Sunday, 28 March 2010

It's all in the detail

Cocinar de Galego, or Galican cooking, is a funny old thing. From what I've seen so far, it revolves around a fairly small number of dishes, using a fairly narrow range of ingredients: Soupy caldos, cocidos and other stews; fish and seafood, grilled, steamed, or in the case of pulpo, just boiled in salt water; and inevitably pork in some form, usually salted and cured. Dishes are prepared the way that Mama used to make them, and be it on your head if you try to deviate. Rarely will a meal pass without one or more of the following: A salsa laced with paprika; floury potatoes – peeling and boiling is as elaborate as the preparation gets; and grelos – native Galego turnip tops – cooked until any tenderness has given way to limp submission, and the last remaining cells of chlorophyll are holding on for dear life.

People say that Galician's are renowned for their conservative palates... A suggestion that is backed up by the regularly formulaic, often almost carbon-copied restaurant menu boards that line the streets of almost every town I've passed through.

So what happens when a chef who learnt his trade under the tutorship of one of Spain's foremost gastronomic experimentalists sets up a fine dining restaurant in his Galician home town? The chef is Marcelo Tejedor, the tutor was one Juan Mari Arzak, and the restaurant is Michelin-starred Casa Marcelo in Santiago de Compostella. I spent a week-long stage finding out.

Marcelo's eponymous restaurant has received high praise for his creative, contemporary cuisine, and the man himself regular hosts sessions at industry get togethers, such as El Forum Gastronomico de Santiago. Each day at the restaurant, Marcelo prepares a new ten-course menu degustacion. New dishes are added as he sees fit, held together with a backbone of his signature dishes, based on local, seasonal ingredients.

Casa Marcelo
is about marrying subtle flavours using inventive techniques that are just the right side of experimental. This was my first time working in a Michelin-starred kitchen. The learning curve was steep and often challenging, but seeing how a top-tier chef at the height of his game operates was an invaluable experience.

The days ran in cycles of frantic mis en place, followed by dizzyingly fast bouts of service. Almost everything for the forthcoming sitting was prepared in the few hours before customers began to arrive. That meant working literally flat out for each and every fifteen hour day.

During the day, Marcelo and his Sous Chef would somehow find spare moments to play around with a new dish, or alter something that was already on the menu, to see how a different flavour or texture combination might work. A little Lecithin (a stabilising agent that's holds the bubbles in foam) might be added to a soup to create an espuma. A spoonful of Agar (a very strong gelling agent) might be dissolved into a sauce to create a hot, firm jelly. A piece of fish would be filleted and turned into sashimi in a matter of seconds, to be taste-tested alongside a fresh delivery of herbs spices or seasonings. The two chefs would stand over the dish, an eye brow raised inquisitively, a hand cupped under the chin, quietly debating the merits of their new creation, before handing the remains to the rest of the brigade for tasting. Typically a new dish might go through four or five incarnations over a two-day period before finally making it's way onto the menu.

The thing that really stood out was not only the speed, but the precision with which everything takes place. Everything, from the slicing of stock veg, to the end of shift cleaning is done with utmost efficiency, and nano-scientific exactitude. At first, my shallots weren't fine enough, my croutons were too irregular, and I wasn't delicate enough with my mushrooms. During mis en place one morning, I was tasked with the job of preparing potatoes, which I had to slice in such a way so they were no longer a standard, nobly potato shape, but uniform, equally proportioned, tapered cylinders. “¡Mas rapido! ¡Mas rapido!” barked one of the other chefs... I was already going as quickly as I could. Trying somehow to make my hands move faster, whilst keeping the same gradient of the cylinder, I momentarily lost control. My knife slipped, and before I could correct it, the blade ran straight across my thumb. It wasn't a deep cut, but it immediately drew blood. With service fast approaching, there was barely time to acknowledge the wound, let alone stop and get a plaster. I literally didn't have time to bleed!

Thank goodness that break times were treated with as much respect as the work itself. Each morning, no matter how much prep there was to be done, the Sous Chef would yell “¡Benga, ahora!”, ordering us all to stop what we were doing and gather round for coffee and freshly baked cake. In the moments before staff lunch and dinner were served, the whole brigade stepped up a gear to warp speed, finishing their duties and cleaning down their stations, in order to gain the maximum amount of relaxation time. For those vital fifteen minutes, absolutely everything stopped, as we all gathered around a huge table in the staff quarters for our well-earned 'family' meals, consisting of anything from tortillas and tapas to steaks and home-made pizzas.

(Xarda en Escabeche - Image courtesy of David de Jorge... I didn´t have anywhere near enough time to take a photo)

It took me a while to make my way beyond a lowly runner during service; fetching plates and containers, making sure everyone had the right utensils when they needed them, and clearing up after the rushes of busyness. By my third night I had graduated to preparing garnishes to order, and plating up the occasional Xarda en Escabeche – mackerel cooked sous vide in a smoky pimenton sauce - one of Marcelo's signature dishes. Having taken me to one side just before the evening rush got under way, the Sous Chef gave me simple, step by step directions of how to plate up the dish, which despite still having only a limited Spanish vocabulary, I fully understood. When the time came to get the first two away, he stood peering over me, shouting orders into my ear. “¡Vamos, vamos! Sale!” - Let's go, let's go! Away! Any hope I had of remaining relaxed disappeared as Marcelo stepped up on my other side, creating a kind of human pressure cooker around me. With my heart in mouth, and adrenaline pumping through my veins, I laid the fillet on the plate, hoping to god that I could keep control long enough not to smudge any dressing on the brilliant white of the china. I don't think I've ever been more nervous in my life.

From my experience, it seems that the kitchen runs on high-octane intensity. Each and every item that goes out requires utmost care and attention, with zero margin for error. What's more is that you cannot afford to spend any longer on each item than is absolutely necessary. In truth, it's not the food that you're paying for, but the effort and man-power that goes into preparing and presenting it.

I barely learnt a single recipe during my week at Casa Marcelo. But what I did learn was far more valuable; the rhythms of the kitchen that, in time, and with much practice allow your subconscious to operate one step ahead of you. Whilst at times I did feel out of my comfort zone, I take some consolation in the fact that the chefs I was working with had been doing what they were doing for years. I'd been doing it for a matter of days...

Traditions die hard around here, especially when it comes to food. But by twisting those traditions with flair and originality, Marcelo Tejedor is amongst a select few who are breathing new life into Galego cuisine. His trick is in not ignoring the details that are so important to the food of the region, but enhancing and updating them.

Judging by the number of punters who came though the doors during my time there, he's managed to successfully add a touch of his own personality to the food of the region, and still keep those conservative palates happy.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Roots, fruits, and cosmic forces

Welcome to Tanquian, a beautiful family finca nestled in the rolling hills of Galicia's Lugo province, which has been my base for the last few weeks. Set in stunning scenery, with a back drop of the snow-covered Sierra de Orense mountains, there are orchards, vinyards, open fields for the horses to graze, some very prolific chickens, an oak forest, and enough fruit trees and bushes for the Tanquian residents to produce a range of delicious jams, chutneys and juices.

The climate and fertile land mean that fruit and vegetables grow here in abundance. Days are spent tending to the land and gardens around the finca, whilst in the evenings, everyone gathers around the big table in the farmhouse kitchen for delicious tapas dinners - salad and vegetables from the garden, local chorizo and cheeses, homemade bread, cakes and deserts, wine from their own grapes, and juices pressed from their own berries.

Life here runs according to permaculture principles, which means working in harmony with nature in a state of 'permanent agriculture'. There is a recognition that everything has an effect on the ecosystem as a whole, therefore every action that is taken - whether that be clearing leaves from the forest floor, cutting back some berry bushes, or diverting a stream for irrigation - should bring multiple benefits. Every effort is made to harness the natural energy that is present throughout, in order to be efficient.

Work is guided not only by seasons and the weather, but by the lunar calendar. According to astrological theory, as the moon and stars move through the zodiac signs, energy is re-distributed throughout the different 'elements' – earth, fire, water, wind, wood. (I know this is all sounding a bit new age, but bare with me for a moment...) Each element corresponds to different aspects of ecological life, so for example, the beginning of a lunar cycle might be good for doing any tasks related to the roots of the plants, whilst at the end of the moon, the energy might be better suited to tasks involving fruits, leaves, branches, and so on. All of this was alien to me, until one sunny spring morning, soon after I'd arrived at Tanquian. Emmely, my host on the finca, turned to me with conviction and said
“You know what... today is a good day for planting rasberries”.

Oh yeah? Why's that, then? Is it something to do with gravity?” I said

“No!” she said, “It's to do with the cosmic forces..."

Now I've always associated this zodiac stuff with the horoscopes in the back of trashy newspapers. But I trust Emmely far more than I trust Mystic Meg, and besides, I've tasted those rasberries; Whatever is going on with the cosmic forces, it's all going right!

So in accordance with the lunar calendar, as well as the rasberries, some days are dedicated entirely to planting garlic or onions (roots), others tending to sapplings and trees (branches), and others harvesting lettuce, kale or spinach (leaves). At the very least, it keeps things interesting.

The lunar calendar also dictates that on some days, the energy isn't really good for doing anything in the garden. The moon obviously likes the odd day off as well... So last week, when we had a nothing day, we made bread and bottled wine from the cask in the bodega; A very pleasant job, because of course, it´s necessary to test some...

Emmely's Super
Fácil bread

Nothing beats a morning baking, and what a satisfying and productive use of time for a day when the moon, or more likely the rain, has banned you from the garden! Emmely's method is very easy, and her home-grown, coarse-ground wheat produces wonderfully tasty wholemeal bread flour. The perfect way to re-align your cosmic forces...

Makes at least four loaves

2 kg wholemeal flour

a generous handful of lighlty-toasted sunflower seeds

1.6 ltr warm water

2 tsp yeast

half a tsp salt

In a large mixing bowl or sauce pan, mix all the ingredients using an electric hand whisk for a couple of minutes. It's a fairly wet mixture, so don't be surprised if it looks a bit sticky, although some flour behaves differently than others, so if you're really worries, add an extra handful of flour and mix again.

Cover and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour or so until it's roughly doubled in size. At Tanquean, Emmely leaves hers behind the free-standing wood oven, in the farmhouse kitchen. If you don't have a free-standing wood oven, or a farm house kitchen, then try the airing cupboard instead.

Shape into loaves, using bread tins if you have them, and leave to rise again for another 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 210 degrees C. Put the loaves in on a high shelf, and throw a splash of water into the bottom of the oven to create some moisture.

After fifteen minutes, turn the oven down to 180, and back for another hour or so. They're ready when you can poke a skewer in and it comes out clean. Serve when slightly cooled from the oven, with butter, homemade chutney, cheese, and wine from your own bodega!

Tuesday, 23 March 2010


Sausage update: Andreas, my host at the Valle de Castanos, sent me this image of the chorizo y embutidos, hanging from the rafters in his kitchen. The meat has been curing in the smoke from the fire below, which Andreas has been keeping alight with the oak from from the valley. That lot should keep him going until it´s time to kill another pig!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Pulpo de Gallega

Galicia´s national dish... In a tin. It tasted as good as it looks...

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Santiago, for those that love to eat

Santiago de Compostella. A city that has been attracting holy pilgrims in their droves since the ninth century, when the bones of the apostle Saint James were 'allegedly' discovered here. I say allegedly because the discovery was preceded by Saint James, despite being killed in the Holy Lands, - thousands of miles away from Galicia - re-appeared here, 800 years later(!), firstly in the stars to guide a shepherd home who'd got lost in the hills, and then a second time on the battle field - riding a white charger, no less - and single handedly saw off a whole army of ravaging Moors. Oh, and he sailed half way around the world in a rudderless stone boat as well. With 'facts' like that, it's difficult to know what to believe.

So, following the discovery, a Cathedral was promptly built on the site of his tomb, which has been pulling in the punters ever since. The idea is, you make your way here along El Camino de Santiago, ideally on foot (those Catholics love a bit of masochism, after all) and atone your sins. In return you get to skip the grilling in Purgatory, when that time should come, and head straight up to Heaven. Well, the trend stuck, and those pilgrims kept on coming. Suffice to say that the city is still awash with weary but euphoric-looking travellers, dressed in anoraks and sensible footwear.

Meanwhile, I made my way here by bus, and whilst I'm all for a back-from-the-dead fisherman turned mountain rescue man turned warrior general, the reason I've come, unsurprisingly, is to eat.

My guide for the day is novelist
John Barlow. Amongst other things, John wrote the culinary travelogue Everything But The Squeal, a thoroughly entertaining account of his own year-long quest to eat every single part of the pig in his adopted home of Galicia. A man after my own heart, it would seem. Since John has literally just finished guiding a very well-known celebrity chef (I'm naming no names) around the region as part of their research for a new TV series, I reckon I'm in for decent day. I got in touch with John out of the blue, and asked on the off chance if he fancied meeting up, and whilst we were toying around with places to go, he suggested that Santiago was a good place to "just walk around eating". I didn't realise quite how literally he meant that.

We meet at Cafe Paris. It's a fairly run of the mill bar, but it's a suitable starting point, as it marks the beginning of the Paris-Dakar crawl. Paris sits at the top of Rua Franco, and at the bottom is Dakar. In between are probably 30-odd cafes, bars, and other drinking establishments, in each of which you're supposed to have a cup of wine. As well as pilgrims, there are a lot of students in Santiago, and funnily enough, this is a favourite pastime of theirs.

But whilst booze is on the agenda today, it's only playing a supporting role. We're here for the food. John spent a few years living here after he graduated, and now lives up the coast in A Coruña. He's keen to show me around not just the places that have been going strong since well before he was living here, but also some of the new comers that he's heard about on the Galician gastro grapevine. In fact, he seems almost as excited as I am! We set off down Rue Franco, and our eating tour of Santiago is underway.

The first stop is a San Sebastian-style pintxo bar, complete with a huge range of immaculately presented bar-top snacks, most of which include jamon in various guises. John goes for albondigas - meat balls - a tapas classic if ever there was one, whilst I order stuffed calamari. They're packed full of a rich mushroom mixture, with enough garlic to raise a Saint... So far so good.

From here, we head up into the side streets, and end up in a quirky little place that has a sense of un-intended nostalgia about it... I.e. it looks as though it hasn't been decorated for about 45 years. The food is just as characterful as the place, and with our corto – a very small 'cut' of beer - we have some extremely tasty tigres rabiosos, or rabid tigers. A curious thing to be eating in a traditional bar in the historic centre of Santiago, you may think, but the tigers are in fact mussels, and they're rabid because they're cooked in a lip-tingly spicey sauce. Galicia is renowned for it's seafood, and these are well up to standard. The sauce is intensely punchy, but there's still enough sea-side flavour in the plump mussels to come through over the top.

Now we've done traditional and simplistic, it's time to check out a new-comer to Santiago's tapas bar scene. It's a compact little place, perched on the edge of the market. Each morning, they create a short menu of dishes from whatever is good on the stalls that day. It's slick and modern, with as much room taken up by the open kitchen as there is for diners. The look is all dark slate and polished chrome, with a red glow from the heater lamps on the kitchen's pass. I'm in a prime spot for eye-ing up what's coming out of the kitchen, and everything looks great. Whilst I'm um-ing and ah-ing over what we should have, John orders one of everything. Now why didn't I think of that?

First to arrive is the egg. But this is not just any egg. It's a pilgrim-worthy, faith-installing, epiphany-giving kind of egg. You know the sort? Well neither did I until I had a mouthful of this. It's cooked at 63.8 degrees, so it's completely soft, in fact only slightly more coagulated than if it had been raw. It sit swimming in a sauce of smoked potato puree accompanied by nuggets of paprika-loaded chorizo. It's finished with a sprinkling of crisp sour-dough bread crumbs for texture. These ingredients are the most basic of Galician staples, but with just a little inventiveness, they've been turned into something miraculous.

We work our way through the other dishes, washed down with a couple of glasses of the local albariño wine; pulpo shashimi, little parcels of manita - braised pigs trotter, and Berbechos 'Espresso' – cockles cooked for just ten seconds, using steam from the coffee machine. Each one gives a subtle twist to the staples of Galician cuisine, and each one is great. As we finish our last plate, we're still discussing the egg... So we decide to order another, just to make sure we've had huevos fix before hitting the road. And off we go.

On the way, we discuss some of the many larger than life experiences John encountered on his pork-fuelled quest through Galicia... Being showered with angry ants in Laza, being mistaken for a police man at a hippy colony near the Austurian border, having lunch with Fidel Castro's cousin, and then meeting one of the most important figures of General Franco's cabinet. Who ever would have thought that eating pig for a year would take a man such places.

Since eating pig is something that both of us enjoy, the next stop on our tour had to involve jamon. We march up the hill, to a little 'restaurant and rooms' type place where John promises we'll get the best jamon in Santiago. It's just outside the boundaries of the old town, but the place is as traditional as it gets, complete with wood panelling, cured pig legs hanging from the ceiling, and plumes of cigarette smoke thickening the air.

We order a racione of Extremadura de Bellota and some Manchego. In terms of tapas combinations, it's the dream team. We both tuck in, revelling in the amount of fat that's clinging to the rich, almost translucent slivers of meat. This is acorn fed, grade A - the best there is. It doesn't come cheap, but neither does caviar, gold or uranium, and I know which one I'd prefer on my plate.

“I fancy some dessert” John says... My heart sinks a little, assuming that must signal the end of our culinary tour of Santiago. Having said that, we have been eating for the last four hours, and John does have a wife and kid to go home to. Chestnut tart serves it's purpose, but the real star of our postres is some very mature goats cheese. It's the kind of cheese that's so strong it makes your eyes water. My taste buds are still ringing as we put our coats on and head down the road for post-lunch beverage.

We step into a smart-looking bar that's just off the main thorough fares of the old town. John tells me he often takes people here in summertime, as they have a fabulous courtyard, where you feel like you've escaped from the world. Well, it isn't summertime. It's the end of February. And it's raining. Hard. Apparently Galicia gets 150 days of rain a year. I've been in the region a week and a bit, and it feels like we've had 150 days worth of rain already. Still, the other good thing about this bar is the beer. We order a couple of bottles of Estrella Galicia Especial (“it tastes good, and it'll get yer pissed”, nods John, slipping into his native West Yorkshire accent), sit back and watch the rain fall down.

“So what do you reckon about dinner then?”, he says. “We could go to Casa Marcelo, if you like?” Casa Marcelo is regarded as being one of the best restaurants in Galicia, and Head Chef, Marcelo Tejedor, who trained with Juan Mari Arzak, is certainly a player in Spain's culinary A-League... And to think I thought our eating was done for the day!

With a table booked for a quarter to ten, we have more than enough time for a couple of apertifs. And one must-see drinking spot in Santiago is O Gato Negro - The Black Cat. We arrive just before the evening rush, and bag a spot at the bar.

O Gato Negro was immortalised in John's book in a chapter dedicated to the Galician delicacy of Chiccarones – pork that's been slow cooked in it's own fat, until it literally disintegrates into a kind of stringy-looking paté. Which I reckon sounds pretty good. The other thing that the Black Cat is known for is it's empanades – large, flat, savoury pies, although everything that the little old lady in the kitchen is knocking looks pretty good to me. But we're going for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in an hour, and those slices of pie could comfortably feed two hungry pilgrims, fresh off the Camino. For once, will power reigns supreme over gluttony, and I decide to stick to the vino.

From here, it's down to Dakar, the end of the student booze run, and our last stop before dinner. Dakar is a funny little place... There's a sense of faded grandeur from the big mirrors, alabaster fittings, and gilded sign writing on the walls, but in reality, it's just a bit scuzzy. I've come across a few of these places now on my tour of Northern Spain, particularly in Galicia... A place can look as classy as a prince's palace, but there's no hiding that lingering smell of boiled octopus and stale cigarette smoke. When our drinks arrive, the waiter also brings some complimentary orejo - boiled pigs ear. It's by far and away the worst thing we've eaten all day, but it seems to suit our surroundings. We sip our beers, eat our pigs ear, and watch the cross-eyed students roll in, as the clock ticks ever closer towards dinner.

Casa Marcelo is tucked away in a behind a modest doorway on Rua Hortas, a quaint, higgledy piggledy street that leads down the hill away from the cathedral. The dining room is understated, drawing the eye towards the large open kitchen that takes up easily two thirds of the room. It somehow manages to be both formal and homely, with the sense that you can saunter up the steps and lean against the work surfaces for a chat. Which is exactly what I did.

Everyday, Marcelo prepares a new menu degustacion, based on what's in season and what he feels like cooking. The cuisine could be described as modern Galician... There's a sense of experimentation, but nothing that would put off the conservative palettes of the Galego diners. We start with a 'Mojito' of frozen rhubarb, served on ice in a take away container. It's a nice bit of theatre, and great for opening up the taste buds, as from there on in, the meal incorporates a delicate range of subtle flavours.

Highlights were undoubtedly melt-in-the mouth mackerel in a smoky pimenton sauce, and signature dish pil-pil de limón – steamed hake with the subtlest flavours of lemon zest and green pepper. Both epitomised the house style of simple cuisine, executed with creative flare. In fact every one of the ten courses demonstrated the high level of technical expertise that Marcelo commands in his kitchen.

Desserts included a piña colada, served with a plume of what looked like liquid nitrogen 'smoke', followed by another orejo. This one had nothing to do with a pig, however; It was in fact the pastry variety. Galician's may not actually go as far as to eat pig's head for afters, but they do name their desserts after them.

We stumble out of the restaurant and make our way up the street. With twelve hours worth of food and drink in my belly, I feel as wobbly on my feet as those pilgrims who've walked half way across Europe, and almost as wobbly as some of those students. I may not have come for the holy spirit, but I'm definitely a convert to the joys of this city. That was Santiago, for those that love to eat.

Everything but the Squeal, by John Barlow, is available from all good book shops. If you are remotely interested in pigs, Spain, or the slightly bizarre escapades of an émigré Northerner, then it comes highly recommended.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The day we killed a pig

I awake as if it were any other morning, to the sound of speckled rain on the caravan roof, and a cloak of mist shrouding the basin of Valle de Castaños. The atmosphere is cold and heavy, thick with subdued energy.

As we drive up the steep track, out of the valley, the sky begins to clear. Clouds part above us, almost as if they're making way for the two accomplices to the events that would unfold, later that morning...

It's the tail end of pig killing 'season', which takes place from late Autumn until Carnival, the week before Lent. In the past, almost all rural families would have kept a house pig, supplementing it's grazing on the land with kitchen scraps and other dregs - a kind of gardener-cum-waste disposal unit. Come 11th November, a feast day in honour of St Martin, the pigs would have been duly fattened, and ready to lay down their lives for the benefit of their owner's sustenance over the long, hard winter. After having been salted, cured, smoked and preserved, the yield from one pig would keep a family going for a whole year.

The traditions of November 11th have given way to a popular saying in Spain, "A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín" – “Every pig has it's St Martin's Day”. Andreas has been given a pig by a friend... And today is that pig's St Martin's Day.

We arrive at our destination. A collection of houses on a bleak patch of land, where the mountains plato, 800 metres above sea level. The remnants of snow lay underfoot, and there's a bitter chill in the air, the kind that makes you shudder like a skeleton's rasping it's knuckles up your spinal chord.

We stand huddled in the shed to one side of the yard, where a pot of water has been set to boil on an open fire. One of the men gathers together buckets and towels, whilst another stirs a tin pan, half-full with a murky liquid that looks like potato scraps boiled in muddy water. I hope to myself that this isn't the pig's last supper, or worse still, our pre-sacrificio snack. The tallest of the men, the matador, who will carry out the killing, flits between the fire and his collection of freshly sharpened knives. As a forth man barks something at me in his thick, Austurian accent, I nod and smile, trying my best to hide the nerves that have taken hold of my stomach. As everyone busies themselves around the yard, I suspect I'm not the only one who is feeling just a little uneasy.

Probably ten minutes pass... I'm not sure if final preparations were being made for the killing, if we were waiting for the frozen rain to pass, or if it was simply to allow time for everyone to drink an extra cupful of wine. An elderly man strolls over from one of the houses across the road. He looks well into his seventies, if not older, but his eyes are bright, and he walks tall and broad. The kind of man I imagine to have taken part in events like these hundreds of times before. He looks over the yard, and says something to the matador in a tone that asks "well, are you going to do it or not?"

The next thing I know, the matador is inside the pig pen, whilst the rest of us are huddling around the gate. I've been handed the end of a rope and instructed to hold on tight. It takes probably 20 seconds for the matador to get hold of one of the pigs, but with the high-pitched squealing and fear-fuelled instinct that makes the animals literally run for their lives, it seem like far longer. After a short struggle, the unfortunate beast is dragged out of the pen by a noose around it's snout - something which in itself must be excruciatingly painful. As the pig is pulled into the centre of the courtyard it lets out a blood-curdlingly expressive screech; less a squeal, more a scream of terror.

Three of us take the strain of the noose at the snout and ropes at the rear, whilst the matador grabs his knife. It's a long, vicious looking tool; tough and rigid, the blade and handle carved from a single piece of metal. As he stands over the pig, the screaming stops. Pigs are intelligent beasts, and it would appear that this one knows it's fate. In a single movement, the matador plunges the knife deep into the throat, going through the gullet and down to the heart. Another shriek This time agony rather than fear. The ropes tighten in our hands as the pig bucks and kicks, eventually flipping itself almost a metre into the air. With one last violent spasm, it drops to it's side, hitting the ground with an audible thud. Blood seeps from it's neck turning the green grass a muddy red. The twitching stops and the pig lies still. Finally, it is dead. The whole process lasted around a minute.

We haul the pig into a long shallow bath, where it will be cleaned and prepared for butchering. We have to work quickly now, as this must be done whilst the body is still warm and rigor mortis has yet to set in. As one man pours boiling water over the body, we each take a knife and begin shaving off the thick hairs that adorn it's skin. At first I'm almost hesitant to touch it. I kneel down and grab it's thigh. It's warm, pink and fleshy, almost disturbingly similar to that of a human. But with each stroke of the knife, turned flat against the contours of it's body, I begin to consider it less as an animal, and more as the piece of meat that it will become.

With blood still dripping from the gaping hole in it's neck, we winch the pig up so it's hanging from the rafters. The knot slips, and the animal falls back to the floor. I feel myself wincing, almost upset by the lapse of dignity that this hulk of flesh has been subjected to. I have heard about this being done using tractors, fork-lifts, or other machinery, but where we've gone is back to basics; rope and man power are all that's to hand. 

Finally, the pig is risen to the height of one of the beams, legs akimbo, ready to be cut open. The matador takes his knife and scores the flesh from the anus to the rib cage. With utmost care, he teases out the intestines and stomach. One slip of the knife, and we would all be covered in whatever the pig had eaten for dinner. Once the delicate work is done, he places an axe on the sternum, and using a hammer, splits the ribcage in two, one blow at a time. With the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys neatly away, he yanks the wind pipe clean out. He turns to Andreas, knife in one bloodied hand, fleshy, pink-grey tube in the other, offering up the innards as a final piece of bounty... "Para los peros" is Andreas' response; We already have more than enough offal to contend with.

The matador slings the wind pipe to the dogs, rubs his hands clean with a towel, and begins walking away from the scene, to house on the other side of the road. His work here is done.

We gather in the small kitchen, leaning against the walls and work surfaces as platers of jamon, fried chorizo and cheese are laid out on the table. There is only one chair in the room and only the matador is sitting. There are no cutlery or plates - the men use their own pocket knives to pick up the food, and pieces of bread to catch any juices. As everyone eats their meat, cheese and bread, drinking wine, and sharing the occasional chuckle, the atmosphere begins to flatten. It's only two o'clock, but it feels like we've packed a lot into our morning. There's a lull in conversation. The matador drains his cup of wine, flips his knife blade back into the handle, and stands. "Bueno," he says, in a tone that implies right, that's enough, as opposed to OK, good, as it's usually used, and walks out of the kitchen. That's the end of that.


So now I've taken part in the killing of a pig. A powerful and at times disturbing experience. Official legislation states that a stun-gun should be used to render the animal unconscious, so it can then be bled to death. But the method used here is one that hasn't changed for centuries... It wasn't sacrificial, or celebratory, but there was a certain sense of ritual. Ritual that has been passed down through generations. Ritual that, for right or wrong, is quickly dying out.

Could the killing have been faster, more dignified, less painful? I suspect so, yes. But at least the suffering was preceded by a decent life. It's diet was varied. It had the company of other animals. A sheltered pen, and a yard to roam in. When you compare it's existence to that of an intensively-reared, industrial pig, which may be slaughtered under conditions that meet the terms of official good practice, but have spent their lives living in a pen so small they can't even turn around, there is a lot to be said for tradition. A minute of fear and pain versus a lifetime of miserable discomfort...


The following day, feeling just a little sore-headed after having spent the entirety of the previous day drinking, we set about butchering the carcass and preserving the meat. Andreas has turned the table in his workshop into a temporary butcher's block, and enlisted the help of two friends from the village. Neither are professionally trained, but they get to work quickly, cleanly and efficiently, showing expertise as they split and joint the carcass. The shoulders, thighs, ribs, belly, bacon, trotters and head are trimmed and prepared for salting, whilst the off-cuts are minced - along with a healthy dose of fat - in order to make chorizo. There's a lot of work, but with four pairs of hands, the task is complete by lunchtime.

Sat in a circle in the kitchen, we tuck into slices of mouth-wateringly tender lomo - the back fillet - marinated in lots of garlic and oil, and cooked over the open fire. The butchers refuse my offer of cutlery and plates, using only their own pocket knives to cut chunks of bread off the loaf, and skewer each piece of meat. Another carnivorous feast, eaten with primal machismo.

After lunch, we salt the meat in an old cast-iron bath, and make the chorizo mix by adding garlic, parsley, salt and lots of both sweet and hot paprika to the mince. Once again, the day has been lubricated with lots of local wine, and by five o'clock, with the work done, I'm glad of a rest in the courtyard. I sit and contemplate the previous day's events, whilst taking in the last of the afternoon sun.

Offal is on the menu for dinner, and while Andreas cooks up a thick, northern Europen-style stew made from the kidneys, liver and lungs, I slice the heart thinly and marinade it in garlic, thyme, and oil, as I had done with the ox heart at St John. This will be our starter, along with the pig's brains, pan-fried and served with lots of bread. By the time it gets to the stew, I'm almost full, but make my way through a bowlful, despite the floppy texture of the lung making me feel slightly queasy. As I mop up the remaining juices, Andreas immediately offers me another ladle full. For the first time during my stay at Valle de Castaños, I don't really fancy seconds. After two days of pig, the whole pig, and nothing but the pig, for now at least, I've finally had enough.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Isolation in Austurias

I've just returned to civilisation following two weeks in the wilderness of western Austurias. I was staying on a remote finca, called Valle de Castaños, hidden at the bottom of a deep valley in the foothills of the mountains that span the province. My hosts were a small family pursuing an alternative lifestyle with a strong focus on environmental sustainability – their commitment to which was both admirable and inspirational.

It was an experience in which I went back to basics, in almost every imaginable way; forget the telephone and internet, no need for modern appliances, and nothing by way of 'home comforts' that most Western households are used to. Fourteen days with almost no indication of the outside world, let alone the opportunity to communicate with it. Water came from the mountain spring, electricity - enough for a 12 Watt bulb in the kitchen - from a solar panel, and dinner was cooked on an open fire in the corner of the kitchen.

By day, we tended to the animals, chipped away at the seemingly endless list of odd jobs around the farm, and worked the steep terraced fields, which stretched further than the eye could see on either side of the valley. By night we sat exhausted in the kitchen, huddled around the fire for warmth.

The following post includes edited extracts from the diary I kept during my time at Valle de Castaños, which I wrote each evening by candlelight, sat in my caravan 350 paces up the mountainside from the farmhouse itself. Out of respect for the privacy of my hosts, I've changed the names of all the people and places mentioned here.

9th February, 2010

We arrive at the Valle de Castaños after driving for one and half hours through some of the most incredibly rugged scenery I've ever come across. We twist and turn through a winding pass, 1000 metres above sea-level. Mountains rise to infinitum on one side and drop away to nothing on the other. We take a sharp left, and head what seems like straight up the mountain side... By now the asphalt has stopped, and the 'road' is made of loose gravel. After about three kilometres, we reach a summit with breath-taking views on either side of the valley below. We stop the car, and begin transferring our bags into the 4x4 truck that is parked at the side of the road. A dirt track will take us down to the farm, and whilst the battered old tin can we've driven from the coast may make it down the hill, it doesn't look as if it make it back up again. With my hosts, Andreas, Carmen and their baby, sat in the cab, I take my place on the flat bed trunk, and hold on tight. It's a long way down.

Just as twilight turns into darkness, we reach the farm, which is in fact a semi-ruined village, dating back at least five hundred years, although there has probably been a settlement on that site for far longer. There are a handful of buildings; an ancient water mill sat on a bend in the river, a tiny chapel sat a little way up the valley, and a small number of neat, grey stone cottages. Some of these are entirely in ruins, whilst the others are inhabited by Andreas, Carmen, their baby, and their guests.

The temperature has dropped dramatically with nightfall, and we head into what looks like the largest of the cottages, which makes up the kitchen-cum-parlor-cum-living space. It's built straight into the hillside, with the foundations made of bedrock, and the walls made from the same slate as the mountains. Save from the dim glow of a single electric light bulb, there has been no modernisation in the building whatsoever. What looks like the original hard wood doors hang in the doorways, bare slate and clay are the only insulation on the walls, and there's not even a chimney built above the fire - smoke simply rises into the rafters, helping to preserve the pieces of pork that are slowly curing there, and the wooden beams from which they are hanging. The furniture and fittings are all handmade from the chestnut trees in the valley, whilst the shelves are lined with a hotch-potch of jugs, jars and containers, as charming as they are old. I look upon this characterful little room, and imagine it having not changed for hundreds of years.

I sit facing the fire with Edith, another of Andreas' guests on the farm. We talk about Valle de Castaños, my first impressions, and her experiences so far. I've still not quite come to terms with what I have walked into... A completely different way of life.

10th February 2010

I awake with the morning, to the sound of swaying trees, tweeting birds, and the bubbling river. It dropped to freezing last night but my caravan gave me shelter at least, with warmth coming from a hot water bottle, a sleeping bag and four blankets.

After a day of trudging up and down the mountain sides, clearing wood and patching up the dry stone walls, dinner feels like a god-send. We sit around the fire, eating hot chickpea and potato soup, almost too tired to speak.

11th February 2010

It feels like we've walked a marathon today, up and down the mountain sides. We return from being snowed on in the fields to a late lunch in the courtyard. We eat a salad of wild herbs, followed by delicious chorizo spaghetti, all whilst basking in the soft February sunlight.

12th February 2010

We trek to a plato, high up on the other side of the valley to tend to the chestnut trees. Andreas comes across a dazzingly bright red fungi on the way...and eventually decides it looks too good to eat! There's a brisk north-easterly wind, which brings millions of tiny frozen rain drops - Mother Nature's way of telling us that what ever we do, she is in complete control. I realise that living here means a different way of life entirely. We exist not by living off the land. To survive in the long term, we have to live with it.

13th February 2010

My back aches, my legs are like jelly, my shoulders are sore, my feet are wet, my lips are dry, and my hands are covered in cuts and grazes. We use each day to the full, spending every possible hour trying our best to make an indent on the seemingly never-ending list of half finished - or half started, to be more accurate - jobs around the farm. Just living here is a full time job - demanding physical labour. Yet the connection that I feel to this new way of life means that to opt out of work is not even something I consider.

We all carry out our tasks tirelessly around the farm. Whilst Andreas and I prepare a new enclosure for the donkeys and horse to graze, Carmen tends to the gardens, re-cultivating the land as it has been for generations before. She has also found time to make lunch for the weary workers - a bright and vibrant salad of pomegranate, carrot and apple, dressed with vinegar and sesame seeds. It's followed by a nourishing vegetable stew. After that, it's straight back to work... Stay still for too long, and you begin to feel the cold right through to your bones.

14th February 2010

Sunday. The day of rest. Or not, as the case may be. I'm working before breakfast, shifting chestnut rafters from one side of the valley to the other. Meal times come as a welcome break. We always eat very well here, but food can seem as much a necessity as it is a pleasure, taken either to refuel, or keep warm, or both. When the evening comes, we all finally relax. First, we eat salad, which includes stems of a curious-looking plant who's name translates to "Venus' belly button". After that, we tuck into a comforting chorizo and lentil stew, and finally dutch pancakes, filled with sliced banana and melted dark chocolate.

With the stove having heated sufficient water in the over-head tank, I finish the day with a shower. It's my first in six days. With that, and a good feed inside me, I have everything I could have hoped for this Sunday.

15th February 2010

A day spent shovelling cart-loads of donkey shit from the stable on one side of the valley, to the gardens on the other. A conversation with Carmen about life in Hackney. A discussion with Andreas about the rights of volunteer workers. A single text message sent to the outside world (there wasn't enough reception to call). My turn to make dinner - nettle risotto, and a salad picked from the hedgerows. Another unfathomably starry sky. Another sub-zero night in the caravan, which by now is beginning to feel just like home. Perhaps I'm getting into the swing of life in the Valle de Castaños.

16th February

I've decided to stay a few more days... To be here is both physically and mentally rewarding, and I'm enjoying the slower rhythm of life.

For lunch I use the left over risotto to make arancini de riso, or cheesy balls, as we call them. After lunch, the conversation once again turns to food, and I get the impression that both Andreas and Carmen are slightly puzzled by my obsession.

17th February 2010

My designated day off. Andreas and Carmen have gone to the coast to see friends and have instructed me to take it easy. I get going at my leisure, having the same breakfast as usual, boiled oats with fruit, but taking my time with two cups of coffee today, instead of one. I spend the day pottering in the gardens, and make a frugal soup for dinner from any of the veg I come across that looks to be on it's last legs. But when my hosts return, Andreas has other ideas... He has with him a whole chicken, which we cut into pieces and cook over the open fire. To accompany it, we fry potatoes in lots of pig fat, and eat the whole lot slathered in mayonnaise. I take it as a rather touching gesture of thanks for my hard work thus far, and dutifully chomp my way through second helpings, and then the remaining potatoes that are left in the frying pan.

18th February 2010

An afternoon carrying chestnut floorboards from the workshop, high on one side of the valley, to one of the houses on the other. When the job is complete, we relax in the courtyard, our exhaustion balanced by the sense of accomplishment that only a day of truly hard work can bring. Andreas and I toast each other's health with a well earned beer, working our way down the bottles as the sun dips below the mountain.

At dinner there is much talk of the following day's events. Tomorrow we are going to kill a pig...