Full Circle

Don Harris | September 2012

It seems that life has made a full circle for my wife Ruth and me. From seeking the simplicity of a pre-industrial 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.

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.

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!