The Thirty Days of Christmas 26

The sun came out the next day, so we decided to make for the trails again. The temperatures froze below zero but the sun was out, and anyone knows that when the sun is out in Spain, even the chilliest days seem pleasant. It’s the humidity, or lack thereof. It allows for large thermal swings. So, at night you can sit cozily by the fireplace protected from winter’s worst, and during the day you can take walks and enjoy the warmth of the sun. Sometimes you can even strip down to a T-shirt.

     This morning was going to be decisively on the cooler side. All the same we planned to hike up to one of the most popular walking destinations in the area…the Cascada de Purgatorio, or the Cascade of Purgatory, a haunting name which would make any sane man think twice about visiting. But I had heard of creatures of all ages, sizes and physical conditions reach the spot, so I figured it couldn’t be all that trying a task. Plus, despite all these years of being an avid hiker in those parts, I had yet to make it up to the miniature waterfall and had heard such great things about it.

     From an old bridge near the monastery called the Puente de Perdón, the walk is a slight ascent of about 7 kilometers. To that, you need to tack on two more kilometers from the apartment we were staying in. The cascade does not have an inn nearby, so there would be no roasted billy goat awaiting us. When going that deep into the forest, it’s advisable to take some sandwiches along. The most common kind comes in the form of a sub, which you make with the famous barra de pan, which we generically call French bread or baguettes. In Spain, like all European countries as far as I know, people take their bread seriously, and visit to any one of the many bakeries (panaderías) in this city will immediate make it clear just how impressive the offer is: baguettes, pan rústico, pan de leña, pan de centeno, gallego, banettes, de picos, and so on. To the foreigner, that is how you would expect it to be. It’s Europe, for chrissakes.

     Now, while bread has been an integrated feature of the diet here, and the variety is endless, with each region specializing in a particular version, not long ago in Madrid, the choice in most places was shockingly limited, often to just one kind: the lowly pistola. This godforsaken specimen of baked dough is basically in the shape of a French bread, but it’s crispier on the outside, some would call that a euphemism for hard, and very light on the inside. The thing is they were almost insipid and had a lifespan of about three hours. Their biggest attribute was price. About twenty years ago you had your tahonas, which were bakeries that actually baked their own products, and your general panaderías, which usually supplied the population with the pistolas which had been previously baked in a factory outside of town and shuttled in in big cardboard boxes. It wasn’t very fancy, but neither was the bread.

     Then came a revolution: the miniature oven. This reminded me the story that a history teacher back in school told us once (and to be honest I haven’t bothered to check if it is true or not), where the Coca-Cola company would introduce its products into African countries by offering stored a fridge or vending machine for free because the inhabitants were not familiar with cold soft drinks and would find them all the more appealing. The same thing happened to bread. Small ovens were installed to bake half-cooked dough and, voilá, warm loaves of bread. They sold like “warm loaves”.

     Now gourmet bakeries mete out varieties using only the finest yeast and purest flour, and a dozen different types of grain. Some are pricey while others remain economical, but regardless, they are a lot cheaper than most things you would find back in the States. A loaf can go for as low as 35 centimes (about $0.40).

    Where the Spanish excel, in bread making, they tend to stumble in the sandwich construction department. The biggest flaw has to do with their choice of sauce or dressing. Essentially, they don’t use one. Not even butter. Not even olive oil. Nor are they especially generous with the cold cuts. If you want a standard ham sub, they stingingly place a few slices in the thick baguette and let the bread act as a buffer and seasoning. That doesn’t do much for the flavor I can guarantee you that. I have never quite understood this custom, especially when the filling is a potato and eggs omelet, or fried calamari. Your tongue gets stuck to your throat after about three bites.

     But that was the fare for the day. I made a few ham and cheese omelets hoping they would be a little juicier and keep the sandwiches from plugging up my esophagus. No one likes to choke to death, let alone by an oak tree near a stream.

     The trip up to the waterfall was more or less straightforward. Just in case you are ever thinking of trekking up there, here is the general idea. First of all, don’t pay much attention to the signs. For the most part, they don’t lead you to your destination. Here’s what you do: you walk up from the bridge past a recreational area known as the presillas, which is a great grassy esplanade on the banks of pools of water that have been dammed up by small dikes. You keep walking along the main path until you pass some sheds, then over a small bridge. On the other side you take the path which veers left and uphill for about another kilometer max, where you turn off on the left. That leads up a very pretty stretch of oak trees and then pines. At first there is a climb, but after about ten minutes it begins to descend to another grassy opening, and another bridge. After crossing, turn right and walk along the tumbling river for another mile and a half. The path gets narrower and less accessible, and by the end you have to essentially scale a boulder or two to reach the cascade, tucked in the very end of a gorge. It’s a magnificent route, especially towards the end. The crowds in the summer must be considerable because even on a freezing Monday, two large groups regretfully ripped the silence to pieces. The forest is easily interrupted by the slightest sounds; humans can be major infringers; and the Spanish, who communicate normally at decibel levels that citizens of some countries would consider a yell, dashed any hopes of a moment of peaceful contemplation before the rushing water of Purgatory.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 25

Rascafría is also home to one of the Comunidad de Madrid’s finest and oldest monasteries, Santa María de El Paular. Founded in the late 14th Century by the Carthusian monks, it was the prime spiritual and economic motor in the valley for centuries. That is until the desamortización of 1835 where most of the church belongings were put up for auction. On paper, the policy made sense. Many of the hundreds of monasteries and convents in the country were slowly becoming dilapidated due to undermanned buildings and overwhelming tidying. So the State essentially confiscated those properties and sold off the goods to the private sector. That way it could take in some money and ensure that the works of art had a chance of being preserved. That certainly wasn’t happening in many churches and abbeys that were succumbing to age, weather, and poor upkeep. Unfortunately, as often happens with these things, the execution of the plan produced very different results. While the sale was open to and intended for a wide variety of social groups, only the very rich ended up with most of the merchandise, and the degree and success to which the objects were preserved varied greatly. Equally disconcerting was their whereabouts, which, before the days of digital tracking, was practically impossible.

     In the case of El Paular, the pillage was particularly thorough, including 56 large oil paintings depicting the life of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order, and his followers. Product of the early 17th Century Italian painter Vicente Carducho, the series fell into the hands of a score of buyers, and by the end of the 20th Century, their condition ranged from rough to precarious. Ironically, one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world, the Prado Museum, proved to be the least careful caretakers. Stored away in the basement amidst thousands of other specimens, several of the works were in such a ruinous state they were almost beyond repair.

      At the same time, the monastery had been left to affront the future on its own, in a losing battle against time and climate, but was ultimately rescued thanks to an association of friends and the Benedictine Order, which took over the property in 1950s after some 120 years of complete abandonment. The Sheraton Group was leased most of the building which it turned into a historic hotel and, in turn, helped ensure a healthy future for the landmark. The hotel’s lease was up in the 2014 and not renewed, so the future of that part of the program is up. On an interesting note, people can if they wish reside in the monastery itself, for an extremely reasonable price, and on the condition that they attend certain prayers and mass, as well as meals.

     Carla and I went through the guided visit in the morning given by a friendly monk, but we didn’t have time to see the Carducho paintings. Through one of those miracles which I can never fully understand, they had been restored and returned to their original splendor. Just as providential has been the recovery of 54 of the 56 works. The chances of that happening after over a century or travels were nothing short of extraordinary. So, we decided to come back after lunch and returned to Rascafría on foot along a pleasant 2 km path through to a restaurant known as Conchi, one the plainest yet finest dining venues in town.

     I decided that, after the great walk from the day before, it was time to resume my eating habits. This time steak was on my mind.

     The land in these parts served as excellent feeding grounds for the cattle. The beef from this area can be, and often is, outstanding. It’s a little-known bit of knowledge that contrasts with the general belief that the finest selections of meat are to be found in the northern regions of Galicia and Asturias. There, the hilly terrain is so lush and verdant the livestock reaches almost abnormal dimensions. Sort of like what I was turning into thanks to the previous few weeks of hedonistic eating.

     The cattle around the Sierra de Madrid, along the whole central mountain system for that matter, live a great life. Many of the animals enjoy free-roaming mobility and it is not unusual for the walker to encounter a small herd grazing quietly in a meadow or grove. Cows are amazingly mellow creatures, they acknowledge your presence and return to their munching, but their size becomes all too evident the minute you are within a few yards of them. It’s not that they do harm to humans; it’s just the knowing that if they wanted to, they could set you airborne with hardly a nudge, which makes the passerby feel on edge. It is then that you realize, and more fully appreciate, the challenge a bullfighter faces when confronted with an animal that can and will perforate you will great ease, should it choose to. Especially when provoked, which matadors and their henchmen are particularly good at doing. Even if you are wielding a sword, the weapon has the feel of a pocket knife when pitted against such an enormous muscular mass.

     The females are nothing to scoff either, and there are more of them, but the bulls are in another league altogether. Since both have horns, it’s not immediately easy to detect the difference. The first thing you do when you run into cattle is pick out the one which is looking at you with the deepest desire to chase you around the countryside, and look at their crotch to see if it is better suited for milking or mounting. And from decide how to proceed. Thankfully, I have never experienced an ugly incident.

     Nevertheless, no matter how large they may be, things take a serious turn for the worse for them on the day they are slaughtered. Unfortunately for these beasts, that’s the main reason they are there in the first place. In fact, while Spain was traditionally known as being a pork-consuming society, topnotch beef has become in greater demand over the past few years, despite the crisis. The beef they produce rivals some of the best around.

     The most highly prized is known as carne de buey, which is translated as “ox meat”. The use of this term and the consumption of the meat have now become two of the most widely accepted lies in the land. True ox meat is not that easy to find. Actually, it’s rather close to impossible. Only a handful of restaurants in all of the Spanish territory serve the real McCoy. In fact, were most people to try it, they might find it to their disliking. It’s dark, flavorful, and heavy. It ain’t for everyone, trust me. Instead, what is being slid on the table in front of them is generally vaca vieja which has a texture and flavor that comes close to ox, but is hardly the same. Everyone knows it, accepts it as fact, but turns a blind eye and deaf ear. You go to a restaurant and hear the man say:

     “I’ll have the buey. But is it really buey?”

     “Oh, yes. Definitely,” lies the waiter.

     “That’s great,” lies the diner. “Then I’ll have some.”

     Other terms for it don’t make it any easier. The standard word for beef in Spain is ternera, which actually, if you look it up in the dictionary, appears as “veal” in English. So that’s not on the mark either. Veal in the way other countries eat it doesn’t have a large following in Spain, which is surprising because just about every other underage animal in this land seems to be fair game for consumption. The slab placed on my plate, and afterwards on my setting before me, was three fingers thick and the length of a forearm. It no doubt put me to the test. But I managed to overcome the challenge. Then it back on the road to the monastery where I hoped an empty cell with an empty bed awaited me…though an occupied one would have suited fine too. In reality, the Carducho paintings, were our objective. They were mounted on the inner walls of an enclosed cloister. The Prado Museum, possibly looking to rectify its earlier negligence, went to great lengths to create a climate that would ensure the paintings endured. The temperature and humidity were controlled and the special windows were installed that would allow for light to enter without damaging the surface of the works. The restoration was magnificently completed earlier that year.

     There weren’t many people there; there rarely are. And on that Sunday evening, even fewer. But with the damp air and the dying light slowly dimming the atmosphere; the stone-clad cloister echoing every quiet step and every movement of cloth on one’s body; with the silence and the meditation surrounding us; with the silence inviting us to meditate, the visit was magical.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 24

A surefire way to trim down in times of gluttony is to set out on a lengthy winter’s country walk, and the mountains just north of the capital are just the place to satisfy that urge. Time to gallop up those hills, through those dales, over those streams, across those fields and inside those oak forests. Those beautiful, haunting oak forests. The most famous oak tree in Spain is without a doubt the Holmes oak, known as the encina in Spanish, and its elongated acorns serve as the perfect feed for many an Iberian pig, which some feel is the not-so-secret ingredient to perfect jamón ibérico. But those aren’t that common in the Lozoya Valley, but rather a different kind, many of which are tiny compared to the ones I know back home. They are short and gnarly, twisted and ancient, ideal for a backdrop to some ghost story. Sinisterly seductive.

     It was along these routes that Carla and I took our packs and hiked for several miles. We parked in Lozoya in headed out from there, around the reservoir, by the dam, down towards a tiny canyon crossable by an old stone bridge whose origins go back at least at least as far as the Middle Ages, if not Roman times, but there just isn’t any available documentation on it. Once on the other side, the path, which starts in Rascafría and traverses the valley until a village called El Cuadrón, carries on gently until a side path takes on another trail up towards a town called Canencia. That was our destination.

     The name Canencia is probably more famous for the mountain pass that takes you over a set of hills to a large pretty town called Miraflores, some 40 miles from Madrid. But there is also a town by the same name, a typical sierra village, snug and tucked into the mountain side, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. For the hungry and thirsty, what makes it stand out above your average ordinary cafetería is a craft beer bar known as El Pajar. It’s a cozy place right next to the river. The owner lives for the brew. His face beams when he talks about hops. I feel for his family.

     The other spot is a classic in town. It’s called Colorines, after a famous race horse, to the extent at which race horses are famous in this country, and people flock to it from far and wide basically because of one dish it serves: suckling billy goat. Roasted goat, prepared in a wood-fired oven.

     There is an amusing travel work by an American expat titled I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just European where the writer Jamie Wakefield gives special attention to the Spanish’s verve for eating babies. Baby animals, that is. And careful observation certainly confirms that assertion. When the weather cools down and the Madrileños are filled with that aching need to get out and stuff their bellies with something hot and greasy, what sends them out into a massive exodus are the scores of options made available to them to choose from as they search for gastronomic asylum. North of the capital, especially in the province of Segovia, widespread infanticide takes place. The city of Segovia itself prides itself in its suckling pig and the rest of the region features suckling lamb. The cuter, the deader. Babe would have never saved the day, and little Bo Beep would have done right by racing to the nearest asador the minute she noticed them missing.

     In Canencia, the slaughtered species of choice was the baby goat. A kid. Slow roasted in an oven that resembles an old pottery kiln. It’s not easy to get any sympathy when I tell foreigners what I order, let alone express how much I like it. That is, until they have tried it themselves; then they see things differently. They feel more rustic and robust. Even a little savage. The Stone Age carnivore lurking within each of us.

     There something thrilling to hike ten kilometers around the countryside, backpack and walking stick included, in order to reach a town and sit down to a large platter of roasted goat which had been ordered days before. It was outstanding. The best thing to accompany such a rich dish? A simple bowl of crisp green lettuce, iceberg does great, seasoned with oil and vinegar and salt. That’s all you need to counteract the greasiness. Then a bottle of red and dessert and coffee.

     Even more thrilling is sliding the backpack on again, putting on your gloves, slipping one hand through the stick strap and hiking back another 10k over the chilly December afternoon. We were alone; and it was peaceful. We made it back to the car just after dark.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 23

There is a way to make it stop. A way to get out it. A place to go when you feel just can’t eat anymore. It’s not home because that’s where all the turrón is, lying there on some shiny ceramic platter just begging to be picked up. And you will succumb to the temptation. More than once. You just leave the city and flee the danger, the madness, and the disease. Boccaccio sent his characters away from the plague soy they tell their 100 tales in Decameron. Why couldn’t I skip town to stay out of reach of the nearest marzipan figurine?

     When I need a place to and get away from it all, I find it just about an hour away from the center of Madrid in a bucolic and astoundingly unspoiled valley to the north of the capital called el Valle de Lozoya, and a village known as Alameda. This time I took up temporary residence in another nearby town, the largest in the region, called Rascafría. The name translates liberally as frigid wind, which should give you an idea of the kind of climate one might encounter there, especially in winter, but rest assured that this is not the icy tundra, though it is somewhat higher and frostier than many would imagine.

     The valley gets its name from the Lozoya River, which trickles down from the lofty Sierra de Madrid and carves its way through the land. The contents of this waterway softly pass by fields, woods and hamlets before spilling into a large reservoir known as the Embalse de Pinilla. One of the few positive legacies ever attributed to Franco, and even this one is debated, is that fact he took measures to ensure Spain, a rather dry country in many regions, had a fairly extended and steady supply of water in a land where rainfall is anything but steady.

     When Spaniards are not drinking alcohol, which at this time of year seems only at breakfast, water is a common alternative. In fact, it’s basic drink on an everyday basis…not soda or milk, which was what I was nurtured on. It makes a difference. The first time I came to Spain, I lost about 15lbs in the first three months, and part of it had to do with my being nourished with simple glasses of water at every meal. That and the rest of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is a standard regime that Spaniards tout as being the reason why they don’t have to pay for two seats when they buy airline tickets and stuff like that. The nutritional plan gets its strength from its balanced nature. It relies, sometimes too heavily, on olive oil, but also includes well-distributed amounts of fish, fruit, vegetables, legumes and beans, meat, bread, dairy…the whole deal. Basically everything you were told to do when you had your healthy eating class but never actually followed. You can in the States, but it almost sounds as if you are making a statement when you do. Here, it is second nature. That’s why some may be astounded to find kindergarten students jollily munching on chickpeas and carrots and fresh fish. They might even marvel at the sight. Especially since it’s not such an uncommon sight.

     Much as the Spanish would like to brag about how complete their diet is, and it can be despite the massive incursion of fast food over the past fifteen years, history shows it wasn’t always like that. In fact, the heavenly blend of comestibles didn’t arrive to the heart of the country until fairly recently. Up until the 1960s, Castilian gastronomy was anything but balanced, weighted in all types of beans and salted pork and fish and lacking in many vitamins. It sounded as if the Spanish ate less and farted more. The present-day setup of three square meals represents more of an amalgamation of different diets and eating habits from around the country. Together they forge one of the finest range of food available to an omnivore…by the way, if you are vegetarian, go find another country.

     And, of course, copious quantities of the old H2O never hurts. And if you live in the Madrid metropolitan area, all the better, because there you can enjoy some of the finest tap water the country can offer. Many foreigners, especially Americans, are wary of putting their lips to a glass for fear they will end up spending the weekend within the confines of their hotel bathroom. Heck, I know a lot who refuse to drink their own water let alone put their bowels on the line with another country’s version. I remember growing up hearing horror stories about France’s water, I don’t know why, but it probably explains why their bottle mineral stuff is so famous worldwide, and I can personally confirm, much to my displeasure, that everything they say about Mexico’s Montezuma’s Revenge is a reality. A very real reality. But the agua in the mountains of the Madrid, is a totally different story. It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s nearly a sin to order a bottled version from some other region when you have such a terrific hydro-delicacy at your fingertips. The fancy water with the ever-fancier packaging is becoming ever more popular in this day and age where even the most basic necessities need to be sealed in gourmet fashion. Asking for a free pitcher is now frowned upon. Alas…nothing seems to come for free anymore.

     Well, that’s where I headed. That’s where I went. I ran to the hills, for the hills, to burn off some calories, take in deep breaths of fresh air and…have some great, great meals. Guilt-free pleasures.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 22

It’s not always easy to name a single dish to be THE quintessential Christmas dinner, unlike turkey on Thanksgiving, but I can promise you one thing that quite possibly one of the very last choices that would have come to mind would have been meatloaf. Good old-fashioned meatloaf. Gravy and mashed potatoes meatloaf. Bubble- gum-chewing-waitress-at-a-roadside-diner meatloaf. The only possible exception would have been sloppy joes. But not by far.

     I wouldn’t quite say I was stunned, because kind of food is generally pleasing to my stomach, except for maybe eating stomach itself, another classic dish from this city, by the way. But I was taken aback. “Meatloaf? Really?”

     And it’s funny when you think about it because it really is a fairly elaborate recipe and certainly isn’t for the novice. It’s considerably more challenging than sticking a bird in the oven and waiting. On top of that, given its relatively exotic nature, no one in Spain makes it on a regular basis, it was totally logical. But it was still meatloaf. And I got a good chuckle out of the idea and rubbed my hands because it had been years since I last enjoyed a good slab of the stuff and was looking forward to it very much.

     Christmas Day lunch was at Carla’s house and her mother and brother were there too. We had brought some boquerones to whet our appetites. Boquerones are known in English as European anchovies but they aren’t the same as the oily salted preserved anchoas, that some people adore – not me. These guys are prepared in two basic ways: one is to lightly batter them and then fry them. Those are the boquerones fritos. Because of their diminutive size, you pop the whole kit and caboodle in your mouth, eyes, bones and tail included. When they are that small, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Plus, any other way would drive the eater mad. The fried version is common all over the country. But there is another way to prepare them and that’s by take the time to bone them when they are still raw and then marinated in vinegar and a little olive oil. Once the flesh has turned white, you remove the fish and add the traditional seasoning of garlic, parsley and salt. It’s said to be more common in the south of Spain, but it is widely known that Madrid makes some of the best in the country. The lowly boquerón en vinagre suffered a setback for a few years when a rise in anisakiasis, an infection caused by a parasite which is common to these fish. Concern and then alarm regarding this condition rose several years back, and they was talk about banning certain seafood, but producers took preventive measures and now combat this problem by deep freezing the fish at a temperature of -20ºC for a time period of no fewer than seven days. The little critters just can endure such hardships, naturally.

     We also ate some delicious chorizo, brie cheese, Manchego and potato chips and a dill dip. Naming these items belies the actual amounts they came in, which could be placed under the category of enormous. All of this was accompanied by beer and lambrusco. Lambrusco is a semi-sweet fizzy wine, not to be confused with sparkling wine which has much more carbonation, and it comes from Italy but has become extremely popular over the past few years in Spain. Its sugary flavor and low-alcohol content makes it popular among consumers who don’t normally drink the generally powerful Spanish wines, and is especially a hit among women. One friend confided in me that it was the best way to get a girl tipsy so that she loses her inhibitions. I got the feeling that wasn’t the only thing he wanted her to lose.

     Lively talk and munching carried on for an hour and by the end you could have called it quits. After all, I had been eating for nearly 20 hours straight. After all, I had been eating for nearly twenty days straight. But we hadn’t finished yet. We took whatever tidbits of food that was left over to the table and sat down for lunch to have our first course, which was a bowl of steamy, rich seafood bisque. I was kindly offered a second helping and even more kindly accepted. I uncorked a bottle of red wine from Cádiz, which is a province in the south of Spain far more famous for its world famous fortified wine known as sherry. World famous because it is British famous, I think I should add.

     The meatloaf was terrific. Firm, meaty, and savory. It was served with gravy and mashed potatoes. Now, considering Spain is still a homemade cook’s paradise, where millions of household continue to carry on with the tradition of peeling and slicing and dicing and frying and roasting and stewing and baking without the help of a factory – all with their very own hands – when it comes to good old mashed potatoes, an exception can be made. That is, they can’t be bothered. Instead, they revert to the boxed instant version which I recall only seeing back home in the school lunchroom where, in the immortal words of John Lennon, “nothing is real.” This is not peculiar to that specific meal. The night before my Spanish “mother”, one of the first women to introduce to the mindboggling variety and depth of cooking in this country, brought out the same side dish for the roast suckling lamb. The very same box. The competition has stiffened from the store brand, but Maggi is still the household product here. I have gotten used to it, come to accept it, and on occasion for lack of time and energy, even purchased and made it, but it just ain’t the same. The real homemade mashed potatoes, the ones that have pleased generations of Norman Rockwell Americans, just can’t be matched, and the Spaniards who have tried it are now converts…as long as I make it. When left to their own pots, stoves and water, they resort to what is familiar to them.

     Dessert was back to real home cooking. A delicious tiramisu that Carla made with just the right hint of rum and coffee in it. It was a tribute to Italy and a credit to her cooking. To wrap up the encounter with food, out came the ubiquitous platter of goodies and a bottle of Extremenian cava to toast with. It wasn’t too bad, nothing to write home about, but it satisfied the gullet. All of these food factors were leading to one very specific point in my particular time-space world. Towards the greatest gift a person could ever want at that time: the Christmas siesta in the living-room armchair.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 21

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.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 20

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.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 19

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.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 18

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:

  • Quisquilla
  • Gamba arrocera
  • Gamba blanca común
  • Gambas de Huelva
  • Gambas de Garrucha
  • Gamba roja
  • Gambón
  • Langostino
  • Langostino tigre
  • Carabinero
  • Cigala

     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.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 17

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.