Spain: Tradition and Modernity in La Alberca

July 2008

Each time I return to Spain, I encounter the essence of her culture in just about every Spaniard I meet, and in every place I visit. Recent events may have made Spain the European trendsetter; however, the substance of Spain remains constant. Come with me back forty years to the medieval town of La Alberca and I will show you what I mean. 

The village of La Alberca is nestled in the northern slopes of la Sierra de Francia, close to the border with Portugal. This terrain is called the Dehesa, a remnant of the original forests that once covered Europe. It is a forest of holm oak, cork, chestnut, pines and fruit trees as well as meadows of wild flowers and herbs where black hoofed Ibérico pigs have feasted upon acorns for hundreds of years maybe even longer.

The La Alberca that Ruth and I experienced back in the 1960's was a primitive place: the roads reflected the ravages of time, cobble stones were loose or missing in the plaza mayor with its simple granite cross. The traditional houses surrounding the square were made of granite and stone and wooden beams, many with three floors, each with a different function.

Life was basic, and apparently little changed for centuries. Animals were kept on the ground floor of the home, and the kitchen was on the next floor. They used the loft to cure the local Jamón Ibérico, as well as pork and sausages. Its floor had holes in it so that the smoke from the kitchen could rise.

A burro or two wandered through the square when we were there, and then there was a privileged pig who trotted the alleyways of the village. I learned that each year on June 13, the feast day of St Antonio, the villagers dedicated one piglet to their favorite saint and released it into the streets to wander where it may. The pig was nurtured by all until the next January when it was sacrificed at the matanza

As you can imagine, it did not take much effort for Ruth and me to imagine ourselves in medieval times, hundreds of years in the past. But before we romanticized too much, we realized that the rustic touches of their local way of life were not the choice of the villagers, or to entertain tourists, they were the result of poverty.

To put things in perspective, a little more than a generation earlier Spain was devastated by a horrendous civil war. It was brother against brother, father against son and almost one third of the men of Spain lay dead; 35,000 priests, nuns and monks were slaughtered. 

The country was left to its own devices during the ensuing World War II, and decades beyond. No other country came to its rescue. Starvation was a fact of life. 

That La Alberca was a living functioning town when we visited was a tribute to the resilience of the Spanish people. I found it beautifully expressed by the villagers who, despite their hard life, took time to adorn with flowers the large wooden balconies of their ancient houses. 

When Ruth and I returned to La Alberca ten years later, we could see the first hints of what prosperity could bring. There in the town plaza we saw piles of new cobblestones, with workmen artfully laying them, one by one, by hand. The aura of the town was one of optimism a time of rebuilding. The town had been declared a National Heritage site and tourism was beginning to bring a new face to the town.

With my sons Tim and Jonathan, I returned to La Alberca in 2005. This time the beautiful mountain village was bustling with activity. We dropped off our luggage at the tasteful and commodious Hotel Doña Teresa and drove through town to the headquarters of Embutidos y Jamones Fermín, the object of our journey.

The owner, Santiago Martín, and his family greeted us cordially and showed us their ham curing facility, which he had sensitively designed to reflect the architecture of the town. He announced with satisfaction that they were soon to receive USDA approval to export their Ibérico hams to the United States. The family exuded confidence, proud that they would be the first to bring this celebrated 
pata negra ham to America. La Tienda will be delivering these same hams to the homes of some of you in the next few weeks. 

My first thought was that the Martíns were very different from the villagers my wife and I encountered forty years before; but on second thought, they are not such a far cry at all. The modern ham curing operation that my sons and I saw before us was the fruit of dedication and years of hard work by the Martín family - a family whose grandparents undoubtedly lived in the medieval town I visited in the past.

I decided to return to the old Plaza Mayor, to see what had happened to it over the ensuing years since my first visit. I found that the cobblestones were neatly laid out and in good repair. The 12th Century granite cross was still at the center. Tourists were mingling with the townspeople at the local cafes. The houses flanking the square were beautifully restored. There were no animals sheltered on the ground floor of the dwellings.

"This is quite a change", I thought to myself. Then, at that moment, I saw a priest with two altar boys piously making their way across the ancient plaza to the parish church, behind a raised processional cross. As the three disappeared from sight, a mule meandered by. On his back was a bundle of golden straw. It could have been hundreds of years ago.

Last month I enjoyed meeting several members of our La Tienda community at our Paella and Sangría Festival in Williamsburg. With Spanish music in the background and a glass of sangría in hand, we felt a common bond as we reminisced about our life among the Spanish people. One of my new friends said wistfully that she was sure that the Spain she loved was no more.

To be sure, her observation had an element of truth, just as I am not the same person I was 20 years ago, or even five years ago. All I have to do to confirm that is look in the mirror (albeit fleetingly). However, there is another truth: I am who I always have been. The essence of my personality has not changed. When I meet friends and family after years of separation, we know each other. 

So it is with Spain. Much has transpired since the Civil War of 1936. Nevertheless, when I see families working together for generations, the rural way of life, the Church - to me this is the essence of traditional Spain. I feel no regrets. The traditional Spain we have loved in the past is alive and well in our modern times.