The Soul of a Nation

May 2006

If you wish to experience the soul of a nation -- the source of its values -- you need to visit its agricultural heartland and meet the people whose lives are intimately tied to the cycles of nature. 

The heart of a nation, whether in Spain or the United States, is beyond the stimulating excitement and innovation of the city. Cultural monuments, such as castles or the Statue of Liberty help you catch a glimpse of what the country values. However, the statue or the castle is not the country - its fundamental nature is reflected in the people, the setting in which they live and the fruit of their labor. 

You can experience the essence of the national character when you look into the face of María Angeles from La Mancha, who continues the tradition of her saffron producing family while she waits for the one day in the year when the crocuses bloom. Then there are the dancing eyes of Jorge -- a native of Andalucía who travels the countryside encouraging small family bodegas to share their traditional wines with America. Or the weathered face of Jesús, one of generations of fishermen from Galicia, as he reminisces about his boyhood when he learned to harvest berberechos (cockles) at his grandfather's side. 

To get to know these people has been my family's privilege over the years as we traveled the byways of Spain to meet the small family suppliers who provide their products to La Tienda -- and ultimately for your table. Other than the rare privilege of being able to work side by side with my family each day, the greatest personal satisfaction I have received from La Tienda is the opportunity to meet Spaniards who are 'the salt of the earth'. This is the reason why in many of my updates I hope to introduce you to the values of Spain by introducing you to some of her people.

Today I would like to take you with us to Navarra - an ancient kingdom in northern Spain. The goal of our journey was to visit the Salcedo family who has built a growing business, El Navarrico, from the rolling fertile countryside that surrounds the agricultural town of San Adrián. En route we stopped in Olite, a medieval village we discovered in the late 1960's. With many fond memories rekindled, we spent the night at the Parador/Spanish Inn -- made from the summer castle of a XV Century king of Navarra.

The next day we took a country road from Olite to San Andrián and stopped by an octagonal church in Eunate, alone in a vast field. It was built by the Crusader Knights Templar who were inspired by the architecture of Jerusalem. A few minutes later we stopped to walk down the cobble stoned streets of Puente la Reina where thousands of pilgrims before us passed on the way to Santiago de Compostela. As we entered the city, we revisited a favorite place of mine, the wayside church known as El Crucifijo due to the poignant crucifix carved by a pious German pilgrim.

However, I digress. Important as cultural sites may be in understanding the character of Spain, our goal was to meet the Salcedo farming family, to see what they had accomplished with their labor. José and Amalia started their enterprise very modestly in the 1960's. In their farmhouse, they were bottling for their own use whole peaches - a prized product of Navarra - along with fruit preserves, and a variety of peppers that they shared with friends in the village. 

Their neighbors told them how extraordinary their preserves tasted and urged them to make them available in the market. One successful product led to another - hand tended white asparagus, artichokes, alubia beans, and of course the wonderful piquillo peppers which are unique to the region. Before they knew it, they had a prospering business and brought in their children to help.

The approach to the bustling agricultural town of San Adrián is, in it own way, quietly dramatic. Maybe I am an incurable romantic from the city, but the sight of rolling hills, one after another, with a variety of crops growing in the rich soil is very affirming. 

As we drove into the parking lot at El Navarrico we were greeted by Patxi, the grandson of the founders. He extended the hospitality of his family to his new friends. The air was pungent with the aroma of piquillo peppers, the pride of the Lodosa region of Navarra. It was the right season to visit. Truckloads of the luminescent rich red peppers fresh from the fields were tumbling out of the small trucks into waiting bins. The workmen sorted them on the spot. Some went directly for roasting, others were stored for a few days so they could ripen further. Piquillo peppers are distinctively shaped -- somewhat in the modified triangular form of a pick or shovel - hence their name. 

Patxi led us into the food preparation area. We saw the fresh peppers traveling on a conveyor belt through an ingenious machine that removed the core and the seeds of the mild peppers and then flash roasted them. Next, we saw a line of local women who were preparing the peppers for packing. They picked them over, removing any seared or burnt outer skin. (We learned that the discarded skins were delivered to local ranches to serve as treats for their fighting bulls.) 

After this meticulous preparation, the peppers were ready to be bottled in their own juice - no additives or chemicals are used. A young man at the end of the production line was checking each bottle to make sure that the cover was secure. These same bottles will be on our shelves. It is as simple as that - not much different from what José and Amalia did in their home.

As we were watching the process, the bell rang - a signal to the help that they could leave their stations for their two-hour lunch. (No burger at the workstation for them!) Patxi invited Ruth and me to join him for lunch. As he escorted us to his car, he proudly showed us the rest of the warehouse, which was stacked to the ceiling with beautifully packed vegetables and fruit - 'the cream of the crop'. 

We exchanged stories about our families as we enjoyed platefuls of delicious local foods such as Menestra soup, astonishingly buttery alubias beans, guindillas, Guernica and piquillo peppers. Patxi spoke admiringly of his uncle Pepe, the only son of the founders, and how together they carry on the heritage, which Patxi's grandparents had painstakingly established.

From our few hours with Patxi and our visit to El Navarrico, we left with a feeling of satisfaction. It was fascinating to see how the people and the fruit of fields come together in their native setting. More than that, we found it reassuring to have met a member of the Salcedo family. His pride in the common labor of his family was abundantly evident. Their family, working together in the deep fertile valleys of Navarra, reflects the soul of Spain.

Your friend,