My Camino on the Way of St. James

The Way of St. James

I’m not quite sure how to write this post. I want to tell you how amazing my Camino was and how beautiful the quiet hills of Galicia were and how interesting my fellow pilgrims were. I want to describe the quick, intense bonds I felt with complete strangers from completely opposite lives when we both stopped to shed jackets and re-apply sunscreen at the top of a hill while the morning mist still swirled over the sleeping red rooftops below us. I want to convey the sense of togetherness that dominated the trail and the hierarchy of  basic needs that dominated my thoughts: water, food, bathroom, top-of-foot pain, right hip pain, calf pain, heat. I want to convey the serenity, the peace and the rediscovery I felt. I want to show you the pine forest where we did early-morning yoga and the bright flower-filled meadow above which we took a late-afternoon siesta. I want you to smell the pungent differences between cow manure and pig poo. I want you to feel the solitude of a Eucalyptus forest in the evening and the electricity of a pilgrim-filled albergue at daybreak.

Camino Stretches!

But how can I do justice to an experience that was at once so profound and so simple? How can I properly share an experience so personal and yet so intrinsically shared?

Walking the Way of St. James

My camino was exactly what I needed and everything I didn’t know I was looking for. The best part about my camino was that it was mine. While 200,000 pilgrims will trek down the same trail this year, each of us will experience it in massively different ways. Some will walk 800 kilometers from France and some, like me, will walk only 110 from Sarria.

Camino de Santiago Success!

The trail was an a paradise that exceeded my expectations. But the second it ended real life hit me square in the face. I was stunned by how many people poo-pooed my camino. ‘You started from Sarria?’ many said, ‘talk to me when you’ve walked from St. Jean (along the French border).’ ‘You didn’t walk for God? Or for the Church?’ the pilgrim office lady pityingly said, ‘Well, your camino doesn’t count then. You can’t have the true certificate because you are not a true pilgrim.’

Weary on the Camino

With throbbing feet, exhausted legs and aching joints I felt my camino was just as valid as those who prayed their way into Santiago or those whose blisters had already come and gone. For two days as I wandered through the rain-drenched cobblestones of Santiago I tried to understand why I was there. On the trail where pretenses were erased and judgements suspended it all made sense. But in the reality of life among the bustle of the city I began to doubt my experience. I was shocked at how quickly the simplicity of the camino disappeared and the unnecessary stresses of life returned.

Then we went to Finisterra, the westernmost point of Spain which, before Colombus sailed, Spaniards believed was the end of the Earth. Standing on charred rock where pilgrims before me had burned their camino clothes as a symbol of starting anew, looking towards my country thousands of miles across that pearly blue ocean, that excited, enthusiastic-for-life peace of the camino returned. And it made every ache and pain and sacrifice 100 percent worth it.

Finisterra: The End of the Earth

Did I find the meaning of life along my five-day walk? No. Did I discover my purpose on Earth while looking out over the end of it? Not exactly. But I did learn that pain usually trumps hunger and that when people are working towards the same goal they are remarkably helpful and welcoming. I discovered that I don’t have to know why I’m doing something to love it and that I don’t have to have an end goal to have a plan. I learned that a well-timed joke from a best friend will get you through seriously un-sexy full-foot heat rash and that a smile from a stranger can propel you up the last hill of the day. I learned that usually a piece of paper means little but the dirt on my shoes means much. My camino was my camino and that’s all I need it to be.

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I’m Going to Do the Camino de Santiago!!!

I'm Doing the Camino!My excitement can hardly be contained. In 28 days I am strapping on my boots, cinching down my pack and setting a westward trek towards Santiago de Compostela! It will be 6 days of walking (theoretically) along the gorgeous Galician hills with my best friend by my side and the world ahead of me. I. Am. Stoked.

Catedral en Santiago de CompostelaThe camino de Santiago or Way of St. James is a pilgrimage to the catedral in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s northwest province Galicia, where according to legend the apostle St. James is buried. Nearly 200,000 pilgrims walked the route to Santiago last year. (Interesting fact: 281 of those pilgrims did the camino on horseback. 22 did it in wheelchairs.) Many people walk the route for religious or spiritual reasons, many make the trek during a turning point in their lives. I’m not 100 percent sure what my motivation will turn out to be, but I have no doubt that somewhere between the blisters and the vistas I will find out. 

I’ll be starting the camino from my front doorstep here in Sarria. As fate would have, Sarria is the closest starting point for pilgrims to begin and be considered true peregrinos (yes, there is an official certificate of completion for this walk!). My pueblita is almost exactly 100 km from Santiago along the French Way, one of six main routes. The Camino Francés  actually begins nearly 600 km east in a town called St. Jean Pied de Port along the French-Spanish boarder, although about 20 percent of last year’s pilgrims began their journey, like I will, in Sarria.

Galicia is Gorgeous

My seed of camino intrigue that is now flourishing into action was actually planted long before the fates that be (in this case, the Spanish Ministry of Education) dropped me at head of the trail. In fact, the ganas to do the camino began growing before I could even point out gorgeously green hills of Galicia on a map. This crazy adventure came about, as many of my adventures have, because of brunch. It was a marvelous sundressy day and I remember it perfectly. I rolled out of bed and over to my favorite D.C. brunch hub/coffeehouse/cerveceria/happy place, Tryst. Upon discovering that half of Washington shared my desire for bathtub-sized coffee and labneh baguettes, I strolled next door to peruse a sun-filled bookstore while I awaited an open seat.

Until that day I had never realized that a bright green neighborhood bookstore stood next to my go-to coffeehouse (apparently my perception skills aren’t as keen as I thought), let alone that it was stocked with a decent-sized travel section (lo mejor genre en mi opinión). At the time, my application to spend the following year teaching English in Spain was still pending and my desire to jump ship and move overseas was nearly at the breaking point. Within 15 minutes I had singled out every travel book having anything to do with Spain and narrowed down my purchase to an intriguing-looking specimen with a doodle-style map blanketing the jacket cover. 

The book turned out to be rather whiney, but the storyline was fascinating: a American man took a month-long leave of absence to walk across Northern Spain along with thousands of strangers. I immediately added “Camino de Santiago” to my “want-to-do” list. Four months after starting the book, I received my teaching placement in, of all places, Galicia — the Spanish province where the majority of his book (and thus the majority of the camino) took place. Coincidence? Quizas.

Scallop shell decorations

If the camino was flitting around the back of my mind if America, it was drenching my field of vision here in Galicia. Scallop shells — the symbol of the pilgrims — decorated the sidewalks and fences; bright yellow arrows were sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the city; tales of past pilgrims were told and retold by teachers and amigos. Within weeks of arriving I had resolved that one day I would do the camino, but only if the right circumstances (read: the right compadre) arose.

Enter: Jenny. A bakers’ dozen of days ago I floated the idea to mi mejor amiga of filling the gap between my last day of classes and my flight back to the states by walking the camino. It was a long shot at best. Jenny has a grown-up job, a new house and a new husband and I was asking her to drop it all, fly across an ocean and walk through the rural hills of Northern Spain with me for 10 days. Who does that?!? Apparently, we do.

Spring in Galicia!

Thus far we don’t know how we are going to do the camino, only that come hell or high water (read: airline delays and customs controls) we are throwing on backpacks and boots on June 2 and hitting the trail. I imagine this new adventure will be a lot like eating an elephant; we’ll take it one bite at a time.

Have you ever walked the camino? Do you have any tips or suggestions?!?

The Art of the Go-To Restaurant

Matias PizzaThere are few things in life that stress me out more than choosing a restaurant (a fridge full of fresh– aka soon to be not fresh — vegetables would definitely be in the running). Ask me what country I want to visit next, if I want to quit my grown-up job to go frolic (ahem, teach) in Spain or what I want to do with my life and I’ll give little pause. But ask me where I want to go for lunch in a new city and I’m thrown into a tailspin of questions that can’t possibly be sufficiently answered by glancing at a menu outside.

I’ll wander for an hour hoping to stumble upon the perfect equilibrium between hole-in-the-wall authentic but not too dingy and modernly elegant but not too pricey. I’m intrinsically driven to try new things, but there are times when, especially after living in a city for a few months, I’m just in the mood for a place I can count on to be delicious, friendly and comfortably fabulous. Sometimes, I just need some stress-free food.

Trudys

My first stop on every trip back to Austin: a Trudy’s Mexican Martini!

In my hometown of New Braunfels my tried and true go-to is Gruene River Grill (rustic, riverfront, ridiculously delicious Italian margaritas and shrimp wontons). Austin has two go-tos, one for breakfast (Juan in a Million, obvs.) and one for drinks (Trudy’s, someone dame una Mexican Martini por favor!). In Sevilla it was El Tren for coffee (hello free, dependable wifi) and Marcos for dinner (bowl-licking Italian in an ancient arched setting). And in D.C., the candyland of restaurants? Tryst (scrumptious, reasonable, unassuming, close to home and everything I’ve ever wanted in a coffeehouse).

Matias cappaccinoSince unpacking in Sarria I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect sitio to add to my go-tos. The title is a tricky one to bestow. It must be delicious without being pretentious, comfortable without being drab and friendly without being pesky. Turns out, my stress-free eatery was one of the first restaurants I tested out in my little Northern pueblo: Matias Locanda Italiana. One sip of a Matias cappuccino and I was enamorado. One bite of their homemade brick oven-baked pizza and it became my new gold standard of thin crust. The ethically Italian, functionally world citizen, trilingual owner is charming, inviting and hilarious. He takes care of his regulars and has no qualms with me taking up the corner table with hours of typing and free-wifi browsing while savoring nothing more than one of his spectacular coffee creations.

Nestled amid albergues and touristy tapas joints, Matias brings authenticity to the old part of town that usually bustles with pilgrims stopping off for a bite along the Camino de Santiago. It’s the beacon of deliciousness at the top of a seriously steep hill, one I’m more than willing to climb for a scoop of their chocolate mousse (who needs a novio when you have this sinful mousse, Mr. Matias informed us during our last visit). Sarria may be known for it’s pulpo, but it’s these Italian plates of joy that drag me away from my estufa amid the rain and wind of Sarria’s wintery Spring.

Matias Chocolate Mousse

Matias chocolate mousse: my new Spanish novio

What is your go-to restaurant? How did you discover it?

Fishing for Fun

A wise man today shared with me the folktale that my life has been missing. For six months now I have been trying to find the best and most accurate way to explain why I chose to come to Spain, why it was the right move for me to quit a dream job (someone’s dream, not, I discovered, mine) and move across the world for a job that paid much less in a field I wasn’t interested in pursing.

Sarria in the Spring“I love Spain,” didn’t seem to be explanation enough. “I want to learn Spanish,” didn’t quite cut it on the justification front. A long-winded lecture about “living life” and “living my age” and “learning about the world” always sounded a tad too idealistic to be fully believable. Luckily my friends and family didn’t need an explanation; they supported my wanderlust and encouraged me to follow my heart. Now I finally have the perfect story to illustrate to them why I’m bucking the traditional plan (school-university-job-husband-kids-retirement) and frolicking around a tiny pueblo in a rural corner of Spain.

This story is about a gray-haired fisherman living in a small wooden house by the sea.

Every morning the fisherman wakes up, walks down the beach to his tiny wooden boat and kicks off into the ocean. For two hours he casts his line to catch just enough fish for his family to eat that day and a couple extra to sell for a few euros. One day the aging fisherman encounters a man wearing a suit on the beach. He is a middle-manager at a large business, on a weekend-long beach vacation. Upon meeting the fisherman, the suit-wearing businessman tells him, “I’ve been watching you now for two days and I have a great plan for improving your  life…

“Instead of working just two hours every day you should start working eight hours. That way you can catch four times as many fish and sell them to the market for four times the profit!

Fishing on Galata Bridge

Fisherman casts into the Golden Horn from Galata Bridge in Istanbul.

“Then instead of this little rickety boat you can buy a proper fishing boat and hire a few men to help you run it and more than double your profit…

“With all that money you can buy a bigger, more modern house in the city…

“As your profits grow you can invest them in a whole fleet of fishing boats and your profits will grow exponentially…

Boating on the Bosphorus

Boating on the Bosphorus

“Then, with a healthy sum in the bank, you can retire and buy a vacation home by the ocean and a small fishing boat. Then you can spend your days fishing for fun!”

The gray-haired man stepped out of his small wooden boat and put his hand on the businessman shoulder. “Sir,” he said, “I already do.”

Why would I spend my youth at a desk, working to save money so that in forty years I can retire and begin to do the things that make me happy? I’m going to skip the forty years of sacrificing my happiness fish for fun NOW I’m going to figure out a way to make my happiness into my living. That’s why I moved to Spain. Because I couldn’t waste another moment living to work.

I love Spain

‘Feria Gastronomica’: Spanish for ‘Heaven’

Galicia Gastronomy Fair

One of the three delicious local wines I tasted during the “show cooking” demonstration.

This weekend I died and went to heaven. I apologize for the cliche, but in this case, trust me, it’s appropriate.  Let me paint you a picture… In the southern Galician town of Ourense lies a massive convention center that is cutely named “Expourense.” Last week this dreary, grayish metal beast of a building played host to food heaven. Booth after booth piled with regional wines, traditional tapas and artisan cheeses stretched as far as my hungry eyes could see. Chefs gave cooking demonstrations while tuxedoed waiters passed out tastes of their creations. Photographers, writers and food lovers swirled their tempranillos and moseyed from display to display. White linen tables stood clustered into makeshift restaurants, awaiting the joyous ritual of Spanish lunchtime. It was a paradise of flavor and I had but five hours to devour its wonders.

Asturian Cheese Table

I’ll take one of each please!

My first stop at the “Xantar” Gastronomic Fair was the Asturian cheese table. Stacks of cheese rounds in sizes ranging from a fist to a serving platter enticed me from all sides of the table. Atop each stack stood a small plate piled with tiny bites and behind each heap were the artisan cheesemakers themselves, each dressed in the traditional garb of their region. I started fresh and worked my way to strong, falling in love with Asturias with each morsel. As a slice of queso fresco melted over my tongue, a woman wearing a dress that looked like the lovechild of lederhosen and little house on the praire explained that this 100 percent cow’s milk cheese was aged only one week and got it’s pinkish-orange color from a hefty dose of spicy paprika. Farther down the table a young man with a Peter Pan hat introduced me to cider cheese. Picture cold, refreshing beer brewed solely from apples (aka cider) infused into a smooth brie-like cheese. I could almost feel the effervescence from the bright, sparkling cider as I sucked every drop of flavor from my tiny tasting bite.

Piles of dark red chorizo from Asturias’ southern neighbor, León, enticed us away from the cheese heaven. After marveling at the distinctly smokier flavor of León’s chorizo (compared to the Galician sausage I’m used to) we stumbled into a free “show cooking.” A young, slightly nervous chef was explaining to a crowd of about 20 feria-goers seated before his cooking-show style kitchen the proper way to scrape a thin layer of cooked egg from the underside of a cake pan, where he had apparently cracked it and backed it into a see-through sheet.

Moments after settling into our chairs (plastic lawn chairs classed up with linen slip covers) the first of our three wine glasses was filled and a bite-sized sample of the chef’s egg creation paired with tuna (from a can, as it always is in Spain) and drizzled with cauliflower purée.

Galician Gastronomy Fair Show Cooking

Thin sheets of egg sandwich tuna and peppers. Cauliflower purée ties it all together!

Show Cooking Dish #2

Soft organic cheese rolled in dried, roasted tomato and presented on a wheat cracker stick.

Show Cooking Taste #3

This apple sorbet was made using liquid nitrogen and soda water!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up was what looked like a mushroom but which was actually a smooth, smokey ball of cheese rolled in roasted, spiced and dried tomato flakes and served on a bready wheat cracker stick. This little appetizer packed a serious punch of flavor! Delicious. Next came the manzana sorbet, which the chef created by slowly pouring liquid nitrogen into a huge metal basin filled with about two cups of an sweetened apple mixture. With smoke billowing out of the bowl and cascading down the table the man explained that this light, refreshing dessert would be served in a nerf football-sized white chocolate egg which he had painted with dark chocolate. Ummmm, yes please.

Thus three glasses of wine and three interesting tastes later we sauntered over to wine tasting row, which led us to tapa land and, ultimately, sea food corner. While admiring a table showcasing Galicia’s marisco specialities (sea urchin, barnacles, crab, eel, etc…) Kassandra and I almost took out a passerby when one of the lobsters started walking off it’s plate! Then the razor shell clams started poking in and out of their shells. We scurried away before the eel could start slithering across the table…

Typical Galician Seafood

Galicia is known for it’s amazing (and rather unique) seafood. It’s completely common to find whole eel and octopus at the grocery store!

After a handful of rather adventurous samples including cured river eel (delicious!), sea urchin paté (less delicious) and barnacle paté (literally taste like a mouthful of dirty ocean water) we began to notice that the crowds around the booths had dissipated into the makeshift restaurants. So with already-full bellies we set off in search of a menú. An enthusiastic (and rosy-cheeked) recommendation from a friend we made on the bus, we settled for the epic lunch menú of a local Ourense restaurant. While the waiter assured us it would be no problem to share a menú, I don’t think the concept of sharing made it all the way to the kitchen. This was, without question, the largest meal of my life. Without further ado, I present to you our lunch:

Epic Galician Lunch Part 1

First first course: this flakey ceviche-filled pastry paired perfectly with our crisp Albariño wine. I say ‘first, first course’ because while the menu gave me the impression would could choose one from a selection of four primero platos apparently I was wrong…

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 2

Second first plate: While it is typical to serve bread at every meal in Spain, this place went a tad overboard, presenting us each with a whole loaf. And, obviously, a plate of cured jamón as well.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 3

Third first course: Raxo. This typical tapa is made from the same ground pork as chorizo, only this one has a much stronger flavor and even more spices. It is one of the only Spanish tapas that I don’t like.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 4

Fourth first course: Pulpo with potatoes. A platter of boiled octopus doused in spicy paprika, salt and olive oil usually constitutes a meal in of itself. Not today! Apparently in this meal-size time warp it is a mere appetizer. So full already…. but it’s sooo good!

Just to recap, we’ve now devoured half a bottle of wine, half a loaf of bread, ham, seafood pastries, ground pork and boiled octopus. And that was just the so-called “first plate.” Now it’s time for the actual meal….

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 5

Second Course: Beef steak (chuletón de ternera). This not only looked like a work of art, but tasted like one. It was crispy on the outside and ridiculously tender in the center. So lean, yet with so much flavor!

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 6

Dessert: Tarta de Caramelo. I didn’t think I could eat another bite, but when this slice of beauty changed my mind. It was like tiramisu topped with a dense chocolate cake and slathered with coffee-infused caramel.

And then I died happy…

Obama, Osama and English Oral Exams

It’s oral exam time at Frei Luis de Granada and that means my fifth grade students are pulling out all their creativity to construct a short dialogue in English. Some wrote about going to a discoteca, others spoke about eating apples and oranges. But one group out-shined them all with this completely random and utterly odd conversation…

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Bin Laden, you are dead.

OSAMA BIN LADEN: No, you’re dead!

OBAMA: Shit.

BIN LADEN: No! Shit!

…. That is all.

My Favorite Spanish Phrases

The more Spanish I learn, the more I love the quirks of this language. From the teacher’s lounge to my tutoring classes I’ve stumbled upon some positively delightful phrases that I now try to work into conversation as much as I possibly can.

To me, these quintessentially Spanish phrases are a fantastic window into the Spanish way of thinking. Something is totally unobtainable? It’s no pie, it’s a castle in the sky! Nobody at the bar? You’re not by your lonesome, you’re with four cats!

Here are a couple examples of my favorite Spanish phrases:

  •  “Pan y chorizos
PlazadelSolNohaypanparatantochorizo

One of my favorite protest signs: “There’s no bread but there are plenty of cheats!”       Image credit here.

What it means:  It literally translates to “only bread and sausages.” Unethical people who rob, steal and cheat in Spain are colloquially referred to as “chorizos,” and because of the economic crisis the only thing people can afford to buy is bread, a super-cheap staple of Spain’s diet. Therefore, it basically means “only bread lines and cheats.”

Why I love it: This rather distressing, yet colorful phrase is a trophy of my teacher’s lounge recess breaks. While glancing through the ever-disturbing headlines about Spain’s political corruption, one of my favorite teachers looked up and, shaking his head muttered, “solo pan y chorizos.”

It is the perfect phrase to sum up the situation Spain is in right now politically and economically. The recession here in Spain puts the United States’ economic downturn to shame. The national unemployment rate hit 26 percent this month (that’s twice as bad as the U.S’s worst month during the recession). Youth unemployment is even more dismal. More than HALF of young Spaniards (between 16 and 24 years old) can’t find work.

And to add insult to injury, the ruling party is mired in a massive corruption scandal. Nearly every top member of the party (including the Prime Minister) is accused of accepting tens of thousands of euros from a slush fund stashed in Swiss bank accounts. Not even the royal family is escaping the madness. The king’s son-in-law is in court on charges of embezzlement, forgery and public fraud for pocketing six million euros in public funds.

Thus, in Spain there is “solo pan y chorizos.”

How to use it: One of my favorite protestor signs is “No hay pan pero tanto chorizo.” (There is no bread but there are plenty of cheats).  Or you could use just “chorizo” and say something like “Partido Popular es llena con chorizos” (The Popular Party is full of cheats).

  • Castillos en el aire
Castillos in el aire

Something is totally unobtainable? It’s like making “castles in the sky!” Image credit here.

What it means: Literally: “castles in the air.” It is basically the equivalent of the English “pie in the sky.”

Why I love it: The Spanish version of this phrase is awesome, but the French version is even more fun. As the resident-expert-on-everything/gym teacher Jose Manuel informed me, in France when an idea is so far fetched that it is positively unachievable, the French say it is “like a Chateau in Spain.” (!!!)

How to use it: It’s a great way to underscore how completely impossible something is. For example, “Pensar que los estudiantes van a estar en silencio por un clase entero es como hacer castillos en el aire.” (To think that the students will be silent for a whole class is like making castles in the sky.)

  • Hacer el augusto” 
Tapas at Levies

I wasn’t making a killing but I was definitely living like it was August while devouring these croquetas at Levies in Sevilla!

What it means: Literally: “To make the August.”  Figuratively: “to make a killing.”

Why I love it:  Most Europeans have the entire month of August off of work and school, because Europe is awesome like that. A huge portion of these vacationing people flock to Spain every year. Sleepy villages are transformed into busting sunbathing hotspots. Restaurants that usually cater to a small clan of local coffee drinkers are packed to the brim with tapas-devouring tourists. Thus, the shop-owners and restaurant-runners often make as much money in the month of August as they do in the entire rest of the year. “Hacer el augusto” makes me think of my favorite tapas spot on Sevilla, it’s sun-filled patio packed with people and my table overflowing with tinto de verano and croquetas espinacas.

How to use it: Unlike the English “to make a killing,” “hacer el augusto” only refers to a short period of time. For example, you could say “Este sábado voy a hacer el augusto porque tengo seis clases particulares.” (This Saturday I’m going to make a killing because I have six tutoring classes)

  • “Piripi” 
Cheers to piripi!

I’m not a fan of borracho, but I am big supporter of piripi!

What it means: This fantastically fun-sounding word (pronounced “pee-dree-pee”) means “tipsy.” As in, I’ve had a few drinks and am feeling happy and bubbly, but not drunk.

Why I love it: This is the word the English language has been missing. Just like in English, the Spanish word for “drunk” (“borracho”) is a strong, rough-sounding word with a bad connotation. “Piripi” on the other hand sounds exactly like I feel after two glasses of scrumptious Spanish tempranillo. It’s light, fun and happy, just like I am after savoring a glass (or two) of wine!

How to use it: Scenario: You’re sitting at a bar, halfway through a tapas bar hop when a new friend walks in to join the group. “Estas borracha? (Are you drunk?)” they ask after you give dos besos a tad too enthusiastically. “No, no no, estoy piripi! (No, no, no I’m happily tipsy!)” you can respond!

  • “Solo hay cuatro gatos”
Solo cuatro gatos

Concert was practically empty? Then there were only “four cats!” Image credit here.

What it means: Literally: “There is only four cats.”

Why I love it: Every time I hear this phrase (which isn’t nearly often enough!) I picture myself standing in the middle of a huge outdoor concert area (much like Stubb’s in Austin) surrounded only by empty dirt when four stray cats go scurrying past. It doesn’t get more dead than that!

How to use it: When someone asks if there was mucha gente when you went shopping at the mall yesterday, but the place was practically deserted, the perfect response would be, “No, solo yo y cuatro gatos! (No, only me and four cats)”

The Secrets of Spanish Chorizo

Curing Hundreds of Chorizos

Nearly 1,000 links of chorizo hang in a smokey, stone room to cure for one month.

After spending mere days in Spain, there are two questions about which it is nearly impossible not to form devout opinions, opinions that conjure up deep defenses and invite fierce debate. The first pregunta, clearly, is “FC Barcelona or Real Madrid?” The second is “salchichón or chorizo?” My answer to the first question I base primarily on color preference and the charming good looks of a particular jugador. But my preference in the second match-up is far better researched, stemming from months of incessant questioning, hours of meat-cutting manual labor, days of thought,  and countless taste tests. 

Delicious Spanish Chorizo

While most of the chorizo served up at every meal is the fully-dried version. This semi-dried hot style is even more scrumptious!

Chorizo and salchichón share a plate on the table at nearly every Spanish meal. They, like bread, persist through both the first and second courses and unlike Spain’s plethora of regional dishes, are popular in the entire peninsula, tempting idle fingers away from forks from Santiago to Sevilla to snatch these often-homemade delicacies. In Galicia, these staple sausages are more than just a mid-meal diversion, they are a family business, a strictly-guarded recipe and a direct reflection of the patriarch’s (or matriarch’s) taste buds.

For me, the question of taste in the face-off between chorizo or salchichón was obvious.  Salchichón, the lighter of the two sausages, tastes drier and meatier, usually with a hint of garlic but little else to excite the palette. Chorizo, on the other hand, is visually striking with white dots speckled throughout the bright redness of the sausage. It fills your mouth with flavor, zapping awake the salt sensors of your tongue, exciting the savory centers, brushing fleetingly through the sweet sides and igniting the slightest burn of spice as it tumbles through the back of your mouth.

But until three weeks ago, I could not for the life of me definitively discern why  these two types of sausage — both created from the same animal (pig), cured for the same amount of time (one month) and served in the exact same way  (sliced with bread and cheese)– could taste so completely different. Each time I asked one of my authentically Galician friends the answer was siempre vague. “Chorizo has more fat,” one matter-of-factly stated. “It’s the seasonings,” another responded, opting not to elaborate.

Elbow-Deep in Chorizo Meat

The resident expert on Matanza dumps a heaping handful of salt into the already-garliced chorizo meat.

I did not fully appreciate the complexity of Spanish chorizo until my arms were elbow deep in a vat of freshly ground pork and my eyes were watering with the pungency of garlic, salt and raw meat. We were wrapping up the first day of matanza, the four-day family pig slaughter, which meant adding the first round of seasonings to each family’s tub of chorizo meat. Looking across the ancient barn at the half-dozen multi-colored vats of meat, I finally began to understand the answer to a burning question I had thus far been unable to satisfactorily answer. While chorizo and salchichón come from the same pig, they could not be more different. The former has more fat, more seasonings (a small mountain of firehouse-red paprika), more steps (season, taste, season, taste) and takes a whole lot more TLC (stir, wait, taste, mix, try, add, cure, store, cook, don’t cook… you get the point). The later is a quick, one-day-and-done affair, made from the leanest cuts of meat and seasoned only slightly with garlic and salt (no wonder it’s not nearly as delicious!)

Five families were participating in our matanza and each had very rigid specifications for their chorizo seasonings. In the first round of seasoning, one group wanted garlic mixed with water, another preferred straight minced garlic. One liked an extra sprinkling of salt, another added only a scant handful. Once the meat was garliced and salted to everyone’s liking, it sat overnight to absorb the flavors. The next day a golf-ball sized scoop was pan-seared and tasted. In went more salt or more garlic or more water followed my a flurry of mixing and stirring. Again the meat sat to season.

On the third day the real fun began when one-kilo bags packed with powdered paprika were ripped open and scattered into the meat. Handful by handful each family expertly added their desired ratio of sweet to spicy paprika as their hands, elbows  and noses turned redder and redder.

Chorizo Meat Spiced with Paprika

Paprika, a staple of the Spanish spice cabinet, was dumped my the fistful into the tubs of soon-to-be-chorizo.

Gloves Coated in Raw Meat

Holding up her meat-stained gloves Marta remarked that Gallegos have a lot in common with vampires.

One more day of waiting and it was time for the final taste test. Each couple assembled in front of their prized meat, rolling a tiny bite from side to side in their mouth. Celebratory cervezas were popped open and delighted “Mmmm delicioso!”s sizzled throughout the frigid barn.

A team of six assembled early the next morning for seven hours of straight chorizo stuffing. Unbeknownst to my ill-advised American brain prior to matanza was the type of tube that my scrumptious Spanish sausages were stuffed into. I naively assumed it was some sort of pre-fabricated mesh, plastic perhaps. How wrong I was. The holder of this joyous embutido is none other than salted pig intestine.

Preparing these less-than-appetizing exteriors  must have been, back in the day when Galician families used the intestines of their own freshly-slaughtered pigs, the most disgusting job of the year. Nowadays the (much smarter) younger generations buy already cleaned and salted intestines from China (ironic? absolutely.). Nevertheless, the 15-meter (50-foot) intestines must been rinsed and wound into yarn-like balls before the chorizo stuffing can commence. Not wanting to miss one step of the the matanza, I scurried off to the barn to help with the intestine-rolling after the pig-cutting had ceased. Big mistake.

Pig Intestine Used to Stuff Chorizo

The salty, squishy strings of intestine stretched the length of the barn and filled it with a stench so foul I almost lost my lunch.

Pig intestine (despite the fact it is already “cleaned”) smells exactly as you would expect an organ responsible for the final stages of cerdo digestion to smell. The eyeless pig faces didn’t bother me. The heaps of raw meat left me unfazed. But the foul stench of Made-In-China pig poop nearly sent me retching. I am absolutely going to meticulously peel the “casings” off of every slice of sausage from now until eternity.

Chorizo Sizzling on Hot Coals

The fruit of or labors sparkles on the hot coals of the antique stove.

By the end of the matanza more than 900 links of chorizo hung from wooden beams in one of Victoria’s 16th century stables. For three weeks a small fire continuously smoked the chorizos until they had halved in size. Last weekend, I got to savor the first taste of my hard work. The first phase of smoking was complete, and a small percentage of the sausages migrated from the smokehouse to the freezer to be added to stews, fried or barbecued throughout the year. One of those six-inch long paprika-filled pockets of joy was wrapped in foil and thrown into the coals of Victoria’s cast-iron stove for us to probar. 

In minutes the sparkling package was sizzling and Victoria sliced open the brilliant, deep red chorizo. I don’t know if it was the memory of mucho trabajo, the weeks of anxious waiting or the tried-and-true family recipe, but that bite of pipping-hot chorizo was hands down the best I have ever tasted.

Spanish Chorizo

If there was ever a doubt about which sausage reigns supreme, this little slice of happiness handily tips the scales in favor of chorizo.

The Black Chicken

Pollo Casero

Fresh, homegrown chicken with fried organic potatoes, roasted pumpkin and apple.

For casi two years I have been avoiding chicken. After reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learning about the horrific way chickens are mass produced (I’ll spare you the details in case you’d like to continue eating chicken, but I highly recommend the book) America’s go-to white meat has been positively unappetizing to me. I now happily pay the extra dollar to buy free-range eggs and find that most recipes which call for chicken are just as tasty sans meat. While I’m a far cry from an all-organic hippie, my quiet protest of factory-made chicken is my one foray into anti-establishment eating.

Galicia, much to my glee, is a anti-factory-meat eater’s paradise. The grocery stores sell beef raised minutes away in el campo, families raise their own pigs to make homemade chorizo and jamon, bakeries deliver fresh out of the oven bread every morning and backyards are llena with chickens who feast on kitchen scraps and provide deliciously fresh eggs every day.

The language coordinator at school, Victoria, introduced me to the gloriousness of chicken raising during my first week in Galicia, when I stayed at her house in the country. My favorite daily task soon became egg-collecting.

Victoria's Chickens

One handful of corn brings all the chickens to the yard

Gathering the Eggs

Victoria’s chickens tuck half of their eggs between two hay stacks and the others in a nest in the hen house.

Every afternoon I’d grab a basket and head out to the hen house to coger los huevos. I’ve decided eggs that come from homegrown chickens deserve their own name; they bear almost no resemblance to the mass-produced, bleached products that parade as “eggs” in the grocery store. These hormone-free and fantastically fresh eggs have deep orange yolks, thin and fragile brown shells and a flavor that bears hardly a resemblance to their caged and cartoned counterparts. One bite and I decided that whenever I decide to settle in one place, I’m going to become a chicken owner.

For three months I’ve been enamorado with homegrown eggs. But today, for the first time in my life, I got to taste a home-raised fresher-than-fresh chicken. And it. was. delicious!!! After a new baby chick was born at her house last week, Victoria chose to cook up one of her older hens and invited me over to taste the difference.

The pollo that became our almuerzo had been eating nothing but corn and grass during it’s six-month life (a long and happy one compared to the 2-month growth spurt of a life that a factory chicken has). It weighed about half what a store-bought chicken would weigh.

When I arrived around 1:30 p.m. the pollo had been stewing for two hours. When Victoria spooned a thigh and a wing onto my plate I was immediately taken aback by how dark the meat and bones were. The thigh meat was a dark redish-brown and the bones were a few shades darker than I was used to. Victoria’s husband picked up a drumstick and laughingly said, “Es pollo negro!  It’s a black chicken!” One bite into my heaping serving of “black chicken” and I was in pollo  heaven. The meat was both juicier and firmer than the chicken I remembered eating. It was full of flavor and had hardly a trace of fat. In other words, it was completamente delicioso. 

The Black Chicken

This backyard chicken was dark brown, dense and bursting with flavor.

After gorging myself on this insanely delicious stewed chicken and the accompanying lentil salad, roasted pumpkin and fried potatoes, I continued my afternoon of chicken bliss by heading out for my favorite chore of egg gathering and then joined my gracious hosts for a paseo through the countryside.

An Afternoon Stroll

Strolling through the campo outside of Sarria

We harvested giant Galician cabbage leaves to feed to the rabbits, stopped for a quick conversation with a group of boar hunters and watched their heard of dogs dart across a grassy field, yapping after a small deer. It’s days like today that chock up serious points in favor of el campo in my mental comparison of city life versus country living. 

Harvesting Cabbage

I helped harvest an armful of Galician cabbage to feed to Victoria’s rabbits.

The Killing of the Pigs (a.k.a. the genesis of all Spain’s savory scrumptious deliciousness)

Matanza: Lovin It!

Making chorizo like it’s 1699…

Over the past two days I have been transformed from a docile American English teacher into a ferocious pig-fat fighter, a powerful chorizo-meat mixer, a cauldron-stirring bruja  and a brave (in my opinion) intestine de-tangler. I have participated in a Matanza. And it. was. awesome.

Matanza is the Galician celebration of the yearly pig slaughter. Every year, around Christmastime, families and neighbors in aldeas (tiny rural villages) gather to kill, cut, grind and preserve all the pig meat they will eat for the next year. And being that this is Spain, that is a lot of meat. Matanza is where the positively delicious chorizos and salchichones are seasoned, stuffed and hung to smoke for a month, where the legs of jamón are cut and sent to cure for two years, where the pig faces are salted and the loins are seasoned and the bacon is cured. It is four full days of pig processing.

Witnessing this 100 percent Galician tradition was like being transplanted into the ancient times… like before electricity ancient. It was not glamourous, but neither was it particularly gory. I expected to emerge from Day One with blood-soaked clothes and raw carne under my fingernails, but thanks to sturdy gloves and a modern law forbidding families from slaughtering their pigs at home, all that gore was reserved for the butcher and our pigs arrived blood-free and cleanly chopped in half.

**Warning: If you don’t like raw meat or easily get queasy, stop here! **

Matanza: Pig Half No.1

The pigs arrived on our chopping block in halves, ready to be dissected into dozens of pieces and parts.

My Matanza adventure began, in typical Spanish fashion, at 11 a.m. with a cup of cafe con leche.  As soon as the coffee cups were empty, the pigs arrived. We had four cerdos to chop that day, meaning nearly 1,200 pounds of raw meat awaited us in the barn next to Victoria’s house.

Three of the four pigs that made up our matanza were raised within 50 feet of the barn we were chopping them in. Victoria (the language coordinator at my school) and her neighbor fed them everything from kitchen scraps to home-grown pumpkins over the past year, fattening them up to turn them into a year’s worth of sausages, stews and steaks.

The fourth pig was an Iberico, the most coveted and hands-down delicious type of pig on the peninsula. Ibericos are from Andalucia (the region where I studied abroad) and are supposedly the best because they eat a particularly delicious type of acorn that only grows in that region in the south of Spain.

Minutes after arriving at the barn,  giant pig halves draped insides-up over mens’ shoulders came shuffling in. I was shocked by how completely content these sliced-open, eyeless cerdo carcasses looked.

As soon as the fourth head slumped with a sturdy smack against the chopping table, knives flew into hands, chatter ceased, orders were shouted and pig parts started flying. A pig chopping expert who was hired specifically to partition the pigs started at the top, slicing the skull open and swiftly removing the jaw with an axe. He wasn’t messing around here. This mantanza is serious stuff! He scooped out the brain, which was super small (about the size of two walnuts) and about the consistency of half-melted Jell-O, using his pinky finger.

Matanza: Pig Chopping

The resident pig cutter starts the day off with an axe to the head.

Matanza: Pig Parts

A tractor bed full of pig parts is ready to be cured in salt.

The butcher man sliced out the ribs (using what looked like tree clippers) and the loins and all the other parts that would be left casi whole and either cured in salt or frozen for stews and steaks. All the rest was tossed onto a long white table where five other women and I stood waiting with our filet knives. My job for the day was extracting the pinkish flesh from the layers and layers of butter-like fat. The meat we dissected would later be ground up to make chorizo. I dub Day One of matanza the “Fat-Fighting Day.”

Matanza: De-Fatting the Chorizo Meat

Six of us women were in charge of de-fatting the left-over pig parts that would eventually become chorizo.

Matanza: Fat Fighting

Sporting a sexy pink smock that Victoria’s grandma wore 70 years ago, I stripped the fat from the meat.

Three hours and two pig carcasses later it was time for a celebratory Spanish lunch break. My gloves were caked with fat and flesh, my fingers ached from hours of precision knife-work and most of all my stomach groaned for a nice filet of fresh pork. Which, much to my joy, was exactly what Victoria had on the menu for almuerzo! As Victoria was flipping the garlic and olive oil covered filets, she looked up, smiled at me and said “Just think, these were alive yesterday!” Only in Galicia…

Matanza: Lunch Break!

The best elementary school principal and vice principal in all of Spain!

After lunch, we took a quick break from the cutting and chopping to cure the face, ribs, bacon and other large pig parts. In order to cure it, the meat is packed in salt for about fifteen days. In one of Victoria’s ancient (and I mean ancient, these things were built in the 1500s) stable stalls, there is a trough made from a hollowed-out tree that her husband’s family has cured their meat in for over 100 years. To me, it looked like an extra-deep version of those preschool sandboxes where you have to root out the plastic dinosaurs.

Matanza: Salting the Meat

The century-old curing trough where a bunch of random pig parts are buried in salt for two weeks.

Matanza: Pig Tail!

Victoria’s husband Elias takes the pig spine (complete with the curly pink pig tail!) to be salted.

While the afternoon was dedicated to chopping and slicing, the evening was devoted to grinding and stirring. Each family had their own huge bucket full of meat scraps for their chorizos and a smaller tub of pure, fat-less meat to make into salchichones. Ever since arriving in Galicia I have been trying to deduce the difference between chorizo  and salchichon, both of which are served sliced during nearly every meal. Thanks to matanza I finally understand!

Salchichon is made from the lean parts of the pig and is mixed with it’s own special blend of pre-packaged “salchichon” seasonings. Chorizo, on the other hand, has a bit more fat and involves a four-day process. The first night it’s ground and mixed with water, salt and garlic (very generous amounts of all three). The second night, a pinch of the chorizo meat is cooked and tasted to check for sufficient saltiness and handfuls upon handfuls of bright red paprika powder of both the sweet and spicy variety are stirred in. The third night it’s tasted again to check for the right balance of sweet and spicy. And finally after four nights of marinating, the meat is packed into small intestines and hung to smoke for nearly a month.

Matanza: Making the Salchichon

Lean seasoned meat is ground into tied-off lengths of pork intestine to make salchichones.

Matanza: Salchichon Making

Victoria helps Fina tie off the end of her Salchichones.

Since the salchichones don’t have to marinate, we spent the last two hours of the evening tying off intestines to make the salchichones. We weren’t two sausages in before the first person made a broma about the size of the sausage. “That’s a big one, wonder who’s house that’s from!” “Save those long ones for the Paz house. Our house always has big ones!” Apparently, when it comes to salchichones size matters. Some jokes are the same no matter what country you’re in!

Matanza Day 1

Salchichones hanging to dry. Not bad for a day’s work!