Los Maragatos

October 2006

My family has covered the byways of Spain for over forty years - first my wife Ruth and me, then traveling with our children, and in recent years our adult sons with their families. We enjoy experiencing the ways of life of the families we meet from the many parts of Spain. With this accumulated understanding we are able to identify the best of Spain - we look beyond the obvious in order to bring you what is truly authentic.

Over the past few months I have been sharing with you some of these personal encounters, which I hope will give you a window into the rich and complex culture that is Spain. You may remember Pepe from Murcia, who is the maestro of paella rice. Or José and Amalia, who produce artisan peppers and other vegetables from the ancient kingdom of Navarra.

I also introduced you to Antonio, a jovial scholar and gourmand, who teaches at the University of Cáceres. We also went down to Malaga to meet Jorge, the irrepressible shepherd of wine.

Today I would like you to meet my friend Esteban, whose family roots go back almost 1,000 years. He is a warm and gentle man, whom our family has met on several occasions. 

He and his brother Javier work together with his father, Esteban Salvadores who founded a small business, El Maragato, in the ancient stone village of Castrillo de los Polvazares, which was first an encampment of the Roman legion. Later, in medieval times, the villagers welcomed pilgrims traveling along the Camino de Santiago

The Salvadores family takes take great pride in their fabes de la granja - the legendary fabada beans grown for centuries in the neighboring kingdom of Asturias. La Granja beans from Asturias are the crucial ingredient for authentic Fabada - the bean and sausage stew which has been emblematic of Asturias for over one thousand years.

What makes La Granja faba beans unique is that they have an uncanny ability to absorb the complex tastes that the chorizo and black sausage lend to the broth, in much the same way as Bomba rice absorbs the rich broth of a paella. When cooked, the beans double in size and have a unique buttery flavor and smooth texture. 

Production of Fabas de la granja is extremely limited because they need to be planted and weeded by hand along the fertile valleys and riverbanks of Asturias. They take 150 days to mature, in contrast to ordinary beans, which take 90 days. They have to be hand tied to the vines, hand husked, and then dried in raised stone barns, called hierras. As with many of the finest products of Spain, there is no substitute for individual attention - you need to follow centuries-old procedures.

Esteban and his family could not be more rooted in the history and culture of Spain. They are direct descendants of the enigmatic people known as the Maragatos. In medieval Spain they established trading networks so that goods or gold could be transported in safety. 

The national epic El Poema del Mio Cid, gives evidence that the Maragatos were entrusted by El Cid and the Court of King Alfonso VI of León, to transport the dowry for his daughters, and the riches gained from El Cid's conquest of the Moors in Valencia and Alicante. One of the transfers involved more than 200 horses!

Three hundred years later, Esteban's Maragato ancestors were indispensable during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They were commissioned by the Catholic Kings to transport munitions down through the rugged mountains to aid in the reconquest of Granada in 1492. In recognition of their contribution to the liberation of Christian Spain, his family was given the title of nobility and was known locally as the 'Salvadores de Castrillo (Saviors from Castrillo)'. Salvadores is still their surname today!

So these are the historical and cultural roots of Esteban and his family -- these early traders and people of commerce. And what a privilege it is to listen to him as he proudly recounts how his grandfather and great grandfather were very much of the tradition of their Maragato forebears. 

He describes how they traveled throughout northern Spain from Galicia to Navarra and Huesca trading wines, oil, dried goods, bacalao and other salted meats and fish (salazones). 

Over time dried goods and particularly beans become the backbone of their enterprise, since they were easier to haul and store than salazones, and weighed far less than wines. So following in the tradition (how could he not?) Esteban's father founded the present day company, El Maragato, and is now working together with his two unmarried sons. (At La Tienda I have a similar sense of satisfaction working with my sons - but Ruth and I have been blessed with even more -- four frisky grandchildren!) 

Esteban says that they chose the name El Maragato for their business because it suggests honesty and evokes a sense of continuity. (It was not that long ago when goods such as beans were moved about by mule train from one region to another.) But most of all, the name was chosen because the Salvadores family is proud of their cultural and historical roots as full-blooded Maragatos. To demonstrate their commitment to their community, they have included a beechwood spoon with many of the bags made by handicapped people in their village. 

Ruth has been reading The Bible in Spain, an account by 19C English linguist and traveler George Borrow, about his travels in Spain -- some of you might enjoy reading it. In this fascinating memoir, the author wrote the following: 

"In a word, almost the entire commerce of nearly one half of Spain passes through the hands of the Maragatos, whose fidelity to their trust is such, that no one accustomed to employ them would hesitate to confide to them the transport of a ton of treasure from the sea of Biscay to Madrid; knowing well that it would not be their fault were it not delivered safe and undiminished, even of a grain, and that bold must be the thieves who would seek to wrest it from the far feared Maragatos, who would cling to it whilst they could stand, and would cover it with their bodies when they fell in the act of loading or discharging their long carbines."

When we first met Esteban we were attracted to the quality of his artisan products. We had no idea that we would have the honor of working with such a solid and noble family, deeply rooted in the traditions of Spain - they reflect the best in Spain.

My best to you and those you love,