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.