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.

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