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Stories About Spain

Full Circle

Written by: Don Harris

cows with rabbit pelt head coveringsIt seems that life has made a full circle for my wife Ruth and me. From seeking the simplicity of a preindustrial way of life among villagers and oxen of Spain in the 1970s, our family can now help to preserve these traditions by sharing the handmade creations of Spanish farmers and small businesses rooted to their communities. Who would ever have known - what a topsy-turvy world we live in!

It seems only a short time ago that we dropped by the little town of Nájera along the Camino de Santiago. In fact it was nearly fifty years ago! My favorite recollection of that day is that of our three-year-old son Tim following behind a flock of sheep, which were transiting the village. The town had a wonderful feeling - sort of like aged wine - a venerable church with noblemen in stone tombs clustered around the altar dedicated to Santa María Real. I fondly recall the pair of storks perched in their nest of twigs high up on the bell tower who were making quite a clatter with their long beaks.

Nájera only has 8,000 inhabitants now, but what a history it has seen. Twelve hundred years ago, it was the capital of the kingdom of Navarra. There were the centuries of Moorish occupation – the roots of Nájera’s name come from the Arabic word naxara meaning ‘town between rocks.’ In the Middle Ages, it had a thriving Sephardic/Jewish community, and at one time Nájera was the site where four Moorish scholars translated the Koran into the Castilian language for the first time.

Today, you might see a few pilgrims wending their way down the street crossing over the medieval bridge on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The streams of pilgrims have been following that path for more than a thousand years, as have the shepherds who, since the 15th century, have moved their flocks from one end of the realm to another in order to find the best supplies of grass.

Here along the banks of the Najarilla River, farms and animals are the essence of daily life. The patterns of the townspeople, the farmers, the shepherds and the merchants who serve their needs are organized around the seasons. Winter, a time of rest and dormancy, and spring, a time of anticipation as people are encouraged by seeing their newly sown seeds begin to sprout. Summer is involved with tending the fullness of growth and harvest is the gathering of the fruit of their labor.

In the 1970s, while Janis Joplin was wailing in San Francisco and our country was in social turmoil, Ruth and I found trips to Spain to be a welcome respite as we looked forward to the opportunity to step back in time. We were not interested in kings or translators, but more in enjoying the fruits of the good earth coming from the toil and dedication of farm families.
a young shepherd guides a herd of animals
Leaving Nájera in our little SEAT 600 car, we continued following the Camino de Santiago through the lush and rolling hills of La Rioja into the rugged coastal range of Galicia. As you might imagine, the going was slow as we navigated the rutted roads. Our goal was the cloud-shrouded hamlet of O Cebreiro, which contains la Capilla de San Benito, a church dating from approximately 800 AD. It is high on a windswept edge of a rocky hill, where gusts can reach gale force.

We ducked into the rugged stone church, passed by a rustic granite baptismal font and gazed at the sanctuary where we saw a golden chalice behind a precautionary pane of glass. Some say that the chalice is the legendary Holy Grail, taken to this lonely place for protection from the invading Arabs, who in the 8th century pushed the Christians to the brink. Another tale from the late Middle Ages tells of an unbelieving priest who raised the host while celebrating mass, and it became flesh in his hands as the wine in the chalice turned into blood! The legend is very Spanish in its imagery.

Even more amazing to us were the low thatched roof stone dwellings. They were almost like igloos, with chickens and pigs running in and out, as the smoke from the cooking fires rose through the thatch – no need for a chimney. The animals provided a source of warmth, especially during the bitter winter. Remember that our visit took place in 1973 – it could have been a thousand years before!

In the subsequent decades, electricity has arrived in O Cebreiro, as have pilgrims in much greater numbers (perhaps even some of you readers). The people of O Cebreiro now welcome tired travelers to a stone hostel built to shield people from the gusts of wind. The local people now live in more comfortable houses, yet they appreciate their earlier dwellings enough to have preserved one as a museum.

Our sons Tim and Jonathan tell me of a similar situation they encountered in a little village they visited in Zamora just a few years ago. The primary source of income for the local people came from gathering mushrooms in the hills and forests. Until recently the road through the center of town where they walked, along with their animals, was often a sea of mud, so they had to wear wooden clogs to navigate the muddy way.

Not long ago, during their lifetime, they wore rustic clothing and used oxen to plow their fields and burros to carry their goods. Today they have leapt from a medieval way of life to a modern one in just a few short decades! Now that times are better they wear modern clothing and live in air-conditioned homes. They do not want to discard the memories of their past and have built a modest museum to display their traditional dress and wooden clogs.
cows in a wooded field
As we travel throughout Spain we sense that many people, like the families in that village, feel that the traditional way of life is not anything to discard. On a national level, this is evident in the growing number of traditional products native to a particular region that are now identified and protected as D.O.P. (Protected Denomination of Origin).

In Galicia, there is a type of big leafy greens, essentially turnip-tops, called grelos, whose authenticity and regional origin is officially protected by the government. They are not a particularly costly item, but they are precious to the people of the area. They ask, ”How could one make true Caldo Gallego without grelos?" Still, I wonder how many of us Americans would even think of protecting a turnip-top!

Or there are the treasured fabada beans of Asturias. The D.O.P. (Protected Denomination of Origin) protects them from counterfeits. Who would ever dream of passing off classic Asturian fabada made of beans grown in the neighboring countryside of León? It is a mountain pass away. And everyone knows that Manchego cheese can only come from the milk of Manchega ewes, which live only on the La Mancha meseta!

One of my favorite examples of a product preserved for posterity in a form it always has been prepared is berenjenas, baby marinated eggplants. The D.O.P. includes only those produced in the beautiful little town of Almagro and adjoining villages in Castilla-La Mancha – nowhere else. This strain of eggplants originally came from the Moors, who brought them from Syria over a thousand years ago. For centuries, the formula for preparing these tiny pickled eggplants has been jealously guarded by the local people.

Here in America we don't always stop to acknowledge and protect the culinary treasures around us. Our creed is almost the opposite, “out with the old in with the new” and "more, faster, cheaper." However, I think our attitudes are gradually changing. We are becoming more interested in natural farm fresh vegetables. Many of us are willing to pay more for eggs from cage-free hens, or pork from humanely treated pigs. In the past ten years the farmers market in our area has blossomed far beyond expectation. In our town of Williamsburg, historic Duke of Gloucester Street is crowded with modern day farmers and enthusiastic customers.

When you and I select these good vegetables, the local peaches and the hearty homemade breads, as well as the many traditional products grown by farmers and bakers in Spain, one might say that we are vicariously participating in the authenticity and simplicity of rural life. It may be a fleeting experience for us, but it is the lifeblood of the people in the fields.

¡Buen provecho!


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"I loved this article! I first visited Spain in 2003 and I wish I had been able to see it sooner. I was a pilgrim (peregrina) on my first visit and in Najera I very much appreciated a sign as I entered the town "Peregrino - en Najera eres Najareno." Roughly translated Pilgrim in Najera, you are a citizen of Najera. Very welcoming. Thank you again for the story."
September 2012

"Dear Diane, The Camino was quite an experience, wasn't it -- hard to describe to others. My son Jonathan has a big poster on the wall on which are mounted his many "passports"."

"The picture of the oxen with the "yugo" strapped to the horns, pulling the cart, brings back memories of my first trip to Spain in 1953. I lived there 8 months and part of that time on my uncle's farm outside of Gijon. It was the beginning of a life long love affair with Spain and all it has to offer. I enjoy your reflections and the memories they elicit. Thanks."
September 2012

"I love those oxen too. I am sure tractors are handier, but not very memorable."

"Por favor, se dice buen provecho, no bien provecho!!!"
September 2012

"Thanks for catching that one! You are in Maine. Any connection with the Navy which was up there for so many years?"

"Hi Don, I have read your article and liked it very much. I only want to point out that Najera was previously the Roman town of Tritium, and while there is an undeniable Muslim influence in Spain, I believe that the Roman legacy is greater. Also, the thatched roof dwellings at O Cebreiros are of Celtic origin. What I want to point out, really, is that Spain's cultural and historical legacy is very rich and complex, and too many people oversimplify by referring continuously to the Muslim Arab side of things. Anyway, once more, I like what you write, I read your pieces often and also I enjoy buying your quality products and admire your passion for what you are doing for which I thank you.
September 2012

"Thanks for your comments. Yes, the Moorish years tend to dominate because they are nearer to us than the Roman days, and some of the customs continue. Those Celtic dwellings are quite something, aren't they -- and still here in the 20th century... I had to rub my eyes when I first saw them after a long drive up the mountain from the north side."

"For Christmas last year, I bought for myself a copy of your book, The Heart of Spain. Each chapter was like a love letter to the people of Spain and their culture. (Although, as I said to my husband, a chapter on the pickpockets in the Sol metro station in Madrid might have added something different!) It, and each new chapter that you add here on your website, are pure pleasure to read for those of us who love Spain. Our daughter moved to Madrid five years ago to teach English, and, of course, she met and fell in love with a Spaniard, whom we love now as our son-in-law. We visited them last week, and the four of us had a lovely six days at a casa rural in tiny pueblo in the Sierra de Francia in western Spain, not far from Cuidad Rodrigo and Salamanca. Old ways and modern life are mixed together there, as the people of the pueblo met one evening during our stay to explore ways to form a cooperative so that they can better support themselves. One of the meeting participants gave us a bag of tomatoes, of at least eight different varieties, to taste. One kind was the size of a blueberry, pale green, tasting both acid and sweet. One afternoon, a cheese maker showed up at the back door of the casa, with both fresh and aged goat cheese for sale. Your essays are about these kind of people, the ones who are the heart and soul of the nation. (As I write this, I am holding back tears, longing to be back there, not just to be with my daughter, but to be in Spain.)"
September 2012

"I think Ruth and I were near the same village when we visited there earlier this year! What an exquisite experience you have had. I am glad I have brought back some memories -- and especially that you bought my book. It is a labor of love. You are a wonderful writer too... Let's keep in touch. I see you are in NC and Williamsburg is close to the border. I am in the store just about every day."

"Just love your stories of my beautiful Spain, I was born in Galicia near Santiago de Compostela so I truly identify with all your travelings. I miss a lot of the foods we grew up with like the grelos. Also if you can correct the Bien provecho to Buen provecho is the correct way. Thank you."
September 2012

"Dear Aida, Thanks for catching my error in the use of the word "bien". I corrected it right away. Galicia is a place where I always long to visit over and over again! Such beautiful mountains and valleys leading into the sea. And such sublime seafood!"

"Thats why many Basques here in the U.S. belong to "Etxea Euskaldunak" or Basque clubs, some of us may have even been born here but we hold on to our food, language, music and culture as well as maintain strong ties with our ancestry and people. If you come to one of our festivals, you can savor txilindron, dance jotas to the music of an accordian and tambourine, sing our songs in euskera and drink wine from a txahakoa (bota bag). In some of these festivals we even celebrate the old sports of soka tira (tug of war) and log cutting, sheep wrestling, weight lifting, etc. Check out the N.A.B.O. website (North American Basque Organizations. Ongi etorriak! (welcome)
September 2012

"Dear Antonio, Thanks for the link I will check it out. If you hear of one in this VA-NC area let me know so I can attend. We had a teenage Basque boy stay with us in our home for a few weeks. It was a lot of fun."

"Great article, thank you! It's especially relevant to me because I was in Madrid in 1973, a military dependent. I have vivid memories of driving to places like the Valley of the Fallen. And most memorable was our little SEAT 600 auto..., which my 6ft 6in tall father drove to work every day! What a great little car. Thanks again, enjoyed reading it."
September 2012

"They were great little cars, weren't they -- but your dad must be a contortionist! Thanks for the note."

"Me ha gustado bastante su articulo.Estoy muy agradecida por todo lo que hace usted y su familia por Espana. Personalmente siempre sere fiel a su tienda. "
September 2012

"¡De nada, mi amiga!"

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La Vida da un Giro de 360 Grados

cows with rabbit pelt head coveringsPodría decirse que mi esposa Ruth y yo hemos completado un círculo. Allá por los años 70, empezamos buscando la sencillez de la vida preindustrial entre los habitantes de los pueblos y sus ganados y ahora, como familia, somos capaces de preservar esas preciadas tradiciones estableciendo relaciones comerciales con agricultores , ganaderos y pequeñas empresas y poniendo a disposición de ustedes el fruto de su trabajo. ¡Quién lo hubiese dicho! ¡En qué mundo tan alocado vivimos!

Parece que fuera ayer cuando llegué a la pequeña población de Nájera en la ruta del
Camino de Santiago y en realidad han pasado casi 50 años. El recuerdo más entrañable que guardo de es día es el de nuestro hijo Tim, de entonces 3 años, siguiendo a un rebaño de ovejas que andaban por el pueblo. La localidad me provocó una sensación maravillosa, más o menos como la de un vino añejo. Un monasterio imponente, con sepulcros de piedra apiñados alrededor del altar dedicado a Santa María la Real. Recuerdo con especial cariño la pareja de cigüeñas en su nido en lo alto del campanario y el sonido que emitían con sus largos picos.

Ahora Nájera sólo cuenta con 8.000 habitantes pero hay que ver cuánta historia ha transcurrido por ella. Hace 1.200 años fue la capital del Reino de Navarra. Esos fueron los siglos de la ocupación musulmana. El origen del nombre de Nájera viene del árabe “naxara” que significa ciudad entre rocas. En la Edad Media contó con una próspera comunidad judía. Hubo un tiempo en el que Nájera fue el lugar en el que 4 eruditos musulmanes tradujeron el Corán al castellano por vez primera.

Hoy en día se pueden ver unos cuantos peregrinos cruzando el puente medieval de camino a Santiago de Compostela. El flujo de peregrinos lleva siguiendo esta senda desde hace miles de años, lo mismo que los pastores, quienes, desde el siglo XV, han guiado a sus ganados de una punta a otra del reino con el objetivo de encontrar los mejores pastos.

Aquí, a orillas del Río Najarilla, las granjas y los animales son la esencia de la vida diaria. Las formas de vida de la gente del pueblo, de sus agricultores, ganaderos y pastores, así como las de los comerciantes a su servicio se organizan alrededor de las estaciones. El invierno es una época de descanso e inactividad. La primavera es un tiempo de expectativas fomentadas por los brotes de las simientes recién plantadas. El verano se dedica a estar pendiente de que los cultivos lleguen a su máximo esplendor y la cosecha es la recolección del fruto de todo el trabajo.
a young shepherd guides a herd of animals
En los setenta, mientras Janis Joplin emitía sus cantos de protesta en San Francisco y nuestro país vivía una época de agitación social, Ruth y yo encontrábamos en nuestros viajes a España un grato alivio pues anhelábamos la oportunidad de volver al pasado. No nos interesaban los reyes ni los traductores sino disfrutar de los frutos de la tierra que venían del esfuerzo y de la dedicación de las familias de agricultores.

Saliendo de Nájera en nuestro pequeño SEAT 600, continuamos el Camino de Santiago a través de las exuberantes y onduladas colinas riojanas hasta las escarpadas elevaciones de la costa Gallega. Como uno bien puede imaginarse, íbamos bien despacio surcando aquellos caminos sin asfaltar. Nuestro objetivo era la aldea envuelta en nubes de O Cebreiro que contiene la capilla de San Benito, en una iglesia que data del año 800. Se encuentra en lo alto, en un margen de una colina rocosa donde las ráfagas de viento pueden llegar a alcanzar la fuerza de un vendaval.

Entramos en la tosca iglesia de piedra, pasamos junto a una rústica pila bautismal de granito y nos quedamos mirando fijamente al santuario en el que vimos una cáliz dorado tras una vitrina protectora. Algunos dicen que el cáliz es el legendario Santo Grial traído hasta este remoto lugar para ser protegido de la invasión árabe que en el siglo VIII llevó a los Cristianos al limite. Otra historia de la tardía Edad Media nos cuenta como un sacerdote de poca fe vio como en el momento de la consagración, la Hostia se convirtió en carne y el cáliz en sangre. Esta leyenda es muy española en su simbolismo.

Los que nos sorprendió aún más fueron los viviendas de piedra con techo de paja. Eran casi como iglús, con pollos y cerdos entrando y saliendo mientras el humo del hogar salía por el tejado de paja sin necesidad de chimenea. Los animales proporcionaban una fuente de calor, especialmente durante el duro inverno. Hay que tener en mente que nuestro viaje tuvo lugar en 1973 pero bien podría haber sido miles de años antes.

En las décadas posteriores, la electricidad llegó a O Cebreiro, al igual que un mayor número de peregrinos, puede que entre ellos incluso alguno de ustedes que está leyendo esto. La gente de O Cebreiro en la actualidad acoge a cansados viajeros en un hostal de piedra construido para cobijar a la gente de las ráfagas de viento. Los habitantes del pueblo ahora viven en casas más cómodas. Sin embargo han sabido valorar sus antiguas moradas de piedra lo suficiente como para preserva una como museo.

Nuestros hijos Tim y Jonathan me cuentan un caso similar con el que se toparon en un pequeño pueblo de Zamora que visitaron hace unos años. La principal fuente de ingresos para la gente de esa población proviene de recoger setas en los colinas y bosques. Hasta hace poco, la carretera que pasaba por el centro del pueblo y por la que transitaban junto a sus animales era a menudo un mar de lodo, así que tenían que llevar zuecos de madera para poder surcar ese camino enlodado.

No hace mucho, en una época de su vida, llevaban ropa rústica y usaban bueyes para arar sus campos y burros para transportar sus mercancías. Hoy en día han dado un salto de una forma de vida medieval a una moderna en sólo unas pocas décadas. Ahora que los tiempos son mejores, llevan ropa moderna y viven en casas con aire acondicionado. No quieren deshacerse de sus recuerdos y han construido un modesto museo donde exponen sus ropas tradicionales y sus zuecos de madera.
cows in a wooded field
Según vamos viajando por España, notamos que mucha gente, como las familias en los pueblos arriba mencionados, siente que el modo de vida tradicional no es algo de lo que haya que deshacerse sin más. A nivel nacional esto es evidente en el creciente número de productos tradicionales autóctonos de determinadas regiones que ahora se identifican y protegen con el sello de la D.O.P (Denominación de Origen Protegida)

En Galicia existen unas plantas de abundantes hojas, básicamente se trata del brote de los nabos, llamadas grelos, cuya autenticidad y origen regional está oficialmente protegida por el gobierno. No se trata de un producto especialmente costoso, pero son muy valiosos para la gente de la zona. Te preguntan: ” ¿Cómo se puede hacer una auténtico caldo gallego sin grelos?”. Aun así me pregunto a cuantos de nosotros americanos se nos pasaría por la cabeza la idea de proteger las hojas de un nabo.

O también están las preciadas alubias asturianas. La D.O.P las protege de imitaciones. ¿Quién podría ni tan siquiera soñar con hacer pasar por fabada asturiana tradicional a una hecha con judías producidas en los vecinos campos de León? Las montañas son una barrera infranqueable. Y todo el mundo sabe que el queso manchego sólo puede venir de la leche de ovejas manchegas que viven únicamente en la meseta manchega.

Uno de mis ejemplos favoritos de producto conservados para la posteridad en la forma que siempre se ha preparado son las berenjenas encurtidas. La D.O.P sólo incluye a aquellas producidas en el hermoso pueblo de Almagro y en algunas localidades colindantes, nada más. Esta variedad de berenjenas originalmente llegó de la mano de los musulmanes que las trajeron consigo de Siria hace miles de años. Durante siglos, la forma de aliñar estas berenjenas ha sido celosamente guardada por la gente de la zona.

Aquí en América no siempre nos paramos a reconocer y a proteger los tesoros culinarios que tenemos alrededor. Nuestro credo es más bien lo contrario: “fuera lo viejo y adelante con lo nuevo “ y “más, más rápido y más barato”. Sin embargo creo que nuestro forma de pensar esta cambiando gradualmente. Nos interesamos por las verduras cultivadas de forma natural. Muchos de nosotros estamos dispuestos a pagar más por huevos de corral o por carne de cerdo procedente de granjas donde se les da un trato digno. En los últimos 10 años, los mercados agrícolas de nuestra zona han crecido más allá de nuestras expectativas. La histórica calle del Duke de Gloucester en nuestra localidad de Williamsburg está repleta de agricultores y de entusiasmados compradores.

Cuando ustedes y yo seleccionamos esas ricas verduras, los melocotones locales y los deliciosos panes hechos a mano, al igual que muchos de los productos tradicionales elaborados por los agricultores y panaderos en España, podemos decir que estamos participando indirectamente de la autenticidad y sencillez de la vida rural. Puede que se trate de una experiencia efímera para nosotros pero es lo que le da la vida a la gente del campo.

!Qué aproveche!


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