Buenanoche - Christmas in Andalucia

December 2008

Dear Friends of La Tienda,

One of the most appealing aspects of the Spanish people is the prevailing attitude of mutual support, of sharing in a common life. It provides integrity to their way of life, for their communal approach to life is what keeps them centered. Traditional Spaniards view their extended family – all the uncles and aunts and cousins - as their lifeblood, their identity. But it goes beyond this; their neighborhood is included as part of their family in a broader sense, regardless of social position. 

This neighborly bond is renewed daily in the custom of regularly stopping by a local tapas bar café to visit with friends. This sense of community is further reinforced when every one, rich and poor alike, participates in the many fiestas that punctuate each year. The most dominant one is the celebration of Navidad or Christmas, which extends from Advent through Three Kings Day – almost a whole month set aside for family renewal and social bonding!

Last year at this time, I asked my dear friend Isabella about her memory of Christmas in the sherry town of Jeréz de la Frontera. Read it here. 

The Harris and Diaz families have known each other for more than thirty years. I first met Isabella’s husband Pedro in a Spanish class he was teaching Spanish on the Naval Base. You can read about their background in my February 2007 Update entitled The Shoemaker’s Son.

This year I have asked another good friend, Miguel Valdespino, to recall his experience of Christmas. He is from an old family that arrived in Jeréz de la Frontera in 1264, when Jeréz was still a frontier. It was reconquered by one of Miguel’s kin. Quite a different background from the Diaz family! Nevertheless they share a generous and intimate view of life, such as I described earlier, which is the essence of the Spanish spirit. The friendship that Miguel has extended to me has been remarkable. I think you will pick up a sense of his warmth and that of his family as you read the note he sent me: 


Dear Don,

These are memories as they come, as if we were sitting at the plaza in Sanlúcar, having a glass of manzanilla and, as you say, tortillas de camarones, and, therefore totally spontaneous.

In my younger days, up to my early teens, Christmas and New Year’s Eve were spent in our home in Jeréz de la Frontera. The great event was Christmas Eve, which we call La Nochebuena or the Good Night. Midnight Mass was popularly called Misa del Gallo, Mass of the Rooster because the long and elaborate celebration of the Eucharist almost stretched to dawn - about the time when the cocks crow. Then we would have dinner and carols at as we gathered around the Belén (Manger Scene or Crèche). 

Since 1990 when my mother-in-law died, we have celebrated La Nochebuena with my wife’s side of the family as we gather for dinner. We are happy to be in the spacious house of Carmen, which is very close to our mutual parish church. She has eight very willing children that help with dinner, build a wonderful Belén and both individually and as chorus sing the most touching of religious carols. 

The Belén was formed on a big table. It depicted the birth of Jesús, along with the Three Kings and a number of shepherds, sheep, donkeys, green dyed sawdust and the inevitable "river" made of the "silver paper" that covered chocolate blocks.

“Midnight” Mass now begins at 9:00 PM. All members of our family attend the whole ceremony together, from infants a few months old to the older members. Last year we were 63 people at Mass. At the church after Mass there is the ceremony of kissing the foot of Baby Jesús who is lying in the manger. We then wish our dear priest Happy Christmas and the whole family walks across the street for dinner, at about 11:00 PM. 

Each part of the family provides some special dishes as well as some small presents that a Papa Noel gives especially to children but also to grown-ups. The first course of the Nochebuena dinner is a cold buffet, accompanied by cups of hot consommé and various one-bite hot tapas. Included are tiny Jamón Ibérico sandwiches and all sort of imaginative snacks. The ladies meet sometime ahead for a 3-4 hour long "merienda" – afternoon tea - of which 15 minutes is dedicated to discuss the menu. 

Everything has to be homemade, except of course for the "turrón" and other classics like "polverones" and "alfajores", reminiscent of Arab culture. Boneless, stuffed, cold turkey is a must. This is followed by all types of shrimp salads, many of them made of chilled diced potatoes boiled in the same water used to cook fresh gambas or langostinos, and mixed with extra virgin olive oil mayonnaise to make an "ensaladilla."

As for my part, it does not change. I make the Jamón sandwiches as I have the knack of cutting the slices of squares of bread diagonally, I make them very thin, filling them with a mix of minced Ibérico Jamón and a little butter before they are cut into small classic triangles.

Traditionally I also cook one of the main courses, which consists of a roast pork infused with brandy, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez wines, and aged PX vinegar (see recipe below). We also supply the family gathering with Fino and a Manzanilla "en rama” i.e. just lightly filtered, not treated for bottling. It has a delicious aroma but does not keep long.

On Christmas Eve we give the children some small presents for them to play with during the holidays. The more important presents are still reserved for The Three Kings on 6 January. The whole event ends at about 5 AM on Christmas morning with only the very young having gone to sleep in an improvised nursery.

There are of course very moving moments as we briefly pray for all of our family who have died and, especially, for my daughter Monica who died in a car accident at 20 years old. We remember the many happy summers at Villa Carmen she spent with all her cousins. The host always ends by saying "never again" and her children winking behind meaning "until next year."

It has given me great pleasure to remember all this but when I see the bundle of words on my computer I feel that you do not deserve the penalty of having to go thru it but...it is you that asked.

Warm regards,


I hope you enjoyed Miguel’s reminiscences. Of course, we in America cannot replicate the continuity of people such as Miguel and Maria’s families, whose roots are deep and who have lived hundreds of years in the same location. Nevertheless, I think we as a nation realize the importance of renewing family. May you be able to experience the joy of breaking bread together at a family table.

¡Feliz Navidad!


Christmas Pork Roast a la Valdespino

16 – 19 lb leg of pork. 
A couple of days ahead of La Noche Buena I inject into the leg, literally, 
One bottle of Brandy (my own blend of old inexpensive Valdespino Brandy), 
Old Sherry Vinegar and some Pedro Ximenez wine aged for years which makes it exceptionally good for cooking! As well as one full bottle of old Oloroso Sherry. 

I then wrap the pork roast tightly in plastic wrap to retain all the juices, and leave it in the fridge. On 24 December, I bring the leg to room temperature, and roast it in the oven for some 3-4 hours using a meat thermometer.
Although I remove the skin, I retain the bone, as it transmits the heat to the inside of the leg much more evenly.

I roast it for about one hour at about 425 degrees Fahrenheit to form some crust and retain the juices, then about three hours at about 350 degrees. 

If it begins to get too dark and I cover it loosely with foil, always trying to open the oven door as little and shortly as possible. 
15 minutes before it is done I remove the foil and baste it generously with a mixture of its own juice, Seville Bitter Orange marmalade and a little syrup (3 parts white sugar-1 part water) and grill it gently so that it caramelizes.

I use a meat thermometer but I choose to leave it rather underdone, so that the outer part is not overdone when is carved. In this way the slices are more useable as a left over for the next day. I let it cool down with the oven door ajar and is always carved at room temperature. I collect the juices to make a very good gravy, which I serve warm with the leg.