We went to a few different supermarkets in La Fuente in search of some honey-mustard sauce, which was really a rather tall order for a town that size in Spain, since both ingredients as separate entities were plentiful, but their union into one amazing dressing had not taken hold. We might as well been searching for cassette players at an Apple Store. Just wasn’t going to happen.
But we tried anyway to no avail. Still, I got to amuse myself with discovering just how these places are arranged in those towns. There they are little more than homes with small storage places turned into makeshift grocery stores. One was clearly designed originally to provide shelter for cars. In other parts of the world they call it a garage. Now it kept ketchup. Many don’t even have a sign on the outside, then again neither does a lot of other commerce in those parts, and the minute their metallic doors are shut at the end of the day, they become humble abodes again. Abodes with a shitload of canned peas, but abodes all the same.
Then we returned and made some spare ribs in the wood fired oven, which is the kind of thing they still do in Europe from time to time and it’s that Old World fun that makes it so enticing to us iPhone wielding Americans. And invariably, I knew we would announce that food just plain tastes better when it’s been heated with real wood. It’s probably a crock, but we go with it anyway, mainly because our lives need these little highlights.
Thankfully, the oven had its own thermometer on the outside which appeared to be working, its needle at least moved up and down, so I didn’t have to resort to inserting my fingers and waiting to see how quickly they charred to determine the temperature. We drenched them in a homemade barbecue sauce made with ketchup, vinegar and Coke, and ingredient most people wouldn’t dream of including, kept the oven well-supplied with vine wood and that was that. An hour later, the dish was ready to be devoured. Then we accompanied lunch with salad, salmorejo (which is a thicker, richer version of gazpacho – more or less), Manchego cheese and melon for dessert, and washed it all down with beer mixed with lemon soda and a bottle of wine from La Mancha.
When it was all over…no one said a word, but there was an unspoken consensus on what to do next. And in the mind of every person, there was pleasure in the silent thought. It was time for the siesta…a tradition much misunderstood in both this country and abroad. If I have time, I’ll discuss it later. In fact, I know just where and will tell you about it if I don’t die before I reach that chapter.
What I will say is that except for the mountain areas where an occasional thunderstorm might pop up and cause a downpour, the weather in the center of Spain offers little variation to the point of extreme monotony. It is sunny and hot every day. Every single day. And every other day, it is hotter and sunnier. From the perspective of the people in my home state of Connecticut, to learn that it is not unusual for us to go from June 1 to October 1 without a single drop of rain reaching the surface of the earth (the period can be longer), the notion stretches the realms of what is possible, but for these parts it is not completely and utterly plausible, it is flat-out typical. That means mid to late afternoon temperatures regularly hover around 95-100º F. There is nothing to do but go unconscious.
A couple of hours later, all life was restored and human activity filled the house. We (being three adults and three kids) went for a dip in the pool, hung out and chatted for a while, then piled into Javi’s 4×4 and for a drive along the back roads. Javi pointed out some of the vineyards that still belonged to his family, but for the most part he showed us the areas he would ride his bike in the morning. “Here’s where I get a drink of water. Here the hill is so steep I almost die.” Julia found these details generally too personal for anyone to care about, I think the exact words were, “Who gives a shit?”, but I knew exactly where Javi was coming from, as we were both men and these were the things men tended to do. Yes, men tended to do these things.
I might, for example, say to my daughters with a boundless sense of pride, “Look at this door I painted.”
“Looks great,” they reply without awarding as much as a glance at the new sheen before slamming it shut.
Then I’ll enter the living room and interrupt their Netflix, “Here’s the brush I used. It’s got two different types of bristles.”
“That’s great,” they’ll repeat without ungluing their e yes from the HD screen.
Then we’ll be walking up the street and I’ll point out, “Here’s where I bought the paint.”
“Dad! Please! Who cares! (i.e. a daughter’s way of saying who gives a shit?)”
“Fine, fine. I’ll stop.”
Then after a six second pause, slip in very nimbly. “The can cost just 6€.”
In any event, Javi took us over a rocky road most cars would have perished on during the crossing, but we made to the end, passed a cheap hotel most likely kept afloat by couples seeking covert operations, and headed down some of the local roads on the other side of the highway. We cruised through the some towns hardly giving much thought to their existence. One was rather uninspiring, the other was maybe a notch above, but that wasn’t saying much. The only bar in town was barren. Of people and products. I walked in with Javi with a thirst so great I bet I could have been legally deemed dead. “Can I have a Coke?”
“Out of that too.” This was beginning to feel like a Monty Python sketch.
“Is there anything to drink on these premises?” The back wall was lined with bottles of liquor but I think she knew that was not what I was there for.
“It’s the end of the weekend. We’ve run out of most things. Let me see….there is…” she examined the cavernous interior of commercial refrigerator for some time. To get a better look, she plunged her head inside the chamber. The emptiness must have been vast, as if it were cooling a section of the universe.
“Here’s something.” I could hear her voice echo from within as she raised her head again and produced a can which had clearly been residing there for so long it had actually been detached from the floor of the fridge. “It’s a sugar-free Nestea.”
Sugar-free Nestea! Well, they might as well have been serving me a cup of hemlock. I accepted it anyway as my thirst outdid my will to resist.
From there we meandered along more back roads through the golden summer fields to the main event of the day, a town of considerable fame in history of the region, Uclés, Cuenca. Not every Spaniard can tell you why it is famous, even fairly cultured friends will give you a look as if they were trying to construct a sentence in Russian. “I think I’ve been there”, but I can assure you there was a time it was one of the most important centers of power during Medieval Spain. And certainly several steps up in appearance. Most of the home owners had chosen the somewhat conservative hue of white, but when applied in unison, gave an effect of beauty and brightness that outshone the nearby villages.
Anyone approaching the Uclés will be immediately entranced by the handsome, the majestic, the imposing presence of the monastery perched up on the hilltop above the town. It stands at the end of a string of three fortress towers and is in itself a truly massive structure. It belonged to the Order of Santiago, as just about everything did back then, but in summertime doubled as a location for an activity you would least expect to find in a convent in the heart of the province of Cuenca: an English camp.
I happened to know the head of the teaching staff who just happened not to be there that day, so we put off our visit to the landmark and walked around the center of Uclés where the main square in front of an unusually modern church was teeming with children burning off late day energy, much to their parents’ delight. They had gone to the nearby outdoor cafés for a drink and a break from their duties. It is one of the undeniable benefits of having children in Spain. Javi and Julia sent their kids in the same direction and welcomed the chance to find a table and take a break. We did the same at a bar that looked like someone’s backyard, and ordered several rounds of white wine from la Mancha, not always a reliable choice, but this was from Javi’s uncle’s winery and it was aromatic and had enough acid to make it crisp, which is what some of the whites in this region can be sorely lacking. Each round came with a healthy-sized plate of tapas. Spain could be so kind to humans in the summer.