the city. That was very expensive, but the city seemed to be non-elitist and allowed everyone who wanted to participate.
Luckily for us, the area around the Plaza de Castilla, which was the neighborhood where dinner was, was a fairly easy place to park in and we had had no problems. It was nearly nine, but I thought we were going to be the first to arrive. It turned out we had out-fashionably arrived after the entire crew. Mastering timing in Spain is so confounding. So, hardly had we walked in when it was time to sit down again. Scarcely four hours had gone by since our last meal.
Now you may think that too little time had gone by for me to be puckish again, but I had timed my training just right this year and my Christmas eating stamina was peaking just around the big day. Praise the Lord. That meant I was able to sustain prolonged periods of feasting with only short intervals for things like sleep before I went back to business. So, it was safe to say I was pretty close to starving by the time I took my seat.
The table was weighted down on each side with platters of cooked langostinos on one end and tiger langostinos on the other. In between, lay copious plates of jamón ibérico and cured lomo. Oh, and manchego cheese too. At each setting, a glass cup of shrimp cocktail. To help the merriment stay onward, a magnum of cava was produced, uncorked and its contents generously distributed. One of the brothers-in-law was Catalan and knew a thing or two about the sparkling wine, the most important being that it’s much better to drink at the beginning of the meal.
Then came the roasted lamb, one of the many classic Christmas Eve fares. Some people avoid it because they say the meat doesn’t digest well at night, but on occasion a person needs to make the necessary sacrifices for the sake of holiday cheer. The lamb was accompanied by mashed potatoes and salad, which was only added for psychological reasons. On a more serious notes, lettuce dressed with just a olive oil, vinegar and salt seasoning is the ideal complement for a heavy duty meat like lamb, and most restaurants where they serve it will offer the very same side dish. So it was welcome even though it didn’t pass the high-calorie intake test. I had seconds on everything just in case. The dinner was lively the way a good one should be, with plenty of talking and friendly banter.
Dessert arrived a little later in the form of sopa de almendras, a sweet and creamy almost pasty dish. Almost like a rice pudding, but with almonds. It’s very typical of Madrid at this time of year, and extremely tasty.
By the far the most devastating feature of meals is the arrival of the plate of sweets: turrones of all flavors and textures, candied fruit, polvorones, mantecados, marzipan and others. They are placed in front of you and left there to tempt for the remainder of the time. You can look at them, sneer at them, try to ignore their presence, but eventually you give in and grab one. And once you get started, there is no turning back. And since Spain’s after-dinner table talks, the sobremesa, can last for another two hours, the hording can turn ugly.
The only chance to get out of the problem is by getting up and dancing, another Spanish family favorite. I’m not talking about one of those arm-in-arm circle dances as if Zorba had just joined us, but rather good old-fashioned boogieing. Yes, while other people piously enter churches for midnight mass, others are doing the bump to James Brown. Grannies, young kids, aunts, even uncles, shake their booty to the early hours of the night. For a second I thought this would be a burdon on the neighbors below until I realized that they were probably doing the same…a kind of trickle down effect. Essentially the whole building was potentially rocking. The grooving might aid in getting the blood circulating, and it certainly is fun, but hardly puts a dent in the calorie intake.
The young adults would later go out and probably not be back until Santa Claus has left.
An hour or two later, we all help to restore order to the home and then my daughter and I headed back. The Renault coughed once or twice while starting up, clearly bothered that I was disturbing it at that late hour, clearly bothered I was disturbing it at all. The streets were active but it was a good time to park in my zone, as there were now plenty of free spaces. Plus, it being Christmas the meter officers would be taking the day off…God bless them.
I knocked off my last bits of shopping satisfied I had ulfilled my duties as a generous human being, and comforted by the thought that if I hadn’t managed to find just the right thing for that special person in my life, I could always count on Plan B, which was the Feast of the Epiphany, the Three King’s Day, or just plain Reyes. You see, in the same fashion that Spain cheerfully incorporated both seasons in Christmas to suit its citizens’ needs to party for an extended period of time, so had two major gift-giving traditions merged. Well, that’s not exactly right because it suggests they became one, when in fact both were adopted but kept as separate events. First comes Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, or what have you, then a dozen days later, the Three Kings come plodding through to do their thing.
The intrusion of the former into Spanish tradition irks more than one conservative Spaniard, but it has been certainly embraced by the retail sector which sees not one, but two opportunities, to cash in on our fears of getting it all wrong when it comes to sliding that present over to a loved one. It’s a terribly stressful way to wrap up the year, and a no less tense manner to kick off the next. Our paranoia and neuroses are the wind that blow life into the burning desire to not screw up. One might say that the good thing is that you always get a second chance to make up for the mess you’ve made, but, alas, it is never that simple.
Anyhow, I left behind the increasing mayhem of the Goya shopping district and headed over to where I was going to meet up with some friends from the gastronomic society for the annual Christmas aperitivo, one of the truly great moments of the season. An aperitivo is sort of like a pre-lunch drink and snack, or at least that was its original design, but just like the universe spiraled out of control once the Big Bang got things started, so can aperitivos develop into a full-blown meals themselves…on the spur of the moment. You can snack on a tiny dish of paella, pop an olive into your mouth and, before you know it, end up eating half a side of a pig. There is just no telling.
Since we had no intention of making lunch that day in our homes, in this case, unabashed gobbling was part of the plan. The only factor hovering over us was where.
Not very long ago, maybe ten years or so, by three o’clock in the afternoon, Madrid was by and large a much calmer city on Christmas Eve. Workers who had ended their workday early commuted home as quickly as possible, and you would have been hard-pressed to find a single store open, save maybe the Corte Inglés, and most bars, cafeterias and cervecerías were shut so tight you could have stored the family jewels in them. They sent a clear and unequivocal message: See you on the 26th. The streets showed little signs of life as if word that a wild animal roamed the streets in search of a victim. Except for individuals making hurried steps towards their flats for a little rest before the great celebrating started that evening.
I remember back then there being just one bar just up the road from my place which is now one of those 100 Montaditos low-cost beer and tapas franchises. Though I am no fan of those places because it pains me to see standard establishments succumb to generic gastronomic offers, I have to admit they are cheap, and thus keep the college population drunk and happy for a dime. Anyway, on December 24th the atmosphere was electrifying and the joint packed. Oldies from classic rock blared out the speakers, people laughed louder, sang stronger and celebrated with greater intensity than your average day.
Years went by and other establishments, aware that there was no need to close their doors so early given the fact there was a dire need by the clientele to hold one full-scale blowout before dinner. Nowadays, the Christmas Eve aperitivo is a recent phenomenon that has turned into a rage. The streets come alive at hours which were previously reserved for a more sedentary approach towards life. It’s called the siesta. Before you could let the pale winter sunlight slowly set and set up a game plan for the feasting ahead. Oh, that’s all gone now.
It just may be that getting together with friends has become popular because it allows people to celebrate Christmas with the ones they want to be with before moving on with their families. Or what’s worse, their inlaws. And with any luck, they can get home a little inebriated and make it through the evening without any serious consequences.
Regardless, we had been doing it for years because it was just plain fun.
We reserved a table at a place just near Goya. It wasn’t my first choice; that had been the Italian restaurant with the beer taps in the middle of the tables. Something fun and family-oriented, you know. I had tried to make a booking there because just outside there was a small playground with a swing set and those springy animal things which children could bob back and forth for hours. It is remarkable how resilient they are when under such an intense workout. This was ideal for parents who wanted their own playground by a keg and at the same time mildly comply with their obligations as a parent. In fact, it is as close to paradise as a mother and father and more could come.
That explained why, when I asked to reserve two tables for the 24th, the waiter began to laugh before I had finished the request. “Not a chance. The place has been booked since last Christmas.”
That hardly seemed fair. It’s like the bully who stands by the video game and keeps dropping quarters in while you wait. “Got a problem?” Or the woman who keeps adding tasks on to the bank teller as they go. You feel like a victim.
So we needed another place and my friend Javier voted for a restaurant where they had gone before and which had an upstairs which could be closed off to the rest of the public, making its use exclusive to our interests. This included a rather large contingency of children under the age of seven. In fact, there were eight between 2 and 6, a veritable platoon of TMDs – Tots of Mass Destruction. While the enclosed area may have seemed like a good way of maintaining a controlled climate during the event, it would have all the more effective if the walls were lined with thick padding instead of about a hundred bottles of wine. In fact, those shiny glass containers were the first they went for and within minutes we had four bottles, former bottles that is, on the floor and red liquid flowing in all directions as if the Mob had just paid a visit. In a way, they had. They just couldn’t tie their shoes yet.
After the initial debacle, we were able to settle down and enjoy the yuletide atmosphere. We were served several bottles of cava while we stood, toasted and exchanged light conversation. Then we got down to business.
First came three tortilla españolas, so wide they could have served as manhole covers, slices of cheese that came on platters by the dozens, the full pans of eggs mixed with potatoes, peppers and chorizo, three bowls of steamed onion-stuffed black pudding, and three plates of sliced steak with fries and green peppers. The last were so good, we ordered another three. To keep us from choking, we ordered four bottles of Ribera, to go with the other four on the floor, a couple of desserts to be shared and a round of coffees. That was it.
We didn’t want to go overboard. After all, dinner was the main meal of that day…and was just five hours away.
If you ever wanted to do a study on just how human behavior buckles under the untold stress of shopping duress, I suggest you stop by the seafood section of the Corte Inglés Department Store supermarket at around 10:15 a.m. on Christmas Eve, and you should be able to gather a plethora of data to draw conclusions. If you can’t take the opportunity, I’ll sum it up for you: it’s ugly, and it dismisses any semblance of earthly dignity. But it’s sure as hell fun to watch.
Especially since I never have anything to buy there, maybe an item or two for the table, but I can always scan them at the self-service cash registers because most shoppers at the Corte Inglés possess a natural aversion for cashiers they can casually talk to as they pay. They always happen to be women. It must be store policy.
The lines build up outside the building minutes before the doors are opened, and once access to the building is legally permitted, a steady stream of humanity flows in and down the stairs to the grocery store which, the reader will surely like to know is one of the best in the city. There are scores of destinations in their minds, but the main hub centers on the aforementioned seafood section, where a queue that rivals those waiting to see 50 Shades of Grey piles up higher and higher by the second. From what I can tell, there are three major profiles: The father of the family who trails down to perform is one yearly duty because he believes he has an eye for picking the finest shellfish around and his wife, delighted that she doesn’t have to do it, encourages him eagerly by saying that she thinks he is right; the disgruntled husband who has no choice but to go if he wants to be allowed to sit at the dining table that evening; and the woman who would trust her husband in front of a stack of salmon lying on crushed ice if her life depended on it.
What is it that the Spanish crave for? Oh, just about anything from the sea is fair game, but at this time of year, it’s the shrimp department that is the hardest hit. I say “shrimp” in a very generic way, mind you, because if there is one thing you learn about Spain the minute you take an interest in how much they enjoy eating, it’s these little crustaceans which often take center stage and which are known by handful of names. In America we call them all “shrimp” and when they are a little bigger, “jumbo shrimp”. In England, they do something similar, denoting them “prawns” and the large ones get the term “king prawns”, which is appropriate for a society which has been under a monarchy for a thousand years.
The Spanish use a score of other names, much like the way they say the Eskimos employ God knows how many words for snow (the truth of this is a debate which rages to this day).
When it came to crustaceans, it would appear that size is the factor. I was originally taught “camarón” because I guess in Latin America that’s what they say in general. In Spain they use that word, but it refers to tiny shrimp so small either you use them for flavor purposes or eat them whole, shell and all. Here are some others:
- Gamba arrocera
- Gamba blanca común
- Gambas de Huelva
- Gambas de Garrucha
- Gamba roja
- Langostino tigre
I’m sure there are more. They are consumed massively on these dates. Most are purchased frozen at competitive prices, but there are those who want their shellfish to be as fresh as possible and as good as possible, and the Corte Inglés is just the place to satisfy both demands. If you are willing to put up with the two-hour wait.
One thing that the unfamiliar reader should be aware of, especially if they live in North America, it’s that they aren’t sold peeled and clean and free of all signs of previously being alive. In Spain, this detail is overlooked and the burden of removing all the unwanted parts, like heads and tails, is left up to the consumer. I have become accustomed to this, but I still have issues with people who enjoy sucking the insides out of the shrimp’s head. After all these years, even I have my limits.
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.
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:
Mega Millions: 1:15
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.
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.
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)
- Octopus in vinaigrette
- 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.
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.