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.