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.

Dorset, North of Spain 3

With two teenagers in their room slumbering the early morning hours away, I knew the first thing on my to-do list was to ensure the kitchen was well stocked before they woke up.  This meant making a trip down to the local supermarket, but that was all right with me because grocery stores are one of my favorite places to explore, as they can tell you so much about the country you are visiting.

                There were a number of local stores in Weymouth, but the king beyond compare was Asda.  I am unsure about the right pronunciation of this place, as some would turn the acronym into a words /Asda/, which was my choice, and others would spell out the letters, which sounded a bit off to me, like the name of a syndrome – I suffer from A.S.D.A – or the name of an organization – American Society for Drug Addicts – highly unlikely in southern Dorset and certainly not a place I’d like to buy my powdered sugar from.  It actually stands for Asquith Dairies, a merger of two companies in the 1960s.  Despite being a classic British company, it might surprise you to know that it really belongs to Walmart, which bought it out in 1999 and then sold it ten years later to Corinth Investments, which, in turn, happens to belong to Walmart too.  So there is a lot of corporate incest going on there.

       Asda in Weymouth is a huge two-story supermarket well-equipped to handle the sizable floating population fluctuations that you are apt to find at seaside resorts.  It is a terrific major supermarket and provides just about everything a food-lover like me could want from a mass-scale food vendor.  On top of that, it was just a five-minute drive away and that meant I would probably be popping in on a daily basis.

       I parked my car in the indoor parking lot, then entered to pick up food as well as some data.

      One of the first things you have to look for in a place that sells food is the set up.  It was pretty straightfoward.  Ten aisles of sheer happiness.  Upstairs you could find the pharmacy, clothes, paper products, music, home items and basic appliances, and even a café.

      The first aisle was fruit and vegetables and the bakery section.  The former was solid enough and had some good deals, but the latter really caught my eye, offering just about every kind of dough that a human could stick into an oven: buns, rolls, danishes, muffins, brioches, croissants, biscuits, cakes, tortes, pies, pancakes, waffles, scones, bread, bread, bread, bread and more bread.  That delicious sliced bread that is so hard to find in Spain, bread so fresh it begins to go moldy in a matter of days.  In Spain in stays for weeks if not months, which I’m not sure is good or bad.  It all looked so enticing and so cheap – most cost only a pound – that I immediately started to load the cart without the slightest care for budget or waistline.  Dozens of thises and thats.  It was coming home with me.

         As I said, it all went for 1 pound.  At least much of it.  Asda loves to price its products at 1£, which is why you find the distinctive red and yellow tags all over the place beckoning you to invest yet more in their business.  This brought me to one of my first conclusions: the cost of living in this country, at least as far as food is concerned, is not that high, despite the reputation the United Kingdom has for being an expensive nation.  And considering that the salaries here are so much greater, even more so.  Or so I thought.

          Was that the case? More or less.  The average salary in the UK after taxes comes to about 250 euros a month more than in Spain, but the prices on the whole were comparable, and at times ridiculously lower.  Heads of lettuce cost 50p (60 centimes), 3 quarts of delicious fresh milk (3.4 liters) came to 1.93€.  That would have cost 3.06€ at a low cost supermarket in Madrid.  And so on.  So, is this point an indication that England is cheaper than I expected, or does it tell us that Spain is far more expensive than it should be?  I have said it over and over; I think it’s the latter.

        A visit to Asda also gave me clear indications that the economy is in a healthy state of being, as the store was swarming with employees, dispatching, carting, unpacking, stacking, setting, arranging, ringing up, and just generally making themselves available.  You certainly can’t seem to find such an impressive legion of workers in one of those Carrefours back home.  And, if you need assistance finding something, because supermarkets aren’t always havens for logic, the person on the floor is more than happy to accompany you, rather than just call out, “I think it’s in aisle 6.  Check there.”

         I was looking for napkins and they didn’t seem to appear with the rest of the paper goods, as you would assume.  Someone at Asda felt they belonged with party items.  So I asked and a woman took me to the very spot to ensure they really were where she thought and then smiled and asked, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

         I almost gagged.  Offering to help more?  “What?!  No, no.  You’ve done enough already.  Thanks.”  Hats off to their customer relations training.

         This kind of pleasantness is repeated at the cash register, though this time with a slightly different slant.  The woman ringing me up was friendly from the outset and immediately apologized for not helping with the bagging, which was not an issue for me, because I had unloaded half the store on the conveyor belt; plus I was used to doing my own myself.  As she scanned along, she popped a question, “So, have you got any plans for the day?”

        Now, of course, I don’t ever score at grocery stores, so I was a little thrown off.  I mean, I was used to the typical “How ya doing today?”, “Having a nice day?”, and what not, not something that sounded like “I’m off at six.  Would you fancy going for a pint, luv?”

         But the half-natural way with which she asked as she passed my package of pre-cooked chicken nuggets over the barcode reader, made me realize, or at least sense, that she was not giving me a poke-poke-wink-wink, but genuinely asking about what I had in store for the day out of slightly feigned interest and that this must have had something to do with company policy.   A little light chitchat with the customer is a good public relations tactic.  Later visits would confirm that.  That was fine with me, so I replied, “Well, first I am going to eat 24 strawberry jam and white chocolate chip muffins and take it from there.”

        My answer triggered a confused look, but after she had heard my accent and realized that I was American, she must have assumed it was a bit of quirky Yankee humor that no one quite understood and smiled, “Oh, yes.  That’s nice.” Then she returned to her business efficiently and nicely.  In the end, she handed me four tokens for my purchases which I was to use to donate to one of the several charity they supported.  Each token has a certain value, and I was to deposit one, or more, into a plexiglass container for the the charity of my choice, of course.  How cool was that.

          I departed a hundred pounds lighter, but with enough food to end up a hundred pounds heavier when I was done.